Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday hinted at a gradual lockdown withdrawal and said social distancing is the biggest weapon in the COVID-19 fight given a “twofold challenge” to check the virus spread and to increase the public activity. Many more continued to test positive for the deadly virus in the meantime, pushing the nationwide tally well above the 70,000 mark.
The death toll also crossed 2,200 with more people succumbing to COVID-19 at various places including in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat.
Interacting with chief ministers in a video conference, Modi flagged that problems have increased wherever social distancing or lockdown measures were not followed. He also said a big challenge is to ensure that the infection does not spread to rural areas.
“I am of the firm view that the measures needed in the first phase of lockdown were not needed during the 2nd phase and similarly the measures needed in the 3rd Phase are not needed in the fourth,” he said.
The first phase of the nationwide lockdown began on March 25, which was supposed to be of 21 days but got extended later till May 3 and then further till May 17 for the third phase with some relaxations, mainly for industrial and agricultural activities.
The new cases detected in the past few days include migrant workers who have returned to their native places from big urban clusters, many after being rendered jobless and homeless, as also some airlifted under a massive evacuation plan undertaken by the government for Indians and expatriates stranded abroad.
In its daily update, the Union Health Ministry said the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has increased to 67,152, after a record number of 4,213 new cases were reported in the last 24 hours till Monday 8 AM, while the death toll rose by 97 to 2,206. More than 20,000 people have recovered also so far.
However, a PTI tally of figures reported by different states and union territories, as of 11.45 PM, put the nationwide tally of confirmed cases much higher at 70,702, showing an increase of more than 6,000 cases since Sunday morning. It showed 2,223 deaths and more than 22,000 recoveries so far.
Maharashtra reported 1,230 new cases, taking the state tally to 23,401, while its death toll rose to 868 after 36 more fatalities.
Tamil Nadu reported 798 new cases and six more deaths on Monday. Gujarat saw 347 fresh cases and 20 more fatalities, including 268 cases and 19 deaths in Ahmedabad itself. In the national capital too, over 300 new cases were detected.
Fresh cases were reported from various other states as well including Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Kerala, Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Bihar and Odisha.
In his fifth such interaction with chief ministers, Modi said there is reasonably clear indication now as to the geographical spread of the pandemic in India, including the worst affected areas and this will help in having a focussed fight.
“We have a twofold challenge – to reduce the transmission rate of the disease and to increase public activity gradually while adhering to all the guidelines — and we will have to work towards achieving both these objectives,” he said.
Modi said everyone must understand that the world has fundamentally changed post COVID-19 and the world would be know referrred to as “pre-corona” and “post-corona”, as was the case with the world wars.
He said the new way of life would be on principles of ‘Jan Se Lekar Jag Tak’, or from an individual to the whole humanity, and all must plan for this new reality.
“Even as we look at the gradual withdrawal of the lockdown, we should constantly remember that till we do not find a vaccine or a solution, the biggest weapon with us to the fight the virus is social distancing,” Modi said.
He also said that the suggestion of night curfew raised by many chief ministers would surely reaffirm the feeling of caution among people.
Requesting all chief ministers for specific feedback on the lockdown by May 15, Modi asked them to give a broad strategy on how they wanted to deal with the lockdown in their respective states, including on “various nuances during and after the gradual easing of the lockdown”.
He also flagged concerns about proliferation of diseases other than COVID-19 during monsoons and asked for strengthening of medical and health systems.
Modi said he saw potential for the domestic tourism sector and stressed on a need to think of the contours of the same. On resumption of train services, he said it was needed to boost the economic activity but all routes will not be resumed.
Modi said he feels optimistic when not even a single state was sounding despondent and that this collective determination would make India win in its COVID-19 fight. He said the post-COVID era would bring opportunities that India must leverage.
Earlier during a press briefing on the COVID-19 situation, Union Health Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal said some relatively large outbreaks have been noticed in particular locations and it is important to focus on containment efforts to ensure that the country does not reach the community transmission stage.
He also said that people who develop coronavirus symptoms should not go into hiding and come forward to report so that they get timely treatment and also do not spread the infection to their family members and others.
Asserting that the virus outbreak has nothing to do with race, religion and area and the government’s focus is on identifying pockets which have been reporting a larger number of cases for implementing strong containment measures.
During their interaction with the prime minister, some chief ministers also sought measures to expand the medical and health infrastructure including for COVID-19 testing, while many of them also demanded fiscal support for states due to the pandemic having hit hard various revenue-generating economic activities.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is said to have favoured allowing all economic activities, barring in the identified containment zones.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the Centre wanted a strict lockdown enforcement on one hand, but was resuming train services on the other.
Chief ministers of Tamil Nadu and Telangana opposed resumption of passenger train services, which are scheduled to begin on Tuesday with select special trains for taking the stranded migrant workers to their native places.
The Home Ministry said only asymptomatic people with confirmed tickets will be allowed to travel in 15 trains to be operational from Tuesday. Online bookings began for these trains on Monday evening, after some delay due to a technical glitch, and some routes got fully booked within ten minutes.
The Railways have been running ‘migrant special’ trains for ferrying migrant workers since May 1, but this will be the first time in nearly 50 days that the general public can also undertake train journeys even though flight and inter-state bus services remain suspended as of now till May 17.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray asked Modi to show “specific and concrete direction” on the ongoing lockdown and said the states would implement the same. He also requested the prime minister to start local trains in Mumbai for essential services staff working in the city.
Mumbai’s coronavirus tally has reached 14,355 with 791 new cases detected on Monday, while its death toll is 528 now with 20 more fatalities. At least 57 new cases were reported from the city’s Dharavi slums.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh favoured extending the lockdown in view of the rising number of cases, but with a carefully crafted exit strategy backed by economic empowerment of states to save lives and secure livelihood.
Some chief ministers also suggested that the states should be allowed to decide declaring red, orange or green zones after taking into account the ground realities.
There are already concerns about re-emergence of the virus in some other countries, including in China, Germany and South Korea, after easing of lockdown restrictions and greater movement of people being allowed.
Since its emergence in China last December, the deadly virus has infected more than 41 lakh people worldwide and over 2.8 lakh have lost their lives. More than 14 lakh people have recovered so far.