India coronavirus lockdown extended by two weeks with some easing

World’s biggest lockdown extended with ‘considerable relaxations’ in lower-risk areas marked as green and orange zones.

The Indian government has extended the world’s biggest coronavirus lockdown by two weeks starting May 4, but with some easing of restrictions.

India’s Ministry of Home Affairs on Friday said in a statement in view of “significant gains in the COVID-19 situation,” areas with few or no cases would see “considerable relaxations”.

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The lockdown imposed on March 25 has caused misery for millions of workers in India’s vast informal sector and dealt a major blow to Asia’s third-biggest economy.

However, the stringent restrictions have been credited with keeping confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, to a relatively low 35,365 as of Friday, with 1,152 deaths.

But some experts have said the vast country of 1.3 billion, home to some of the most congested cities in the world, is not testing enough.

In addition, there are concerns that if the virus catches hold in a big way, India’s poorly funded healthcare system will be severely stretched.

The government has now divided India into red zones with “significant risk of spread of the infection”; green zones with either zero cases or no confirmed cases in the past 21 days; and those in between as orange.

Red and orange zones will continue to have intensified contact tracing, house-to-house surveillance, and no movement in or out except for medical emergencies and the supply of essential goods and services, the home ministry statement said.

The biggest and most economically-important cities, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Ahmedabad, would all be classed as red zones, infection hotspots, and kept under strict lockdown.

Travel by air, rail, metro and inter-state movement by road will remain banned. Schools and colleges, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, cinema halls and places of worship will remain closed.

The government also issued an order on Friday to provide special trains for stranded migrant workers, pilgrims, tourists and students to return home.


Inside Story

What are the challenges of battling coronavirus in India?

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Irrfan Khan remembered: 'The most nuanced actor I've worked with'

Directors Danny Boyle, Ang Lee, Marc Webb and Hollywood actress Bryce Dallas Howard pay tributes to the Indian icon.

Irrfan Khan, the 53-year-old Bollywood icon who straddled both Indian and Western cinema carving a remarkable 30-year career, lost a long battle with cancer on Wednesday.

“He was the most nuanced actor I have worked with. I am forever his dedicated fan,” said Marc Webb, who directed Khan in Hollywood blockbuster, The Amazing Spider-Man.

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Khan played a ruthless Oscorp executive Ranjit Ratha in the 2012 edition of the Marvel Comics franchise.

“In Irrfan, power and gentleness coexisted perfectly. When he sings to his new wife at the bathroom door in The Namesake or speaks of his father in Life of Pi, his talent is positively mystical,” said Webb.

Hollywood actress Bryce Dallas Howard, who starred with Khan in Jurassic World, called the Indian actor “a treasure of a human being”.

“Irrfan and I filmed our first scene together for Jurassic World. I remember being so struck by him,” she told Al Jazeera.

“In his presence, there is permission to be spontaneous, playful, interesting, and interested.

“I loved acting with him so much. He always had a sparkle in his eye and would discover each moment afresh and anew, again and again,” said the 39-year-old actress.

Howard said Khan – who played the role of Simon Masrani, the owner of Jurassic World, in the 2015 film – never settled for “a predictable rhythm”.

“Every moment was a brand-new thought and possibility for him,” she told Al Jazeera. “He was like this in life as well, so present, so awake and connected to life.”

Howard said she loved her conversations with Khan and learning about his family, home, and the people he worked with.

“He loved India. He loved his community. He was a treasure of a human being and undoubtedly in a league of his own. His work remains, thank god, but he will be hugely missed by so many,” she said.

Danny Boyle, who directed the critically-acclaimed and runaway financial success, Slumdog Millionaire, said Khan was a “wonderful actor and a pivotal figure” in the making of the film.

“He brought to it a wonderful dignity and calmness. And calmness is an extraordinary quality he was able to harness in most of his work,” said Boyle.

In Slumdog Millionaire, based on a novel by Indian author Vikas Swarup, Khan played a police inspector who is sceptical of a slum boy winning a reality TV game show.

Boyle said Khan was pivotal to his 2008 film because Peter Rice, an executive in Fox Searchlight, wanted the British filmmaker to cast the Indian actor.

“He [Rice] said whatever you do get a part in it for Irrfan Khan. And I will be forever grateful to him for that,” Boyle said.

The 63-year-old filmmaker said Khan “effortlessly bridged the two cultures”. 

“He was one of those who effortlessly made that journey across back and forth, back and forth.”

Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee, known for some of the biggest films in Hollywood, roped in Khan to play the older version of Pi, the main character, in the 2012 adventure drama, Life of Pi.

“Irrfan was a great artist, a true gentleman and a brave fighter. His passing away is cinema’s loss. We will miss him dearly,” Lee told Al Jazeera.

Khan acted in almost 100 films, winning awards and the admiration of his peers for his nuanced performances.

He received the Independent Spirit Award for supporting actor in 2006 for the Indian-American drama The Namesake and a viewers’ choice award at the Cannes festival 2013 for his role in the Indian romantic drama, The Lunchbox.

In a tweet, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said Khan was an “incredible talent” and “left his imprint on global cinema”.

“Gone too soon. When he is on screen, you can’t take your eyes off of him. He lives on in his films,” tweeted Hollywood filmmaker Ava Duvernay.

A grateful fan of #IrrfanKhan here. Gone too soon. When he is on screen, you can’t take your eyes off of him. He lives on in his films. pic.twitter.com/aA9RAjsxSl

Khan played a wide array of roles, including an intensely tormented lover in Maqbool, an adaptation of Macbeth, and Hamlet-inspired Haider, a Bollywood film set in the disputed Kashmir region.

“He managed to walk off the screen and come home with us,” wrote film critic Shubhra Gupta in the Indian Express newspaper.

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India extends coronavirus lockdown by two weeks

India has extended its lockdown for another two weeks as it attempts to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The government’s disaster response authority said that new guidelines would be issued, “keeping in view the need to open up economic activities”.

The country went into lockdown on 24 March and schools, public transport and most businesses have been shut since.

India has recorded 2,896 deaths. It has more than 90,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 53,946 active infections.

It is the fourth time the federal government has extended the world’s largest lockdown, covering 1.3 billion people. India media dubbed the extension “lockdown 4.0”.

What has changed?

Most of the restrictions remain in place – flights, trains, educational institutions, metro services, restaurants, bars, cinemas and shopping complexes will remain closed.

Restaurants will now be allowed to operate takeaway services, while sports complexes and stadiums can host events without spectators, the home affairs ministry said.

And for the first time since the lockdown was announced, private cars and buses can now operate across cities and towns – as well as crossing state borders if they have permission.

Journeys in personal vehicles had been permitted before, but drivers had been discouraged from travelling long distances, often being stopped at police checkpoints and asked where they were headed to.

Essential services – hospitals, pharmacies and groceries – have been allowed operate throughout.

It will be up to individual state officials to decide whether they wish to allow the easing of restrictions or continue with the previous rules. None of the changes will apply in “containment zones” – areas with especially high number of cases where a perimeter has been imposed to ensure no-one enters or leaves except in case of an emergency.

Have there been other relaxations?

Before this, the government had already relaxed the rules to allow agriculture and related businesses to reopen and operate. And self-employed workers including plumbers, electricians and carpenters were allowed to start working again.

But the the relaxations were allowed only in orange or green zones, which do not have a high number of Covid-19 cases. Tight restrictions continue in red zones, which are seen as hotspots.

The entire country has been divided into these three colour-coded zones. Officials say the zones are being continuously monitored for a rise or fall in cases.

India’s lockdown was it put in place quickly and has come at a massive economic cost, with job losses already crossing 120 million. The surprise announcement – accompanied by the suspension of trains and buses across the country – also stranded millions of migrant labourers. Many began to walk home, desperate to return to their families after finding themselves out of work and money.

The journey has proved fatal for some. At least 24 migrant workers trying to return home were killed in a crash between two lorries in northern India.

Though some trains and buses were restarted for migrants in recent weeks, many say they cannot afford the fare and are unsure if they will find a place on services due to social distancing norms.

At least five states – Telangana, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Mizoram – had extended the lockdown until 31 May before Sunday’s announcement by the federal government.

Maharashtra, home to the financial capital Mumbai, is the worst hit, with more than 30,706 active cases – more than half of the national tally. Tamil Nadu comes second, with 10,585 active cases. The state saw a surge in cases recently after a wholesale market emerged as a a big cluster.

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Protesters demand closure of LG Polymers plant in India after toxic gas leak

VISAKHAPATNAM (Reuters) – Villagers placed the bodies of three victims of a deadly gas leak from an LG Polymers plant in southern India at the gates of the site on Saturday, and demanded the factory be shut down immediately and its top management arrested.

Toxic styrene gas spewed out of the plant near the southern city of Visakhapatnam on Thursday, killing at least 11 people and forcing 800 more to be hospitalized for treatment. Hundreds of victims remain in hospital.

On Saturday, villagers staged a sit-in at the plant’s gate with three bodies of victims as the Director General of Police visited the plant, Reuters’ partner ANI reported.

Some protesters barged into the compound and police had to block their way to allow officials investigating the leak to come in and out.

Protestors shouted “We want justice!” and demanded a permanent closure of the factory that is close to residential areas, ANI reported.

They also called for the arrest of factory management of LG Polymers, which is a subsidiary of LG Chem Ltd, South Korea’s biggest petrochemical company.

Police have filed a negligence and culpable homicide complaint against the management of the LG Polymers plant.

In a statement on Saturday, LG Polymers apologised to all those affected by the incident and said it would extend all possible support to ensure those affected and their families were taken care of.

“The company is committed to work closely with the concerned authorities in India to investigate the cause of this incident,” the company said.

It said its initial investigations suggested the tragedy was caused by leaking vapour from a styrene monomer storage tank.

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India's criticism of coronavirus test kits 'irresponsible': China

Beijing slams decision of India’s top medical body to stop using Chinese kits following complaints of poor accuracy.

China has criticised India’s decision to stop using Chinese testing kits for the novel coronavirus because of quality issues as unfair and irresponsible in the latest strain in their ties.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the top agency dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, said on Monday it planned to return the kits for antibody tests procured from two Chinese firms because of poor accuracy.

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The Chinese embassy said it was deeply concerned by the Indian decision and that Chinese authorities had validated the equipment produced by the two firms, Guangzhou Wondfo Biotech and Zhuhai Livzon Diagnostics.

“It is unfair and irresponsible for certain individuals to label Chinese products as ‘faulty’ and look at issues with pre-emptive prejudice,” embassy spokeswoman Ji Rong said in a statement.

The Chinese companies had exported equipment to several countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America without any problem, she said.

China was trying to help India fight the coronavirus with concrete action and it made sure the quality of its medical exports is a priority with manufacturers, Ji said.

Wondfo Biotech said in a statement it stood by the quality of its equipment and it had been validated by the Indian medical research body itself at the time of issuing an import licence.

Conflicting results

The diplomatic flap comes days after China criticised an Indian decision to step up scrutiny of investments from neighbouring countries, seen as a move to stave off opportunistic takeovers by Chinese firms during the coronavirus outbreak.

The two countries have been taking steps to improve ties but distrust stemming from a disputed border and China’s growing influence across the region remains deep in India.

India ordered more than half a million Chinese kits for testing for antibodies to the coronavirus this month as a way to boost its screening, among the lowest per capita in the world.

The antibody tests taken from blood samples do not always pick up early-stage infections but show whether a person had the virus in the past, even if the person had no symptoms.

In comparison, the standard swab test determines whether a person has the virus at that moment by looking for it in secretions.

Several Indian states said the Chinese tests had produced conflicting results.

Officials in Rajasthan state said the kits were initially used for testing patients who already had a confirmed infection for coronavirus but some results came back negative.

Ji said the tests needed to be carried out in a professional manner to produce accurate results.

“There are strict requirements for the storage, transportation and use of COVID-19 antibody rapid test kits,” she said.

“Any operation which is not carried out by professionals in accordance with the product specifications will lead to the testing accuracy variations.”

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India turns trains into isolation wards as COVID-19 cases rise

About 20,000 coaches and several stadiums across the country to be modified into medical facilities, officials say.

India has begun converting railway carriages and sport stadiums into isolation wards to deal with an anticipated surge in coronavirus cases.

Indian Railways on Wednesday said work had begun on modifying 20,000 carriages into medical facilities, with each carriage containing 16 beds.

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This means that a total of 320,000 patients could be cared for in the “quarantine coaches”, a statement from the railways said.

India is a week into a national lockdown, with 1.3 billion people told to stay at home as the country attempts to check the spread of the virus. But there has been a spike in COVID-19 cases this week, with authorities confirming 1,637 infections and 38 deaths.

There are worries that India’s beleaguered healthcare system may be overwhelmed with the surge in cases. The country lacks doctors and paramedics as well as critical medical equipment like ventilators to deal with the outbreak of COVID-19, the potentially fatal respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Apart from converting railway coaches, Indian states have also begun converting sports stadiums into quarantine facilities and temporary hospitals, taking a cue from other countries which resorted to similar measures to cope with the huge number of cases.

In New Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium would be converted into a quarantine centre to deal with the rising numbers of COVID-19 patients in the city.

Similarly, the Gachibowli stadium in the southern city of Hyderabad that was used to quarantine passengers coming from abroad, will now have a 1,500-bed isolation and treatment centre.

Authorities in the remote northeastern state of Assam that has few cases, have converted the Sarusajai stadium into a quarantine centre with a capacity of approximately 1,000 people.

In the northern city of Chandigarh, a stadium and sport complex was taken over for a completely different purpose. The facilities have been converted into temporary jails to detain those who violate the lockdown, police spokesman Charanjit Singh said.

Operational since March 24, 600 people have been held in the facility, counselled about sanitisation and social distancing and let go by the evening, Singh added.

Medical experts say India faces the threat of community transmissions, particularly since hundreds of thousands of migrant workers made long and dangerous journeys back to their home towns and villages, defying the lockdown.

In the eastern state of Jharkhand, as authorities sealed land borders and roads, desperate workers and their families waded and swam through waters near a dam to reach their villages in the neighbouring West Bengal state, local official Vijendra Kumar said.

Similar scenes were noticed in the Haryana state a few days ago, where workers took the river route and used rubber tubes and boats to reach their homes in Uttar Pradesh state, local media reported.

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India says no decision yet on easing or lifting flight restrictions

(Reuters) – India has not yet taken a decision on when to lift or ease restrictions on domestic and international flights and urged airlines to take travel bookings only after a final decision is made, a government minister said.

The government announced a halt to domestic flights on March 23, ordering commercial airlines to shut down domestic operations on top of an existing ban on international flights to try and contain the spread of the coronavirus.

“The Ministry of Civil Aviation clarifies that so far no decision has been taken to open domestic or international operations,” civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri said in a tweet late on Saturday.

“Airlines are advised to open their bookings only after a decision in this regard has been taken by the Government”, he added.

About 144 million people travelled on domestic flights last year.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day national lockdown in late March to contain the spread of the virus outbreak. The lockdown has been extended until May 3 at least.

Still, India has announced a roadmap to restart some industrial activity after April 20 in locations that are not coronavirus hotspots to try to revive the economy.

India has reported over 15,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 500 deaths as of early Sunday, according to data from the Indian government.

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'Some of us will die': India's homeless stranded by coronavirus lockdown

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – In a densely packed neighborhood of Delhi, hundreds of homeless people queued up this week as volunteers doled out rice and peas from a vat in the back of a van.

Only a handful of the people in the crowd wore masks. There were no hand sanitizers or wash basins in sight and no social distancing.

“I need the food,” said a man in the queue, Shiv Kumar.

“If I stand apart, someone else might come in between.”

Volunteers say such scenes are playing out daily across India, as laborers and waste pickers – most of them homeless or too poor to afford a meal – are among the hardest hit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-week nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Most of the estimated 4 million plus homeless people in India have had no way of earning a living since the lockdown began on March 25. With streets deserted, even begging is not an option.

Many wander aimlessly, some find refuge at homeless shelters where ranks of people sleep beside each other.

While the plight of India’s migrant workers has garnered headlines, with thousands forced to walk miles to reach home since the lockdown began, many aid workers say the millions of homeless in India face a bigger risk.

Officials say the shutdown is necessary to stem the spread of the coronavirus. India has reported more than 1,500 cases and 38 deaths from the outbreak.

But rights groups have criticized the government over what they say has been inadequate planning ahead of the lockdown.

“You cannot impose such drastic measures on a population the size of India all of a sudden,” said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of Housing and Land Rights Network, a non-profit group that works with the homeless.

“In shelters, we face serious challenges such as the lack of adequate space and sanitation,” she said. “If one person in a shelter gets infected, it’s going to be very hard to control its spread.”

‘URGENT REQUIREMENT’

While some cities like Delhi and Chennai have several homeless shelters, in other parts of the country, like Mumbai, many are stranded on the streets, rights groups say.

Some states are now scrambling to put the homeless in tents in parks, or at schools and other vacant spaces.

In the eastern city of Kolkata, a municipal councillor said government-run homeless shelters were all packed and there was no way of keeping people apart as a coronavirus precaution.

The Delhi government said in an order last week that social distancing must be “strictly followed” at the 200 odd night shelters across the city. But at least four shelters Reuters visited this week said they were struggling to follow the orders given the numbers of people seeking help.

“How do we do social distancing? If we separate them we will have to let many of them go,” said a manager at one shelter with a capacity of 500 people.

The federal Ministry of Urban Affairs only issued an order on March 28 – four days after the lockdown began – telling state governments there was “an urgent requirement” to support the homeless, according to a copy seen by Reuters.

While the government has outlined a $22.6 billion stimulus plan that provides for direct cash transfers and food security measures for the poor, many activists say it is unclear how many homeless, many of whom lack documentation, would get any aid.

MOST VULNERABLE

Doctors and health experts say the homeless are among the most at risk from the virus as many already suffer from illnesses such as tuberculosis, and their morbidity rates are higher than for the general population.

“How does one quarantine someone who has no home, or someone who lives cheek to jowl with 10 others in a small room?” said Dr Zarir Udwadia, an infectious diseases specialist in Mumbai, who has been treating coronavirus patients.

“Poverty and overcrowding like ours are likely catalysts for the COVID-19 explosion we anticipate with trepidation,” he said.

The spread of coronavirus among such a population would be terrifying, warned Indu Prakash Singh, a member of the Supreme Court’s urban poverty monitoring committee.

“In any pandemic these are first people to be hit,” he said calling efforts to tackle the issue “slipshod”.

Many of those on the streets view the coronavirus with a grim fatalism.

“Some of us will die, some of us will live to suffer,” said Zakir Hussain, a 45-year-old laborer, standing near a homeless shelter in Delhi.

“We are poor. We’ve been left here to die. Our lives are of no value to anyone.”

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India event sparks massive search for Covid-19 cases

Officials across India are searching for hundreds of people who attended a religious event in the capital that has set off several Covid-19 clusters.

At least six regions have reported cases that can be directly traced to the days-long congregation at a mosque.

Delhi officials are now clearing the building, where more than 1,000 people have been stranded since the government imposed a lockdown last week.

At least 24 have tested positive so far, the state health minister said.

They are among some 300 people who showed symptoms and have been moved to various hospital to be tested, he told the media. Another 700 have been shifted into quarantine centres, he added.

It is believed that the infections were caused by preachers who attended the event from Indonesia.

State officials have called for action to be taken against mosque officials, but they have denied any wrongdoing.

Local media reports say that Nizamuddin – the locality where the mosque is located – has been cordoned off and more than 35 buses carrying people to hospitals or quarantine centres.

The congregation – part of a 20th Century Islamic movement called Tablighi Jamaat – began at the end of February, but some of the main events were held in early March.

It’s unclear if the event was ticketed or even if the organisers maintained a roster of visitors as people attended the event throughout, with some staying on and others leaving. Even overseas visitors, some of them preachers, travelled to other parts of the country where they stayed in local mosques and met people.

So officials have no easy way of finding out how many people attended the event or where they went. But they have already begun to trace and test.

The southern state of Telangana reported on Sunday night that six people who had attended the event died from the virus. The state’s medical officer told the BBC that more than 40 of Telangana’s 71 cases were either directly or indirectly linked to the event.

Indian-administered Kashmir reported its first death from the virus last week – a 65-year-old who had been in Delhi for the congregation. Officials told BBC Urdu that more than 40 of the region’s 48 cases could be traced back to that one patient.

A cluster has even appeared in the distant Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where six of the nine who have tested positive, had returned from the Delhi event.

The southern states of Tami Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have said more than 3,000 people from their states had attended the event, and Tamil Nadu has traced 16 positive patients to it.

States have also asked other people who attended to come forward for testing.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has asked for a police complaint to be registered against the head of the mosque.

However, the event’s organisers have issued a statement, saying they had suspended the event and asked everyone to leave as soon as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that there would be a day-long national curfew on 22 March.

While many were able to leave, they say, others were stranded because states began to seal their borders the following day, and two days later, India imposed a 21-day lockdown, suspending buses and trains.

The mosque’s premises include dormitories that can house hundreds of people.

The organisers say they informed the local police about all of this and continued to cooperate with medical officers who came to inspect the premises.

The mosque, the statement says, “never violated any provision of law, and always tried to act with compassion and reason towards the visitors who came to Delhi from different states. It did not let them violate the medical guidelines by thronging ISBTs (bus stops) or roaming on streets.”

This is not the first time religious congregations have been blamed for the spread of coronavirus.

Tablighi Jamaat events have also been blamed for spreading cases in Indonesia and Malaysia.

And in South Korea, many positive cases were linked to the Schincheonji church, a secretive religious sect, that has since apologised for its role in the outbreak.

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