Narendra Modi has said India is facing a “long war” against coronavirus, raising the prospect of an extension of far-reaching lockdown measures due to last another week.
The Indian prime minister was addressing members of his BJP on the party’s 40th anniversary, in what was effectively his fourth pre-recorded national video message in less than three weeks.
Mr Modi, who has faced criticism over a lockdown imposed that left millions of migrant workers stranded, said India’s early closure of its borders and its ongoing stay-home orders “have set an example before the world in tackling coronavirus”.
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“India is one of the countries which understood the seriousness of this disease and waged a timely war against it. India took several decisions and tried its best to implement them on ground,” he said.
While the Indian government has taken some serious action and brought forward welfare payments for hundreds of millions its poorest citizens, Mr Modi’s own addresses have been used to call for moments of public spectacle and solidarity.
On Sunday, he led citizens in a national candle-lit vigil, urging people to turn off their lights for nine minutes at 9pm. Those without candles could shine their mobile phone flashlights in the air, he suggested.
The display showed “the strength and togetherness” of India’s 1.3 billion population, Mr Modi said on Monday, adding that the country had “demonstrated unity and strengthened its resolve to fight Covid-19”.
National power grid data showed that a remarkable number of people observed the nine-minute blackout, with the country’s overall power demand plunging as much as 26.6 per cent.
The initiative was considerably more popular in northern India, consisting of Mr Modi’s Hindi-speaking heartlands, where demand fell almost twice as steeply as in southern states.
But even in the south, where opposition has been more fierce towards Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, many still backed the call for unity during the coronavirus crisis.
Safriz Ahamed, who lives in the southern town of Cumbum, said many in his mainly Muslim neighbourhood who lit candles on Sunday had just weeks ago protested against the government’s new citizenship laws, which critics say are unfair to Muslims.
“It’s not always a political statement, or blind hate,” he said. “People wanted to show solidarity with a national cause yesterday, as we’re all facing a tough time amid the lockdown.”
India’s virus death toll rose above 100 on Monday, while total cases stand at more than 4,000. The tolls are rising steadily in spite of the lockdown, which began in many cities on 22 March, partly because India has been much slower than other countries in rolling out testing.
Health ministry officials are now hinting at a localised lockdown continuing past 14 April, with a report in the Indian Express pointing out that more than 80 per cent of cases have appeared in clusters in 62 districts. Previously, ministers have rejected the suggestion that the lockdown will have to continue past the initial three weeks.