NEW DELHI – Indians struggled to comply with the world's largest coronavirus lockdown on Wednesday as the government began the gargantuan task of keeping 1.3 billion people indoors.
Official assurances that essentials wouldn't run out clashed with people's fears that the disease toll could soon worsen, gutting food and other critical supplies.
In five days, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has jumped from about 200 to 519, and experts say the real toll is likely to be much higher because of insufficient testing.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week countrywide lockdown covering nearly one-fifth of the world's population “to save India and Indians.”
He said the lockdown would be “total,” but officials after his speech released advisories explaining that medical, law enforcement, media and other sectors were exempted and that stores selling food and other essentials would remain open.
Television images from many cities and towns on Wednesday showed shuttered markets and offices. Normally bustling railway stations stood empty. Joggers awkwardly avoided each other to maintain safe distances.
Still, Modi's speech triggered panic buying as online retailers Amazon and Big Basket, an Indian grocery delivery service, began canceling previously placed orders and said they had no delivery slots available. That spurred people to risk fines and other penalties for violating the lockdown by going out to shop at local stores.
Social distancing was forgotten at a grocery store in the Nizamuddin neighborhood of New Delhi as panicked residents swarmed inside and jostled with each other to get fast-disappearing supplies.