On a day when the number of COVID-19 cases across the country crossed 5,000, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the first clear signal that some restrictions are likely to continue after the 21-day lockdown period ends on April 14.
In a video conference with floor leaders of various political parties on Wednesday, Modi said the government’s priority is to save each and every life, and the feedback from districts, opinion of experts and experience of other countries all showed that a lockdown is perhaps the only way to check the spread of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, 485 fresh cases and 25 more deaths were reported in the last 24 hours; the number of cases has now gone up to 5,274 (411 recovered), and the death toll is 149.
According to a government statement, Modi emphasised that several state governments, district administrations and experts had pressed for extension of the lockdown. He, however, said he would hold another round of discussions with the chief ministers on April 11 before taking a final decision.
Last week, Modi had told the chief ministers to formulate a common but staggered exit strategy to lift the lockdown.
“The Prime Minister underlined that the situation in the country is akin to a ‘social emergency’. The country has been forced to take tough decisions, and must continue to remain vigilant,” the statement quoted him as saying.
This was Modi’s first interaction with leaders of political parties after announcing the 21-day lockdown on March 24.
According to sources, the PM underlined that he had not come across any opinion which suggests that lifting the lockdown at this juncture is “advisable”. The view that is emerging so far, he said, is that lifting the lockdown is not going to be “simple” and the norms for ensuring social distancing will have to be enforced strictly.
“Kareeb kareeb mood yeh ban raha hain ki ek dam se lockdown uthana to sambhav nahin hoga (The mood more or less is that it won’t be possible to lift the lockdown in one go),” sources quoted him as saying.
The video conference, which lasted almost four hours, was attended by leaders of 16 parties. The Secretaries of various departments, including Home, Health and Rural Development ministries, gave a detailed presentation on the steps taken by the government to deal with the situation.
Sources said the leaders, cutting across party lines, urged the government to announce more financial relief to help vulnerable sections, ramp up testing, provide adequate personal protective equipment to doctors and health workers, release various dues of the states and assist them financially in meeting the challenge.
In his reply, Modi admitted that the country is facing serious economic challenges and asserted that the government is committed to overcoming them.
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Sources said Modi likened the situation with the Emergency. In such a situation, he said, the government would have to take “apratyashit” (unexpected) and “stern” decisions.
Some leaders like Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut suggested a graded response, saying that restrictions can be eased in districts which have not recorded any positive cases so far.
Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad told reporters that his party would support any decision taken by the central government (on the lockdown) in consultation with the state governments.
Modi told the leaders that big changes in the work culture and working style of the country would be needed. Speaking about how the world’s “viewpoint” changed after World War II, he said the world would change post-COVID 19 too.
According to the government statement, Modi noted that the country had witnessed “constructive and positive politics” through the coming together of all sections of polity to present a united front in the battle against the pandemic.
“The Prime Minister underlined the impact of the emerging situation, as witnessed in the resource constraints. Yet, India has been among the few nations to control the pace of spread of the virus till now. He also warned that the situation keeps changing continuously and one needs to maintain vigil at all times,” the statement said.
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