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Coronavirus

India puts 1.3bn people under unprecedented lockdown

Modi orders $2bn boost to medical infrastructure in coronavirus fight

People travel in a crowded bus to return to their cities and villages on March 23 before the lockdown in Kolkata.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday announced a 21-day lockdown across the world's second most populous nation, dramatically escalating the country's efforts to combat the new coronavirus.

"If we want to restrict the spread of coronavirus, we will have to break its chain of infection," Modi said during his second televised address in less than a week. "You must remember that a single step outside your home can bring a dangerous pandemic like corona inside."

The stringent measure starting at midnight local time follows the 14-hour "public curfew" Sunday observed by residents on his request, mostly on voluntary basis. The move came as the number of confirmed cases in the country rose to 519 and deaths to 10.

Every part of the country is being put under lockdown from midnight, the prime minister said, describing the curfew as "a few levels more than" the Sunday measure. Television reports showed long lines formed outside stores.

Despite Modi's calls for calm, his announcement sent Indians rushing to grocery stores to buy food. People headed out in cars or on motorbikes soon after the televised address ended. 

Much of the country had already imposed lockdowns lasting until March 31, which now will be extended.

Passenger transport services nationwide including trains, subways and buses have already been suspended. All domestic flights -- except those handling cargo -- cease to operate as of midnight. International flights into India were banned Sunday.

In his address Tuesday, Modi said the government has allocated 150 billion rupees ($2 billion) for treating coronavirus patients and strengthening India's medical infrastructure.

"This will allow for quickly boosting the number of corona testing facilities, personal protective equipment, isolation beds, [intensive care unit] beds, ventilators and other essential equipment," he added. "Simultaneously, training of medical and paramedical manpower will also be undertaken."

India has one of the lowest testing rates in the world and is trying to increase its capacity.

A daily average of 1,338 samples have been tested in India during the past five days, the Health and Family Welfare Ministry said.

The Indian Council of Medical Research said Tuesday night that a total of 22,694 samples have been tested so far in the country. India confirmed its first coronavirus case in late January. In comparison, South Korea's daily testing capacity is over 15,000 samples.

Residents must stay indoors and "forget what going out means" for the next 21 days, Modi said in his address. Without a drastic improvement in that time, "the country and your family could go back 21 years [and] several families will get devastated forever."

As Indians rushed to grocery stores after his address, Modi asked citizens via Twitter to refrain from panic buying and stay indoors. He said the federal and state government will ensure that all essentials such as food grains, vegetables, dairy, fish and meat are available, along with services such as hospitals, banks and ATM kiosks.

"By converging around shops, you are risking the spread of COVID-19," he wrote.

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