Although the spread of Covid-19 in India has not been rapid so far, the disease has typically spiked in other countries about three weeks after the first clusters of infections were detected.
India on Saturday declared the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak a disaster, freeing up resources and funds to battle the spread of the infection that has sparked the shutdown of travel, schools and offices across the country, as two fresh cases took the total number of infections to 84 at a time when questions remain over the efficacy of containment efforts in the country.
Although the spread of Covid-19 in India has not been rapid so far, the disease has typically spiked in other countries about three weeks after the first clusters of infections were detected. With the first surge in India reported in early March, the country enters what could be its most vulnerable phase over the course of the next week.
About a dozen states are now in partial lockdown, but some experts say that if a more stringent pre-emptive lockdown is not enforced across the country, the public health system could crumble under the load of an exponential spike in the number of patients needing intensive care.
On Saturday, the Union health ministry said two fresh cases – one each in Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir – took the total confirmed infections to 84. “Out of 84 positive cases in the country, 10 people have fully recovered and have been discharged. Contact tracing of these cases has led to the identification of over 4,000 contacts who have been put under surveillance,” said Sanjeeva Kumar, special secretary at the health ministry.
The Centre also announced its decision to treat the coronavirus outbreak as a “notified disaster” for the purpose of providing assistance under the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF). The disaster management division of the home ministry issued a letter to the chief secretaries of all states. “The central government, keeping in view the spread of COVID-19 virus in India and the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), by way of a special one-time dispensation, has decided to treat it as a notified disaster for the purpose of providing assistance under SDRF,” the notification said.
While an initial statement said ex-gratia relief of ~4 lakh would be provided to the families of the dead, the government reissued a modified order later with no mention of the compensation amount.
The home ministry said the State Executive Committees “will decide the number of quarantine camps, their duration and the number of persons in such camps”. “Period can be extended by the committee beyond the prescribed limit subject to condition that expenditure on this account should not exceed 25% of SDRF allocation for the year,” the notification added.
The Centre said that funds can be withdrawn for setting up additional testing laboratories within the government set-up. The states will have to bear the cost of personal protection equipment for health care, municipal, police and fire services. The government also allowed the states to use SDRF money for procuring thermal scanners and other necessary equipment.
The coronavirus infection, which is believed to have originated at a seafood market in China’s Wuhan in December last year, has so far spread to more than 100 countries, infected about 150,000 people and claimed at least 5,500 lives. While Wuhan took the biggest hit from the outbreak, WHO said on Friday that Europe had become the new epicentre of the public health crisis.
With 1,500 new cases in 24 hours, Spain decided on Saturday to follow Italy in declaring a nationwide lockdown to slow the accelerating spread of the coronavirus epidemic. The decision came as European countries took ever more severe, though widely varying, measures to reduce contact between their citizens and slow the pandemic. China continued to ease lockdown measures in its hardest-hit region.
Views of empty streets, shuttered shops and a heavy silence greeted Italians from their windows as the country spends its first weekend under lockdown in a bid to contain its coronavirus outbreak. Since Monday, the country, which has recorded over 21,000 infections and at least 1,400 deaths from the virus, has enacted a set of sweeping measures that have left millions virtually confined to their homes.
Rwanda’s health ministry, meanwhile, said on Saturday that an Indian citizen tested positive — the first case reported in the central African nation. Authorities said the man showed no symptoms when he arrived in Rwanda from Mumbai on March 8. It said that on March 13 the man checked himself into a health facility, where he was immediately tested, and is now in stable condition.
Experts say aggressive and widespread testing in India could prove to be a make-or-break measure in stopping Covid-19 transmission from turning into an acute community transmission.
There are plans to involve the private sector in diagnostics, quarantine and isolation of cases. Currently, the government testing infrastructure appears to be highly underutilised.
Over the past few days, Indian state authorities have ordered the closure of public buildings, cinemas and bars in several cities, and major sporting events have also been postponed. Several states have announced more limited restrictions, including the closure of some schools. On Saturday, Himachal Pradesh and Goa joined the list of states that have announced the curbs.
In New Delhi, the health ministry official said seven people who tested positive, five from Uttar Pradesh and one each from Rajasthan and Delhi, have now been discharged after treatment. Delhi has reported seven positive cases and Uttar Pradesh 12 so far. Kerala has recorded 19 cases, including three patients who were discharged last month after they recovered from the highly contagious infection.
The total confirmed cases include 17 foreigners – 16 Italian tourists and a Canadian, according to the government.
At a news briefing on Saturday afternoon, Kumar said there have been cases of people not willing to be quarantined despite coming in contact with people testing positive.
A video conference of Saarc leaders to frame a strategy to counter the coronavirus crisis,proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will also be held on Sunday evening. All seven other members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) endorsed the proposal made by Modi on Friday. Pakistan, the last member- state to agree, has said its de facto health minister will join the video conference.