India will begin the world's largest lockdown today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in a TV address, warning citizens to stay inside or risk inviting the pandemic into their homes, and pledging US$2 billion ($3.4b) to bolster the country's beleaguered healthcare system.

"To save India and every Indian, there will be a total ban on venturing out," Modi said, acknowledging that the 21-day lockdown would be a major blow to the economy, but insisting that the alternative could set the country back 21 years.

The move puts nearly one-fifth of the world's population under lockdown.

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The announcement set off panic in many neighbourhoods as people rushed to markets to stock up on supplies. At many places, police tried to disperse crowds outside stores.

Indian health officials have reported 469 active cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and 10 deaths. Officials have repeatedly insisted there is no evidence yet of localised spread but have conducted relatively scant testing for the disease.

In a country where tens of millions live in dense urban areas with irregular access to clean water, experts have said local spreading is inevitable.

For weeks, while the coronavirus wracked neighbouring China and other parts of Asia, India's official infection toll stood at just three, all students in the Chinese epicentre, Wuhan, who were treated in their home state of Kerala and recovered from the disease.

But since the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, triggering India's Government to invoke a British Raj-era epidemic act giving it sweeping powers to contain the disease, the cases have been growing rapidly and, according to Modi, have the potential to "spread like wildfire."

In recent days, India had gradually expanded stay-at-home orders, banned international and domestic flights and suspended passenger service on its extensive rail system until March 31.

Modi called the new order a "total lockdown" and did not address whether any service providers would be exempt, but said that "all steps have been taken by central and state government to ensure supply of essential items."

The ministry of home affairs said essential services including grocery stores, banks, ATMs and gas stations will remain open. It said no more than 20 people will be permitted to attend funerals.
It was not clear what the lockdown would mean for about 300 million Indians who according to official data live below the poverty line.

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Indian finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said a comprehensive relief package would be announced soon.

- AP

Covid19.govt.nz: The NZ Government's official Covid-19 advisory website