On Thursday, March 19, a few hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was about to address the nation about the coronavirus situation, the chief executive officer of Prasar Bharati, India’s public broadcaster, said that speculation about an impending lockdown was incorrect and unnecessarily causing panic.
On Saturday, March 21, a day before the country prepared to go into a self-imposed janata curfew at the urging of the prime minister, the Joint Secretary of the Health Ministry asked people not to use the word lockdown, saying “there is no plan for a lockdown”.
On Sunday, March 22, India announced that 75 districts were going into lockdown.
How did things change so quickly?
In a span of six days, India seems to have completely altered its approach to taking on Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
From cautious optimism about being able to control an imported disease to a situation in which 30 states and Union Territories are under complete lockdown, questions are now being asked about haphazard decision-making and whether the government failed to design a graded plan over the previous month.
India saw its first case of the new coronavirus, which emerged in China, on January 30.
Here is what the last six days have looked like:
- Total: 151 confirmed cases, three deaths.
- The Union Health Ministry announces that it is putting in place a complete ban on flights from
member countries of the European Union, the European Free Trade Association, Turkey and United Kingdom to India.
- It is announced the Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address the nation at 9 pm on March 19, the following day. Speculation about what he might announce immediately follows. Slides circulate from a presentation calling for mass lockdowns , causing panic, with many believing they are government documents.
- Grocery shops are inundated as people begin stockpiling in anticipation of a potential lockdown.
- Total: 173 confirmed cases, four deaths.
- The Union Health Ministry announces that no scheduled commercial international flight will be allowed to come to India after March 22, for a whole week.
- As speculation mounts before Modi’s speech – with many pointing to his history of unpredictability and grand moves – word is put out that there will not be a “lockdown” announcement.
- Modi addresses the nation. After warning against complacency and encouraging social distancing, he calls for a one-day self-imposed janata curfew on March 22, saying it is akin to bomb drill. He also warns people against panic buying and hoarding.
- Total: 236 confirmed cases, four deaths.
- Congress leader P Chidambaram announces support for Modi’s janata curfew plan but insists that a lockdown will be necessary.
- Messages are circulated particularly on WhatsApp that Modi’s call for a one-day curfew will be enough to defeat the virus and break the transmission chain. This is not true, yet numerous celebrities and major social media accounts spread the idea that this is a single-day exercise.
- Total: 283 confirmed cases, four deaths.
- Despite calls for social distancing, reports and pictures emerge of massive crowding at railway stations in Mumbai and other cities, as migrant labourers seek to return to their cities. Railways announces special trains to clear this extra rush of passengers.
- Modi attempts to stem this flow by calling on people not to panic and to remain in the place they are. No announcements are made about supporting wage workers on the day of janata curfew, or in case of a lockdown.
- States begin to ask Indian Railways to prevent trains from entering their territories, causing more concern and confusion for those in transit and migrant workers hoping to return home.
- News emerges that Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor has tested positive for Covid-19, with reports saying that she did not quarantine herself after returning from London. Seven politicians go into quarantine, as a result, since they attended parties over the previous days at which Kapoor had been present. There are fears that these politicians might have spread it further.
- “Lockdown is a very inappropriate word,” says Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary of the Health Ministry. “We are not talking about any lockdown in the country.”
- Total: 360 confirmed cases, seven deaths.
- After a meeting between the Cabinet Secretary and all the Chief Secretaries of the states, a lockdown is announced in 75 districts of the country. The list of districts is not immediately available, because the Centre says that it is up to the states to notify which districts they want to put under lockdown.
- The lack of clarity leads to much confusion, yet officials at the Centre’s press conference refuse to give details of which districts are going into lockdown despite repeated questioning. They say only that the 75 districts are the one in which Covid-19 cases have been detected.
- Later in the evening, the Centre’s Public Information Bureau puts out what it calls a “list of 75 Indian districts where only essential services will be operation from March 23 until March 31”. However, the list has 80 districts on it.
- News leaks that West Bengal’s lockdown will go far beyond the restrictions the Union Government had announced. Eventually, the whole state is put under lockdown, with only essential services permitted.
- Similar confusion prevails in many other states, with each announcing through notifications which districts will actually go under lockdown.
- Total: 468 confirmed cases, nine deaths.
- As many as 30 states and Union Territories go into a complete lockdown, a far bigger area than the 75 districts listed by the Centre the previous day.
- Maharashtra annnounces that, because the lockdown over the course of the day was not well observed, it would be ordering a curfew – legally requiring people to be indoors and to get passes for travel. It also announced a ban on movement between districts.
- Delhi seals its borders with surrounding states and also announces a curfew, requiring passes for those planning to travel to other parts of the National Capital Region.