PM says 'long fight' ahead to defeat COVID-19, asks ministers to ready plans for 'slow' exit from lockdown
Cautioning people to be ready for a "long fight" against COVID-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday told his ministers to make plans for slowly exiting the ongoing lockdown and to contain the economic impact of the deadly virus pandemic, including by reducing dependence on other countries.
As more people tested positive in New Delhi, Mumbai and other parts of the country, the nationwide tally of infections went over 4,600 and the death toll rose to at least 138, according to figures announced by various states.
The government also announced a 30 percent cut in salaries, allowances and pensions of all MPs for one year and a two-year suspension of their local area development funds worth nearly Rs 8,000 crore.
The Union Health Ministry indicated the disease is in "localised community transmission" stage with a large number of cases being found in some particular areas, amid indications that some areas including in Uttar Pradesh may not see full exit from the lockdown.
Telangana government asked the Centre to consider extending the lockdown, while Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope said no one should be under the impression of complete lifting of lockdown in the state after April 15. Assam government hinted at a permit system for people wanting to enter the state after the lockdown ends on April 14.
A group of senior central government officers also met to discuss all strategic issues related to the lockdown, including a graded exit plan and sector-wise impact assessment and demand.
Addressing his council of ministers in a video conference, Modi asked them to prepare business continuity plans to fight the economic impact of COVID-19 on a war footing, but also asserted that this crisis is an opportunity to boost the 'Make-in-India' initiative and reduce dependence on other countries.
He also indicated a phased emergence from the lockdown and said that "a graded plan to slowly open departments where hotspots aren't existing should be made".
"This is going to be a long fight. We don't have to tire or feel defeated. We have to win in this long battle. We have to emerge victorious. Today, the nation's goal, mission and resolve are one, and this is to be victorious in this battle against the coronavirus pandemic," Modi said.
In their daily briefing, government officials announced fresh figures to show that the people linked to Tablighi Jamaat account for more than one-third of the total tally and also said that elderly persons are in the high risk category and so are those aged between 40-60 years with other serious medical conditions.
Separately, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's Joint General Secretary Manmohan Vaidya said "figures tell the truth", referring to the Jamaat-linked numbers in the nationwide tally.
He said the Jamaat should have acted "sensibly and responsibly" in dispersing the participants at their congregation last month and referred to RSS's own decision to cancel its meetings and programmes.
Authorities at several places have warned of invoking attempt to murder charge and the stringent National Security Act (NSA) against those participants of the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi who fail to report for screening test.
In addition to pay cuts for MPs that include ministers, the government also said that President, Vice President and state governors have also taken voluntary salary cuts to help fund the COVID-19 fight.
Congress welcomed the decision to cut MPs' salaries, but said suspending MPLADs, as the development fund scheme is known, will undermine the role of an MP and called for its review. CPI(M) also slammed the suspension of the MLAD scheme, while Trinamool Congress called it "whimsical".
Experts opined that the lockdown, in its 13th day on Monday, has helped in slowing down the spread of the virus, but called for an exponential ramping up of the testing mechanism and upgrading of healthcare facilities. The Indian Council of Medical Research, which has so far conducted nearly 90,000 coronavirus tests, said orders have been placed for 5 lakh rapid antibody testing kits.
The new positive cases reported by various states include a 14-month-old boy in Gujarat's Jamnangar district with no travel history, as also a 2 1/2-year-old son of Lucknow's first COVID-19 patient. two private hospitals in Mumbai were sealed after some of their medical staff, including doctors and nurses, tested positive.
In Haryana, five villages were sealed and all their residents quarantined after it was found that some foreign members of Tablighi Jamaat had stayed there, the Union Home Ministry said. More than 25,500 Jamaat members and their contacts have been quarantined across the country, while 1,750 foreign-based members of the religious group, out of the total 2,083, have been blacklisted till now by the Indian government, a senior Ministry official said.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said the number of COVID-19 cases in the national capital has reached 523, out of which 330 are from the Nizamuddin centre of the Jamaat. He said testing is being ramped up and his government has placed placed orders for one lakh testing kits to be used from Friday.
The cases have risen sharply in the national capital and in Mumbai over last few days. At least 68 new cases were reported in the country's financial capital on Monday, taking its total tally to over 500, while the state-wide number of positive cases in Maharashtra has crossed 800. At least 52 have died too in the state.
Officials have, however, maintained that the spread has still been slower in India than many other countries.
Worldwide, more than 12.5 lakh have got infected by this deadly virus since its outbreak in China in December last, while more than 70,000 have died including over 50,000 in Europe and more than 10,000 in the US.
The entire world is also battling a huge economic crisis due to the pandemic. France said on Monday it is heading for the worst recession since the World War II, while Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed a state of emergency.
Sources said the Finance Ministry is also working on a new relief package for the Indian economy hit hard by the outbreak and the lockdown. Last month, the government had announced a Rs 1.70 lakh crore relief package in the form of food grains and cash transfers for poor and vulnerable sections to help them deal with the hardships caused by the lockdown.
In his video conference with ministers, Modi also asked them to explore innovative solutions like 'truck aggregators' on the lines of app-based cab services to connect farmers with mandis and also underlined the need to devise a strategy to ensure procurement of tribal products.
Separately addressing the BJP workers on the party's 40th foundation day, PM Modi also asked every BJP worker to donate to the PM-CARES Fund and also encourage others to contribute to it to help his government's measures against the pandemic.
The new cases of confirmed infection reported since Sunday include those from Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra, while fresh deaths have been reported from Gujarat, Andhra and Rajasthan, among other places.
Railways said it has converted 2,500 coaches into isolation wards, achieving half of its target of delivering 5000 such coaches in the first phase as part of its efforts to supplement the government's measures to fight coronavirus.
With the conversion of around 2,500 coaches, 40,000 isolation beds are now ready for use, Railways said in a statement.
The Supreme Court also directed all courts across the country to extensively use video-conferencing for judicial proceedings saying congregation of lawyers and litigants must be suspended to maintain social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.