The Union Government has elected to effectively shut India off from the rest of the world, coming on the heels of the declaration of the World Health Organization (WHO) that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has reached pandemic proportions.
The global scope of the coronavirus pandemic
Speaking yesterday, World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “in the past two weeks, the number of cases of COVID-19 outside China has increased thirteen-fold, and the number of affected countries has tripled…in the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher.
“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic” – a term, he added, “is not…to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.” The WHO warned recently of the ‘very real’ threat of a coronavirus pandemic.
At the time of writing, the coronavirus pandemic has infected in excess of 129,000 people and claimed 4,749 lives. Fortunately, 68,667 people have recovered from the virus. However, 55,762 active cases remain. Of these patients, ninety percent are in mild condition translating to 50,460 cases. The remaining ten percent of cases refer to 5,711 patients who are in serious or critical condition.
The pandemic in India
Confirmed coronavirus cases in India stand at 74 at the time of writing. No confirmed fatality due to the coronavirus has been reported in the country thus far. 1,057,506 people have been screened for COVID-19 till date. Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan reported on Twitter that between 30,000 and 35,000 people are being monitored.
Cases are dispersed across multiple states and union territories (UTs), with infected individuals inclusive of seventeen foreign nationals. Presently, seventeen cases have been reported in Kerala; fourteen in Haryana; eleven apiece in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh; six in Delhi; four in Karnataka; and three apiece in Rajasthan and Ladakh. Andhra Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana have reported one case apiece. “We are in touch with the state governments and every state shares complete information with the Centre every day,” Vardhan affirmed.
State and union territory governments have been directed by the Cabinet Secretary to invoke the provisions of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1987. This states
“When the state government is satisfied that the state or any part thereof is visited by or threatened with an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease; and if it thinks that the ordinary provisions of the law are insufficient for the purpose, then the state may take, or require or empower any person to take some measures and by public notice prescribe such temporary regulations to be observed by the public. The state government may prescribe regulations for the inspection of persons travelling by railway or otherwise, and the segregation, in hospital, temporary accommodation or otherwise, of persons suspected by the inspecting officer of being infected with any such disease.”
The Government explained that, by invoking the Act, “all advisories being issued from time to time by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare/State/UTs are enforceable.”
In another move to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country, the Union Government has taken the step of suspending all visas and e-visas for foreign nationals with some exceptions. As explained in a Government-issued advisory, “all existing visas issued to nationals of any country except those issued to diplomats, officials, UN/International organisations, employment, project visas stand suspended till April 15, 2020. This will come into effect from 12.00 GMT on March 13, 2020 at the port of departure of any foreigner for onward journey to India.”
“Say no to panic, say yes to precautions”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken to Twitter to appeal to the populace for calm. “Say no to panic, say yes to precautions. No Minister of the Central Government will travel abroad in the upcoming days. I urge our countrymen to also avoid non-essential travel. We can break the chain of spread and ensure safety of all by avoiding large gatherings.”
Modi also tweeted that “the Government is fully vigilant about the situation due to COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus. Across ministries and states, multiple steps have been proactively taken to ensure safety of all. These steps are wide-ranging, from suspension of Visas to augmenting healthcare capacities.”
Tedros has reasserted the call to global action. “We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled, at the same time. WHO has been in full response mode since we were notified of the first cases. And we have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.”
For countries, Tedros’s message is emphatic. “We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilise their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission.
“Even those countries with community transmission or large clusters can turn the tide on this virus. Several countries have demonstrated that this virus can be suppressed and controlled. The challenge for many countries who are now dealing with large clusters or community transmission is not whether they can do the same – it’s whether they will.”