Last week, on 19 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Indians to participate in a day-long, voluntary ‘Janata curfew’ on Sunday, 22 March. During that broadcast, he said, “I want your coming few weeks from you…in the near future.” Those who wondered what he meant got their answer Tuesday night. After his successful experiment with the citizens’ curfew, Modi announced a three-week lockdown for India starting today.
What is remarkable about this extraordinary measure is its magnitude. Never before in the history of humankind has a curfew been imposed on such a large number of people, over 1.3 billion, anywhere in the world. If we succeed, more or less, the hope is that we will have flattened the shooting spike of the coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions will be saved from the infection, and many tens of thousands from what looks like certain death.
As the Prime Minister reminded us, social distancing is the only way we know to contain the spread of the virus, to break the chain of contagion: “Social distancing is necessary for each citizen, for each family, and for each member of the family”. He added that the “carelessness of a few, ill-conceived notions of a few, can put you, your children, your parents, your family, your friends, the entire country in grave jeopardy”.
Citing the World Health Organization (WHO) and other sources, Modi gave Indians a quick sketch of just how infectious and communicable Covid-19 is:
“It took 67 days for the number of people infected with coronavirus to reach the first one lakh all over the world.
After this, it took only 11 days for another one lakh people to get infected.
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Think! It took 67 days for it to infect one lakh people at first, but only 11 days to reach a total of two lakh people.
Even more alarming that it took only four days for this disease to reach three lakh people from two lakh.”
The cases worldwide have reached closed to half a million and the deaths over 18,000.
Although the figures in India are nearly not so alarming, with over 550 cases and 11 deaths, these numbers could be deceptive. Not only because of underreporting and lack of testing, but also because they may lull us into a false sense of security. If the virus is allowed to sweep through the land unchecked, both infections and fatalities could multiply exponentially.
It is precisely this eventuality that PM Modi wished to avoid. Learning from the experience of the United States, it is obvious that pandemic management in the most powerful and advanced nation in the world has been woefully inadequate if not outright incompetent. From just a few hundreds as in India today, the virus has now infected over 50,000 people. Making the US possibly the new epicentre of the pandemic after China and Italy. How the virus jumped so easily across the Atlantic, which few other invaders in US history could do, serves to warn us that absolutely no one, regardless of country, class, race, or religion is safe.
That is why Modi, with folded hands, requested all of us to observe the curfew. Invoking the Ramayana, he asked Indians to draw a ‘Lakshman rekha’ around their homes: “You must remember that a single step outside your home can bring a dangerous pandemic like Corona inside.” The subtle messaging was that the virus, like Ravana, could cause grievous harm to those who stepped out and were caught out by it.
Modi even coined, citing social media inputs, a new definition of “Ko-Ro-Na: Koi Road pe Na Nikle (no one should step out on the roads).” He assured listeners that essential supplies, that included food and medicine, as well as important financial services including banks and ATMs, would not be hit. Soon after the speech, government guidelines were circulated on both how the curfew was to be maintained and those exempt from it.
Modi announced a Rs 15,000-crore fund to speed up testing as well as enhance the health infrastructure to tackle the pandemic. More relief measures are expected to be announced. He thanked and appreciated health and sanitary workers, police and security personnel, and all those who help to keep the country going. He also applauded business and industry leaders who had promised to help.
One of the highlights of Modi’s speech was his warning to people against panic, rumours, superstition, and self-medication: “But, friends, be careful that during such times, knowingly or unknowingly, several rumours are circulated. I appeal to you to beware of any kind of rumours or superstitions. … I request you not to take any medication without consulting doctors.”
In several parts of India, today is the start of the new year. Called by various names such as Yugadi, and Gudi Padva, this first day of the month of Chaitra also starts the auspicious of the nine-day festival, Navaratri, to pay homage to the Goddess. It ends with Ram Navami, celebrating the birthday of Sri Rama, a popular hero-deity.
For the first time in living memory, the whole country will have to mark this season with austerities rather than festivities. In curfew mode rather than solemn worship or boisterous food, fun, and frolic. But, as the Prime Minister said, “Jaan hai toh jahaan hai”—as long as you’re alive, so is the world.
That is why, as Modi reminded us, “This is the time for patience and discipline.” All Indians need to heed to the Prime Minister’s call. We must, in his words, “keep our resolve, we must keep our promise.” If we do, India may come out on top, showing to the world both exemplary leadership and orderly and resolute collective action on an unprecedented scale in the time of an unparalleled global crisis.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.
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