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NEW DELHI — India’s government on Tuesday ordered the country’s more than 1.3 billion citizens to remain under lockdown for three weeks in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“This is the only path we have in front of us,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a live address to the nation on Tuesday. “We cannot leave our houses no matter what.”
During the three-week period, no Indian citizen will be allowed to leave their homes to socialize or work, except those working in health care, law enforcement, media, and other essential services.
“Everyone from your prime minister to a villager will have to follow social distancing,” Modi said. “For three weeks, forget about the outside world.”
The prime minister did not clarify in his speech whether shops selling groceries and food supplies would remain open, resulting in long queues across the country outside grocery stores and ATM machines after his announcement. An hour after the speech, the government released guidelines online that clarified food supplies would still be available in stores, although state governments might enforce home deliveries to discourage people from congregating at shops.
With just over 500 positive cases and 10 deaths, India has recorded lower coronavirus infection rates than many other countries, but there are concerns that the real rate of infection is much higher due to India having some of the lowest testing rates in the world.
Health researchers have warned more than a million people in the country could be infected by the virus by the middle of May if the government didn’t take drastic steps to contain it.
In addition to the lockdown, Modi also announced a nearly $2 billion package to strengthen the country’s health care infrastructure. The money will be spent on protection equipment for health care workers caring for patients who have COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, as well as intensive care unit beds and ventilators, among other things.
Large parts of India had already locked down citizens over the last few days, keeping open only essential services, such as grocery stores. Last week, the federal government stopped trains and flights across the country.
Modi also said Tuesday that India’s federal and state governments were working to ensure that supplies of essential products, such as food, weren’t affected.
He also cautioned Indians to be wary of misinformation and rumors during this lockdown. According to the government's guidelines, any false claims made by people to obtain relief or false warnings that cause panic in the country are punishable with a prison term for up to two years.
Modi described the next three weeks as a critical period for the country.
“If you don’t do this now, these 21 days will decide whether India is pushed back 21 years as a nation,” he said.