India implements largest curfew in history to stop spread of coronavirus

Some 750 million people are now required to stay at home

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India has imposed a curfew on 750 million people until March 31 to halt the spread of coronavirus
India has imposed a curfew on 750 million people until March 31 to halt the spread of coronavirus Credit: Raminder Pal Singh/Shutterstock

An eerie, unnerving silence met residents of one of the world’s most populous cities this morning as they awoke to a second day of lockdown.

New Delhi is one of 75 Indian districts placed under severe travel, work and movement restrictions until March 31 as the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in India starts to increase, yesterday to 415. 

It is hoped the largest curfew in history - restricting some 750 million people - will help limit any further spread of coronavirus as India desperately tries to avoid any strain on its chronically underfunded and understaffed public healthcare system.

With an estimated population of almost 30 million, a day in New Delhi is usually an unabashed assault on the senses.

Every inch of space is fought over by hurried commuters, packs of wild dogs, stalls selling piping hot food, the homeless eking out a living underneath temporary tarpaulin sheets and vehicles honking and careering through traffic.

Today, those same streets were deserted. It was possible to walk around an entire neighbourhood and only see a handful of people.

Across the 75 districts impacted by the curfew, residents can only leave their homes in case of an emergency or if they are purchasing essential supplies like medicine or food. 

Meanwhile the country's rail network was fully suspended late on Sunday night in an attempt to stop millions of migrant workers from returning to their home villages, taking the virus with them.

State governments have also implemented separate measures to tackle risks unique to their constituents. 

In New Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party-led government (AAP) has begun labeling the homes of those under home quarantine with red and green stickers.

Critics say the stickers increase stigma but the AAP argues they are necessary for combating misinformation around the disease and encouraging symptomatic Indians to stay indoors.

Politicians belonging to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party had downplayed the threat and advocated the use of cow urine and dung to combat the virus.

In addition to the stickers, the AAP has crucially promised to provide 7.2 million of the poorest Delhiites with free food rations and 850,000 people with a monthly allowance of between £45 and £56.

The city’s homeless will also receive two free meals each day from nearby shelters.

Similar measures have been replicated by state governments in Uttar Pradesh and Kerala.

These policies are key in enforcing the quarantine and stopping the spread of coronavirus in such a densely populated and poor country, where 112m people rely on their daily earnings.

There have been 415 confirmed cases in India but this figure is thought to be an underestimation due to a lack of testing Credit: Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

Indian Railways has cancelled all of its trains, which usually transport 23 million people each day, many of them day labourers, while inter-state bus services have also been ceased.

All incoming international flights remain suspended until March 31 and domestic flights will stop operating from Wednesday.

Alarmingly, only 1.28% of Indian GDP is spent on health. While the country has recorded a much lower number of infections than the United Kingdom, leading doctors claim this is down to a lack of testing rather than lack of transmission.

A study yesterday suggested the country could face between around 100,000 and 1.3 million confirmed cases of the disease by mid-May.

India has only conducted around 15,000 tests due to financial restraints, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research.

Until recently, only those displaying symptoms would be tested if they had travel history to a country with a severe outbreak or had come into contact with a confirmed case.

The Italian authorities admitted their hospitals and staff were overwhelmed with dealing with large numbers of coronavirus cases. Italy has 41 doctors per 10,000 people, India has just eight.

The lack of investment in medical equipment - particularly ventilators - is also a major concern.

The north-western state of Jammu and Kashmir possesses just 93 ventilators for its seven million people.

The silence of Sunday's trial curfew was broken as hundreds of millions of Indians briefly emerged at 5pm to bang pots and clap their hands in appreciation of their beleaguered health workers.

By today the novelty had well-and-truly worn off and very few seemingly ventured outside their homes as the reality of life under curfew began to sink in.