India’s 1.3 billion locked down as US reaches virus aid deal

NEW DELHI (AP) – The world’s largest democracy went under the world’s biggest lockdown yesterday, with India’s 1.3 billion people ordered to stay home in a bid to stop the coronavirus pandemic, while in the United States (US), lawmakers and the White House agreed on a massive USD2 trillion domestic aid package to help those impacted by the outbreak.

India’s unprecedented move was aimed at keeping the virus from spreading and overwhelming its fragile health care system as it has done in parts of Europe, where infections were still surging. New York, meanwhile, scrambled to set up thousands of new hospital beds, and organisers delayed this summer’s Tokyo Olympics until next year.

Financial markets continued their wild swings, with Asian benchmarks gaining yesterday after Wall Street posted its best day since 1933 in anticipation of the economic rescue package.

The deal would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a USD367 billion programme for small businesses to keep making payroll.

In India, everything but essential services like supermarkets were shuttered. Normally bustling railway stations in New Delhi were deserted and streets that just hours before were jumbled with honking cars were eerily silent with just a trickle of pedestrians.

An Indian paramilitary soldier during lockdown in Srinagar. PHOTO: AP

“Delhi looks like a ghost town,” said Nishank Gupta, a lawyer. “I have never seen the city so quiet before.”

India has about 450 cases of the virus, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned that if he didn’t act now it could set the country back decades.

In Washington, top White House aide Eric Ueland announced the economic agreement in a Capitol hallway shortly after midnight. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are done. We have a deal,” Ueland said.

The deal came after days of haggling and still needed to be finalised in detailed legislative language. One of the last issues to be decided concerned USD500 billion for guaranteed, subsidised loans to larger industries, including a fight over how generous to be with airlines that have been rocked by a near shutdown of travel.

Hospitals would get significant help as well.

With Americans’ lives and livelihoods hanging in the balance, President Donald Trump said he hoped to reopen the country in less than three weeks.

“I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said during a Fox News virtual town hall.