NEW DELHI : Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for a people’s curfew on Sunday in a drastic step by his administration to prevent a surge in Covid-19 cases in the world’s second-most populous nation.

In an address to the nation on Thursday evening, Modi asked citizens to voluntarily stay indoors from 7am till 9pm.

Dipping into the social capital he earned after winning a landslide re-election last year, Modi sought to enlist citizens as stakeholders in the battle against the pandemic that first erupted in Wuhan in China late December.

“March 22 will be a symbol of our effort, of our self-restraint, and our resolve to fulfil our duty in service of the nation. The success of a people’s curfew on 22 March, and the experience gained from it, will also prepare us for our upcoming challenges," Modi said in his address. “I urge all state governments to take leadership in ensuring compliance of this people’s curfew."

From rapidly changing geopolitics to the threats of a global recession, the Covid-19 outbreak has roiled the world’s economy and brought it to a standstill. Crude oil and stock markets are in a tailspin with developed economies lining up stimulus packages and lockdowns to help protect their citizens from the pandemic’s unfolding economic and health impact.

“This people’s curfew will in a way be a litmus test for us, for our nation. This is also the time to see and test how prepared India is for fighting off a Corona-like global pandemic," Modi said.

“During this curfew, we shall neither leave our homes, nor get onto the streets or roam about our localities. Only those associated with emergency and essential services will leave their homes," he said.

Amid an economic slowdown, Modi also announced the proposed formation of a Covid-19 economic response task force to be formed under finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Modi will also be holding a meeting with state chief ministers and health ministers on Friday.

Sitharaman will meet animal husbandry, dairy and fisheries, civil aviation, MSME, and tourism ministers on Friday to assess the economic impact of the outbreak.

Commenting on Modi’s announcement on Twitter, Michael Kugelman, deputy director of Asia Programme at Wilson Centre, said “What most stands out about Modi’s address to the nation is that much of the focus was on what people should do, not what the government is doing. But given the importance of human behaviour (eg. social distancing) in helping curb the spread of coronavirus, that makes a lot of sense."

The Indian government’s measures come at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is being compared to the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, wherein an estimated 10-20 million Indians died, making it the worst-hit country.

From a group of ministers (GoM) set up to monitor the situation, to a “mitigation plan" that involves roping in Employees’ State Insurance Corporation, defence, railways and paramilitary personnel; India is pulling out all stops to mitigate the crisis.

Modi also cautioned that India could not be immune to the global pandemic caused by the coronavirus.

“Complacency will be our undoing," he said ahead of appealing to the nation to strictly adhere to “social distancing."

In countries with major incidence of infections, after a few cases in the beginning, there has been an explosion in the number of cases, he said.

The Covid-19 pandemic has engulfed 159 countries infecting more than 222,000 people and claiming more than 9,000 lives.

Modi also cautioned against panic buying as consumers rushed to local grocery stores to buy goods of daily use.

Catch phrases such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘community transmission’ became a part of the lexicon amid concerns about an impending explosion in the number of Covid-19 cases in India. There is growing scepticism over how a nation of a billion-plus people could have an infection count of only 189 that included four dead from the SARS-CoV2.

“I want to request one more thing, that those who are senior citizens above the age of 65, they should not go out of their homes for a few weeks," Modi said while lauding the effort of the health workers and other professionals.

So far, the government has maintained that there is no evidence of community transmission of the disease, but that all patients that have been confirmed have acquired the disease during their international travel or from a relative who had a travel history.

“This is not a simple problem for a country like ours having a 1.3 billion population," Modi said.

Fears of the pandemic picking up in India are not unfounded, considering that a parliamentary committee on health had earlier noted that the progress on infrastructure development for health research and setting up a nationwide network of laboratories to manage epidemics and national calamities has been slow.

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