NEW DELHI (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced growing pressure Friday to impose a strict nationwide lockdown, despite the economic pain it will exact, as an incredible surge in coronavirus cases that has battered the country’s health system shows no signs of abating.
Many medical experts, opposition leaders, and even Supreme Court judges call for federal restrictions, arguing that a patchwork of state rules is insufficient to quell the rise in infections.
Indian television stations broadcast images of patients lying on stretchers outside hospitals waiting to be admitted, with hospital beds and critical oxygen in short supply. People infected with COVID-19 in villages are treated in makeshift outdoor clinics, with IV drips hanging from trees.
As deaths soar, crematoriums and burial grounds have been swamped with bodies, and relatives often wait hours to perform the last rites for their loved ones.
The situation is so dramatic that merchants who know their businesses will be affected but see no other way out among those calling for a strict lockdown.
“Only if our health is good will we be able to earn,” said Aruna Ramjee, a florist in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru. “The lockdown will help everyone, and coronavirus spread will also come down.”
The alarming picture has gripped the world’s attention, just as many developed countries see vaccinations drive down infections and are beginning to open up. India’s surge has served as a warning to other countries with fragile health systems — and also has weighed heavily on global efforts to end the pandemic since the country is a major vaccine producer but has been forced to delay exports of shots.
Since February, infections have swelled in India in a disastrous turn, blamed on more contagious variants and government decisions to allow massive crowds to gather for religious festivals and political rallies. On Friday, India reported a new daily record of 414,188 confirmed cases and 3,915 additional deaths. The official daily death count has stayed over 3,000 for the past ten days.
That brings the total to more than 21.4 million COVID-19 infections and over 234,000 deaths. Experts say even those dramatic tolls are undercounted.
Over the past month, nearly a dozen of India’s 28 federal states have announced some restrictions. Still, they fall short of a nationwide lockdown imposed last year that experts credit with helping to contain the virus for a time. Those measures, which lasted two months, included stay-at-home orders, a ban on international and domestic flights, and a suspension of passenger service on the nation’s extensive rail system.
The government provided free wheat, rice, and lentils to the poorest for nearly a year and small cash payments, while Modi also vowed an economic relief package of more than $260 billion. But the lockdown, imposed on four hours’ notice, also stranded tens of millions of migrant workers who were left jobless and fled to villages, with many dying along the way.
The federal restrictions caused the economy to contract by a staggering 23% in the second quarter last year, though a strong recovery was underway before infections skyrocketed recently.