India’s Virus Emergency Is Only Just Beginning

Ruth Pollard
·5-min read

(Bloomberg) --

It’s a mass exodus not seen since the days following India’s independence in 1947.

Hundreds of thousands of the country’s poorest citizens are walking long distances from cities back to their villages, carrying what little they have on their shoulders along major highways. Many lost their jobs and housing virtually overnight after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week lockdown on March 24.

The decision is aimed at stopping the spread of Covid-19 in a country of 1.3 billion people, a fifth of the globe’s population. But in a nation with a large proportion of people reliant on informal work in cities that is now drying up, the lockdown is also sparking a humanitarian crisis — and a potential health emergency, as Muneeza Naqvi and P.R. Sanjai report.

India has very low coronavirus testing rates, so experts say it’s impossible to know the real rate of infection. The mass movement of people risks speeding up the virus’s transmission, threatening to overwhelm India’s overcrowded, understaffed and often rundown hospitals.

Modi’s unprecedented move may only provide temporary respite for those who could afford to stay put. Unlike China, India will struggle to quickly ramp up its medical infrastructure to cope with vast numbers of critically ill people.

Doctors say it’s a matter of time before that reality bites.

Global Headlines

Backing off | President Donald Trump abruptly abandoned his ambition to return life to normal by Easter, heeding advice from top doctors that re-opening the U.S. economy in two weeks risks causing a higher number of deaths. He said “social distancing” guidelines would remain until at least April 30, and he warned that 100,000 or more people may die.

Amid an outcry from civil rights groups and a threat of legal action from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Rhode Island repealed an order for the police to stop cars with New York license plates and will instead halt all cars entering the state at certain locations. Click here for more on how Cuomo’s virus response has left some Democrats seeing him as potentially better positioned to take on Trump in November than presumptive nominee Joe Biden.

Deadly weekend | The pandemic claimed more than 3,000 lives in Italy and Spain over the weekend, with increasing strains on health-care systems. European officials warned against loosening lockdowns, while finance ministers are expected to discuss the way forward this week, though there's little scope for fresh action as governments implore people to stay home.

Russia moved toward a nationwide lockdown, following Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s order for residents to stay home. Australia unleashed a record $80 billion jobs-rescue plan, pledging to subsidize wages as the outbreak wreaks havoc on the economy.

Slow shift | Stung by global criticism for his relaxed approach to the virus, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is now sending home nonessential state employees. But even as the leftist populist promises no more hugs and advocates hand washing, he’s urged traditional markets to stay open. AMLO’s dilemma, Andrea Navarro writes, is that for the many Mexicans employed in the informal economy, not working means they may not be able to eat.

Chess pieces | The Kremlin’s sudden shift of ownership of multi-billion-dollar oil projects in Venezuela shields oil giant Rosneft from further U.S. sanctions but keeps Moscow firmly behind President Nicolas Maduro. Rosneft, which produces 40% of Russian oil and has major exposure in the western financial system, is turning over its Venezuelan projects to an unnamed state-owned company in what it calls an effort to protect shareholders’ interests.

Poisoned partnership? | On March 18, General Motors Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra told Trump’s top economic adviser that the automaker might be able to help make much-needed ventilators. But less than 10 days later, Trump accused GM of foot-dragging and price-gouging in its effort to replenish the supply of medical equipment. David Welch has the inside story on what went wrong.

Trump alleged yesterday that a New York hospital lost protective masks or even allowed them to be stolen, questioning how demand could have spiked so rapidly during the outbreak. The Pentagon is struggling to stay ahead of the pandemic as missteps start piling up and the Navy sidelines an aircraft carrier.

What to Watch This Week

North Korea’s firing of two short-range missiles yesterday marked the fourth such launch this month. Nigeria has put its capital Abuja and the city of Lagos — Africa’s biggest with about 20 million people — on lockdown in a bid to slow the coronavirus in the continent’s most populous nation. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is set to win parliament’s approval today to rule indefinitely by decree, effectively putting the European Union member under his sole rule for as long as he sees fit. A deputy minister in Poland said the nation’s presidential election can’t be held on May 10, becoming the first government official to openly voice such a possibility. The main challenger has called for a boycott. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a government are gaining pace, with two Labor party lawmakers slated to receive cabinet portfolios in exchange for joining the coalition, Israeli media are reporting.

Thanks to all who responded to our pop quiz Friday and congratulations to Raphael Muchunu Mwangi, who was the first to name Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro as the leader who echoed Trump in calling for an early restart of his economy. Tell us how we’re doing or what we’re missing at

And finally ... A Hong Kong broadcaster’s interview with a senior World Health Organization official went viral after he appeared to hang up when asked about Taiwan’s membership status in light of the Covid-19 outbreak. The footage showed Bruce Aylward saying he couldn’t hear properly and asking the reporter to skip to the next question. It then showed the line disconnecting after the reporter said she’d like to hear more about Taiwan. The WHO later said such issues are up to member nations, not its staff.

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