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Britain Shuts Down and India Locks Down to Contain COVID-19

In a major reversal, Prime Minister Boris Johnson dramatically strengthened his policies on containing the pandemic, ordering residents on Monday to stay at home and closing nonessential businesses. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of Inda went further.
March 26, 2020, 7am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Millennium Bridge
An. eerily empty Millennium Bridge in London, pictured on March 19.

"Facing a growing storm of criticism about his laissez-faire response to the fast-spreading coronavirus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday that he would place Britain under a virtual lockdown, closing all nonessential shops, banning meetings of more than two people, and requiring people to stay in their homes, except for trips for food or medicine," report Mark Landler and Stephen Castle for The New York Times.

People who flout the new restrictions, the prime minister said, will be fined by the police.

But while these were the most draconian restrictions placed on the British people since World War II, Mr. Johnson is still leaving a bit of breathing room.

On Tuesday, the United Kingdom had 8,164 cases, the tenth highest in the world, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. However, the increase in new cases, 2,419 since Sunday, was 42 percent, second highest in the world after the United States, which saw an increase of 16,930, or 51 percent, according to The Washington Post coronavirus tracker, which shows the death toll at 423 for the U.K. and 606 for the United States.

The "breathing room" in the British measures that Landler and Castle note also applies to all the stay at home orders in the United States issued by governors, county public health officers, and mayors that cover 175 million people living in 17 states26 counties, and 10 cities. Residents are free to go outside to exercise and visit parks, though California Gov. Gavin Newsom took action to close parks on Monday, well, sort-of.

The restrictions, though enforceable, don't require people who leave their homes to carry documents, the key distinction between a shutdown (of nonessential services) and a "lockdown" like Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte did in Italy on March 10.

The measures took effect immediately on March 23. "We will look again in three weeks, and relax them if the evidence shows we are able to," stated Johnson.


"In a speech Tuesday night, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made clear that the country was at a crucial juncture," report Joanna Slater and Niha Masih for The Washington Post. “If we don’t manage these 21 days, the country will be set back by 21 years,” he said.

His emotional appeal to citizens not to step out of their homes did not include specifics about how they would meet basic needs. That immediately provoked frantic buying at grocery stores, which remain open as essential services.

Less than an hour after his speech, Modi wrote in a tweet that there was no need for panic and that authorities would ensure access to food and medicine.

In the prime minister's announcement, he noted "that even those nations with the best of the medical facilities could not contain the virus and that the social distancing is the only option to mitigate it."

The three-week lockdown, which took effect Tuesday at midnight, stopped all train and bus service serving the nation of 1.3 billion. The lockdown was praised by Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program.

"Large, densely populated countries such as India will determine “the future of this pandemic," said Ryan (see video.) He noted the historic roles the country led in eradicating smallpox and the effort to eliminate polio.

"It's really important that India continues to take aggressive action at the public health level and at the level of society to contain, control, supress this disease and to save lives."

"There are no silver bullets here. There are no easy answers...These are measures we can take now while we wait for other solutions, and we must taken them now."

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Published on Tuesday, March 24, 2020 in The New York Times
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