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Coronavirus

India extends coronavirus lockdown for third time

Lengthy shutdown squeezes economy in Asia's largest hot spot

Migrant workers from other states trying to return to their homes stand in queue as they wait for transportation to a train station in Ahmedabad, India, Sunday, May 17, 2020.    © AP

TOKYO -- India extended its national lockdown for a third time on Sunday, to May 31, as the South Asian country struggles to contain the spread of the coronavirus despite almost two months of business and travel restrictions.

The number of patients in India had grown to over 90,000 on Sunday from 562 on March 25, when the lockdown began, according to the World Health Organization. India now has more cases than any other Asian country outside the Middle East, and continues to gain about 4,000 new patients a day.

Population density, particularly in poorer areas, has been a major contributor to the pandemic's spread. The Dharavi slum in Mumbai, where a coronavirus patient was first found on April 1, counted roughly 1,000 cases by mid-May.

"Ten to fifteen people live together in 14-sq.-meter rooms in Dharavi, and it's impossible for people to distance themselves," a city worker said. Mumbai as a whole is densely populated as well, with about 28,000 people per sq. kilometer.

Migrant workers who returned home from big cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, as well as large-scale religious events, also contributed to the virus' spread. The government has stepped up testing, announcing Wednesday that it had roughly doubled capacity to 100,000 tests a day from the end of April.

India ordered all nonessential businesses to close when the lockdown first began, while banning people from leaving their homes except to buy groceries and medicine. It relaxed restrictions with its second extension on May 4, dividing 700 areas nationwide into green, orange and red zones based on the number of cases they have. Green zones have been permitted to resume economic activities with precautions, like running buses at half capacity, but big cities are still mostly designated as red or orange zones.

The ongoing lockdown has heavily impacted India's economy. Top automaker Maruti Suzuki halted its factories in late March. Some reopened last Tuesday, but are facing delays procuring parts. Many automakers shipped no new cars domestically in April. Nomura Singapore said in a Wednesday report it expects India's economy to shrink 5% in 2020, a significant downgrade from its April forecast of a 0.5% contraction.

In an effort to mitigate the blow, India announced a 20 trillion rupee ($264 billion) stimulus package on Tuesday. Measures include financial assistance to small and midsize businesses, food handouts to migrant laborers and loans to street vendors.

The government has also announced it will open up the coal industry to the private sector, and ease foreign investment restrictions in the defense industry. But it is unclear whether private-sector and foreign investment will increase, given uncertainties over the outbreak and lockdown.

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