World

India struggles with coronavirus shutdown

NEW DELHI/BENGALURU: India woke up yesterday to a sweeping lockdown of its 1.3 billion people, one of the world's most ambitious efforts to fight the coronavirus, but the order did not stop crowds of people heading to stock up at grocery shops and chemists.

India's tally of 536 cases and nine deaths seems tiny compared with those in China, Italy and Spain, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi and health experts warned that the world's second most populous country faces a tidal wave of infections if tough steps are not taken.

Mr Modi ordered the three-week shutdown in a speech to the nation on Tuesday evening, some four hours before it came into effect.

As India's various states shut their borders, long queues of trucks carrying milk, fruits and vegetables snaked down highways.

"My daughter needs allergy medicine regularly. The medicine shops are open but how do we reach there?" said Mr Yash Goswami in the northern town of Moradabad.

"Who wants to risk a run-in with the police? They are beating people up."

Some shopkeepers in New Delhi also complained of heavy-handed policing because they had opened.

"There are no clear instructions, police are telling us to close," said Mr Ram Agarwal, a grocer swamped by people looking to buy dry food and milk.

To make matters worse, online grocery providers from Big Basket to Flipkart announced they were temporarily unable to fulfil deliveries due to logistical issues.

The lockdown is expected to be particularly challenging for the poor, who unlike their middle and upper class counterparts, would have had difficulty in stocking up on food.

And the consequences of shutting down the US$2.9 trillion (S$4.2 trillion) economy will be far-reaching.

"Asking people to stay at home is necessary, but the majority of the population can't afford to sit at home without work and pay," said Indian Statistical Institute economic analysis unit head Madhura Swaminathan. - REUTERS

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