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India Observes 14 Hours Of Self-Quarantine

Can a single day of "encouraged" social distancing save a country of 1.3 billion people from the coronavirus?

That's at least what Prime Minister Narendra Modi sees as the first step in combating the virus in India.

On Sunday, millions across India self-quarantined themselves in their homes after Modi appealed to citizens to observe March 22 as "Janta curfew," or a voluntary "public curfew" day, to demonstrate support both for social distancing and the nation's medical community.

"To not follow these guidelines would be an injustice to your family and loved ones," Modi said last week. "Leave your house only if it is essential."

While public health experts caution that such a narrow window of observance will do little to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, some residents voiced hope that a designated day for social distancing will drive home the seriousness of the situation in cities and in rural areas, where close to 70% of the population lives.

Social media was flooded with posts of Indians coming on to their balconies on Sunday to express gratitude for doctors, nurses and operators of essential services.

"He (Modi) did that to get the local people at the lowest level to understand that this is an emergency," said Tanisha Fagwani, a Mumbai resident. Prior to Modi's announcement, Fagwani said that many of her friends and coworkers did not fully grasp the concept of social distancing.

Of the more than 375 confirmed cases in India, at least 74 are in the state of Maharashtra. In its capital Mumbai, one of the most densely populated cities in India, six more cases were confirmed on Sunday. The city is home to an estimated 12 million people and the largest slum in Asia.

However, in villages 120 miles northwest of the capital New Delhi, the virus is viewed by many as a disease of the elite, said Mohit Sharma. He said that things around his village seemed "business as usual."

"Unless there is strict enforcement by official forces, appeals won't work in villages," said Sharma, who works in Hisar for the opposition party Indian National Congress. "If it enters the village, it will become a very tough situation."

Sharma is among those who have been critical of Modi's response to the pandemic, describing Sunday's call for social distancing as "a show."

"The government has totally failed," Sharma said. "... For common man and people below the poverty line, he did not announce any economic relief or food assistance programs."

At least 80 cities in India have decided to impose some form of lockdown until March 31st. These cities have agreed to suspend public transportation like trains, metros and bus services. Most states have shut down malls, movie halls and non-essential establishments. Only essential services like gas stations, pharmacies, police stations will be allowed to operate during the lockdown.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.