Indian Council of Medical Research Director General Dr Balram Bhargava has suggested a lockdown for most parts of the country for the next six to eight weeks, Reuters reported on Wednesday. This is the first time a senior government official has stressed on the importance on a lockdown to rein in the surge in coronavirus cases.

“The high positivity districts should remain [shut],” Bhargava said in an interview. “If they [positivity rate] come to 5% from 10% we can open them, but that has to happen. That won’t happen in six to eight weeks, clearly.”

Currently, three-fourth of India’s 718 districts have a test-positivity rate of more than 10%, according to Reuters. This includes cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.

Bhargava spoke about the situation in Delhi, saying that “it will be a disaster” if the national Capital were restrictions were eased immediately. At one point when the second wave of the pandemic hit India, Delhi was the worst-affected city, with the positivity rate being recorded at 35%. However, it has now come down to about 17%, according to the Delhi government’s latest bulletin.

The ICMR chief’s comments were in stark contrast with the central government’s stand so far. Despite repeated suggestions from experts and state leaders, the Centre has refrained from imposing a nationwide lockdown considering the economic impact. However, it did ask the states to impose restrictions.

Several states have announced either a lockdown – partial or total – or introduced localised curbs. These measures are being reviewed fortnightly.

Bhargava said the National Task Force on Covid-19 had recommended that the government should lock down areas with a 10% or higher positivity rate on April 15 during a meeting. However, Prime Minister Modi on April 20 asked states to impose a lockdown only as a “last resort”. On April 26, the home ministry asked states to implement strict measures for “large containment areas” in hard-hit districts, but only for 14 days.

India has reported more than 3 lakh cases a day every day for the past three weeks, since April 22. On May 1, the country hit a new record by crossing the 4-lakh mark, the highest single-day tally by any country in the world. This was surpassed on May 7, when India recorded 4.14 lakh daily cases. So far in May, India’s daily tally has crossed the 4-lakh mark on five days. Thousands have died every day, but reports allege that the government is severely undercounting Covid-19 deaths.

The ICMR chief, however, did not directly criticise the Narendra Modi government’s decisions related to the pandemic. But he admitted to a delay in responding to the crisis. “I think the only discontent we have was there was a slight delay accepting the 10% [recommendation], but that did happen,” he said.

Asked about mass gatherings amid the pandemic, Bhargava said it should not be acceptable in India or anywhere else. “It’s common sense,” he added.

The Modi government faced massive backlash and criticism for allowing the Kumbh Mela to continue even as cases surged. Modi himself was called out for focussing more on the election campaign in West Bengal than on controlling the pandemic. Thousands gathered for the prime minister and other Bharatiya Janata Party leaders’ political rallies in open violation of Covid protocols.

On April 17, after weeks of silence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the Kumbh Mela should now be held as a “symbolic event” due to the coronavirus situation. His remarks came after the head seer of the Maha Nirvani Akhada from Madhya Pradesh, Kapil Dev, died due to Covid-19.

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