Hundreds of millions of Indians stayed indoors on Sunday in the world’s biggest lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
India has detected more than 352 cases with seven deaths and 27 recoveries amid fears that the second most populous nation could be the next hotspot for the deadly infection.
More than a dozen states announced a week-long partial or complete lockdown, including the country's capital New Delhi.
Prime minister Narendra Modi urged 1.3 billion Indians to observe a self-imposed 14-hour ‘Janata (people's) Curfew’— to promote social distancing. The virus has claimed 13,049 lives and infected 307,280 people worldwide since the December outbreak in China's Wuhan city, according to figures from Johns Hopkins university.
"Let us all be a part of this curfew, which will add tremendous strength to the fight against COVID-19 menace. The steps we take now will help in the times to come. Stay indoors and stay healthy. #IndiaFightsCorona,” Mr Modi tweeted on Sunday morning.
It came as Indian Railways cancelled all its services until March 31. Nearly 22 million daily commuters on its vast network will be unable to travel.
Hundreds of flights have been also suspended across the country and police and home guards manned streets across the country to dissuade people from coming out on the streets.
Life in cities including big metropolises like Mumbai and Delhi came to a grinding halt and dozens of towns across the nation wore a deserted look in the unprecedented lockdown.
During an address to the nation on Thursday Mr Modi urged citizens to prepare for a future challenge, saying the country was not immune from an outbreak.
Experts have warned that India could be overwhelmed if the infection spreads locally after being transmitted from travellers coming from affected countries.
Some say the country could see millions of cases in the coming weeks and leave hundreds of thousands of people dead, a situation exacerbated by an ailing healthcare system.
Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Washington-based Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy and lecturer at Princeton University has cautioned 60 per cent of the Indian population could be infected in the worst case scenario– some 700 or 800 million people.
“We are probably expecting between 300-500 million cases before the end of July…eventually everyone in India will get COVID-19," he said, adding this was a worst-case projection.
“In a situation like this, where there is no known cure for the disease, it is imperative that we stay healthy…And how does one practice patience? By staying away from crowds and gatherings, avoiding leaving your homes,” Mr Modi told Indians.
Indians clapped and clanged cooking utensils at 5pm to show their gratitude to doctors, nurses and emergency staff, who, Mr Modi said are at the frontline against the battle with pandemic.
Several countries across the world have imposed a total lockdown to fight the spread of the virus but many experts say India will find it difficult to shut down considering millions of poor citizens who rely on a daily wage to survive.
India’s southern Tamil Nadu state closed its borders with neighbouring states and western Rajasthan state imposed a total lockdown on Saturday.
In recent weeks, India has banned international flights and cancelled all visas for travellers and urged private companies to ask staff to work from home. It also advised children below the age of 10 and individuals above 65 years to stay home.
In Delhi and adjoining cities of Noida and Gurgaon, barring shops selling essential commodities and pharmacies, all other establishments remained closed. A large number of cars and taxis were also off the roads.
Most people skipped their morning walks and stayed inside observing the ‘social distancing’ on Sunday.
"The streets are empty; no one is in sight. I have never seen roads this empty before but it is for our good, we have to break the chain," Sonam Vardhan Arora, 31, a banker in Noida, told The National.