One day into the world’s largest coronavirus lockdown, Indian state officials were sending mixed messages to a population of almost 1.4 billion struggling to adjust to the prospect of three weeks confined to their homes.
Health and law and order are devolved matters under India’s federal system, and in the southern state of Telangana the chief minister warned that extreme measures would be taken if people did not observe the lockdown.
“If people do not listen and stay indoors, we will be forced to implement a 24-hour curfew,” said K Chandrashekar Rao. “If people continue to be on the streets, then the army has to be called out and shoot at sight orders may be issued.”
At the same time, the chief minister of northern Uttar Pradesh state was seemingly flouting orders for all religious gatherings to be suspended. Along with around 20 others, Yogi Adityanath - a right-wing Hindu monk and leading light of Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP party - offered prayers at a temple for the beginning of the spring festival season.
The clear contradiction of social distancing guidelines, by one of the Hindu right’s most popular figures after Mr Modi himself, laid bare the challenge of enforcing a strict set of virus containment measures in a country of this size.
In his prime-time national address announcing the lockdown on Tuesday night, Mr Modi had assured the public that the government would maintain supplies of food and other essential daily supplies, saying there would be “no difficulty in daily life”.
Clearly some police officers hadn’t got the message. K Ganesh, an investor and promoter associated with some of the country’s largest food delivery services, told reporters there had been incidents of police at checkpoints abusing, assaulting and in one case arresting delivery workers.
“In many cases, [the police] are being harsh, they are beating up people. People are risking their lives, please don't beat them up,” he said.
E-commerce websites like Big Basket, Grofer and Licious carried messages saying their services were not available. The former said its outage was “due to restrictions imposed by local authorities on movement of goods in your city”.
Bikram Singh Bedi, a Grofer executive, told NDTV that the company was “working very closely with the administration” to try and get the supply chain moving again.
“To imagine a country like India under lockdown and to expect everything to go smoothly within an hour is unrealistic,” he said.
THOUSANDS have collected at shelter homes where Delhi govt has directed cooked food be provided. Overcrowded, overwhelmed- shelters don’t have adequate ration & infrastructure. Govt needs to ensure cooked food distribution at all anganwadis & govt schools also #21daylockdown pic.twitter.com/R0jUM6TreX— Anjali Bhardwaj (@AnjaliB_)March 25, 2020
Social media videos showed some panic buying taking place, with long queues forming outside local shops minutes after Mr Modi’s lockdown message on Tuesday night. That seemed to have eased on Wednesday, but shops were still busier than usual and little effort appeared to have been put into encouraging customers to practise social distancing.
It is impossible to know at this stage what impact the virus will have on India’s healthcare system. The government is taking such stringent measures precisely because it can ill afford a rush of severe cases - there are only 70,000-100,000 ICU beds in the entire country.
But the economic impact of the lockdown could already be seen on day one, with those worst hit being the unskilled workers who, as India’s informal labour market, make up some 90 per cent of the nation’s workforce.
One widely-shared video showed a huge queue, four people wide, waiting for a cooked meal at the Yamuna Pushta homeless shelter in Delhi. The shelter normally caters to 2,000 people a day but saw that number swell to 7,000 on Wednesday, according to the Delhi government official Nagendar Sharma. “Hunger trumps social distancing,” one reply to the video on Twitter read.
India as a whole has more than 600 confirmed coronavirus cases and 10 deaths, with the number rising as the government finally rolls out more widespread testing. Previously only those with a history of foreign travel and who still had symptoms after 14 days quarantine would be tested.
Extreme examples of stigma and prejudice relating to the virus are also on the rise. In Delhi, a man was arrested on suspicion of spitting at a woman from the north-east of the country - where people are more likely to bear a closer resemblance to ethnic Chinese people - and calling her “corona”.
There have been reports of abuse towards airline crews after many, after travelling to countries with more virus cases, had red notices plastered to their homes by police reading “Covid-19 - Home Under Quarantine”.
State airline Air India issued a statement appealing “to all, particularly the law enforcement agencies to ensure that Air India crew are treated with respect and freedom that every citizen deserves, especially those who have been discharging their duties in selfless manner for return of fellow Indians”.
And a health ministry statement on Tuesday said there had been multiple complaints from doctors and other health workers that landlords were evicting them from their houses and apartments, citing coronavirus fears. The ministry said police and municipal authorities would be tasked with taking strict action against the landlords.