India’s nationwide coronavirus lockdown, the biggest in the world, will be extended until at least May 3, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said.
The three-week lockdown of the nation of 1.3 billion people, which started on March 25 midnight, was scheduled to end on Tuesday midnight.
“From the economic angle, we have paid a big price,” Modi said in a nationwide address. “But the lives of the people of India are far more valuable.”
South Asian nations have so far been relatively unscathed by the epidemic, with more than 10,000 cases and 339 deaths in India, according to official figures.
But with some of the most crowded cities on the planet, there are fears that numbers could skyrocket and overwhelm shaky healthcare systems.
Some experts have also said India has not conducted enough tests and that the true number of infections is much higher.
Several states, including Maharashtra which has the highest number of cases, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, have already announced lockdown extensions.
But at the same time, the lockdown, with strict limits on activity, has been devastating for the economy – and for India’s poor.
Millions of daily wage labourers suddenly lost their jobs, forcing hundreds of thousands to travel hundreds of kilometres back to their home villages, often on foot.
Some died on the way, while others were shunned by locals when they made it back to their villages. One viral clip showed a group of migrants being hosed down with chemicals.
Others have been stranded in cities in cramped, unsanitary conditions where the virus could spread quickly.
New Delhi alone is providing hundreds of thousands of free meals.
Farmers have complained of a lack of workers to harvest crops while snarl-ups of thousands of trucks not allowed to move because of the lockdown have hampered food transport.
Farms, still the bedrock of the Indian economy, are heading into their most important harvest time of the year, earning money to finance many villages for months.