Centre mulls extending lockdown as cases cross 5,000 mark



New Delhi

The nationwide tally of confirmed COVID-19 cases crossed 5,000 on Tuesday amid hectic discussions for a possible extension of the 21-day lockdown beyond April 14 as several states announced plans to ramp up their testing infrastructure and put in place strong ‘cluster containment’ plans in areas identified as hotspots of the outbreak.

There were also indications about possible relaxations from a complete lockdown for some sectors, including agriculture and unorganised labour sector, at least in some states, while there were also talks about even stronger area-specific restrictions in some places.

A PTI tally of figures reported by various states as on Tuesday showed more than 5,000 testing positive across the country and at least 145 deaths. The Union Health Ministry’s evening update, however, showed 4,789 confirmed cases and 124 deaths.

More than 400 have so far been cured and discharged, while nearly 1.1 lakh tests have been conducted so far in the country, as per official announcements.

Officials said that the lockdown and social distancing measures have helped contain the pandemic in a big way in India. Citing an ICMR study, the Health Ministry said just one COVID-19 patient can infect as many as 406 people in 30 days in the absence of preventive measures such as social distancing and the lockdown.

With the preventive measures, the possibility of the infection can be reduced to an average of just two-and-a-half persons per patient in the same period, Health Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal said in the central government’s daily briefing on COVID-19.

He said social distancing works like a “social vaccine” in management of COVID-19, but refrained from commenting on whether the ongoing nationwide lockdown would be extended or lifted after April 14.

“Whenever a decision is taken, it will be informed. Till a decision is officially communicated, please refrain from speculation,” he said.

Government sources, however, said many state governments and experts are requesting the Centre to extend the lockdown and the central government is thinking in that direction.

There has been a nationwide lockdown since March 25, though some states had initiated such measures a few days earlier, to check the pandemic that has claimed more than 75,000 lives worldwide since its emergence in China last December. Over 13 lakh people have tested positive for the virus across the world so far.

Some states, however, indicated that the lockdown conditions could be relaxed for some segments.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said some relaxation on work front for unorganised sector workers was on anvil. She, however, made it clear that all must practice social distancing. The state government has identified seven COVID-19 hotspots in West Bengal.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, however, said his government will extend the lockdown if needed, while his counterpart in Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, said the state cannot withdraw the lockdown immediately and it has to be done in a phased manner.

A Karnataka government minister said it’s too early to take a call now on lifting the nation-wide lockdown but appeared favouring an extension by at least two weeks.

Addressing his ministers through video conferencing on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also indicated towards a graded approach to lift the lockdown.

The Prime Minister had also asked the ministers whether the restrictions should be lifted sector-wise or district-wise, a source said.

Modi has also asked the ministers to lay out plans to contain the economic impact of the pandemic.

Rating agency ICRA on Tuesday forecast a GDP forecast of just 2 per cent for the current fiscal and said the Indian economy is estimated to have contracted by 4.5 per cent in the fourth quarter of FY20 ended March 31.

Industry body Retailers Association of India on the other hand warned that around 80,000 jobs were expected to be cut by various retailers due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It had conducted a survey of 768 retailers, which employ 3,92,963 people across India, to gauge their view on the impact of COVID-19 on their business and manpower.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) also said the COVID-19 crisis has the potential to push around 40 crore informal sector workers in India deeper into poverty, with the lockdown and other containment measures affecting jobs and earnings.

The stock market, however, witnessed a sharp rebound on Tuesday with a 2,476-point rally in the benchmark Sensex, while the investors’ wealth measured in terms of market value of all listed companies rose by nearly Rs 7.7 lakh crore.

Shares of pharma companies especially saw a lot of surge after India decided to partially lift a ban on export of paracetamol and anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine.

The decision came a week after a telephonic conversation between Modi and US President Donald Trump, who sought supply of hydroxychloroquine to the US to treat coronavirus infected people.