India cites need for exceptional action in wake of travel ban

NEW DELHI (The Straits Times/ANN) - India, the world's second-most populous country, has 74 reported cases of Covid-19, with infections in different parts of the country. The Health Ministry said 57 are Indian nationals, while 17 are foreigners.

A day after India announced a travel ban to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said yesterday that "exceptional situations require exceptional responses".

The Delhi and Haryana authorities have declared Covid-19 an epidemic. Delhi has shut down all schools, colleges and cinemas until March 31.

On Wednesday evening, India released an advisory saying that all existing visas - except diplomatic, official, United Nations/international organisations, employment and project visas - would be suspended until April 15 on the heels of the World Health Organisation declaring the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic that same day.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted yesterday: "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."

The country also suspended until April 15 visa-free travel afforded to those with Overseas Citizen of India status, which permits foreign citizens of Indian origin to travel and live in India. This takes effect today. It strongly advised Indians to avoid non-essential travel and warned they could be quarantined for 14 days on their return.

Many of those who have tested positive for the virus have a history of travel to Italy, which has gone into lockdown, or other countries such as the United Arab Emirates.

"The reason for this (ban) is obvious - all the cases so far have come directly from those who have a travel history," Mr Jaishankar said in a statement in the Lower House of Parliament.

"In doing so, we are clear that we will do whatever must be done to ensure that the spread of coronavirus is restricted and the health security of India ensured."

India, the world's second-most populous country, has 74 reported cases of Covid-19, with infections in different parts of the country. The Health Ministry said 57 are Indian nationals, while 17 are foreigners.

"Right now, luckily for India, we do not have any community transmission. We have only a few cases that have come from outside, and they have primarily affected their close family members," said Mr Luv Aggarwal, joint secretary in the Health Ministry.

Officials said what would qualify as a reason for essential travel - for health purposes, a wedding or because of sickness in the family, for instance - would be decided by Indian missions abroad, should Indian nationals contact them.

There was widespread support for the government's decision to impose a travel ban.

Said Mr Siddhartha Bhattacharya, secretary-general of the Healthcare Federation of India: "Absolutely, you would need to arrest the momentum of this spread. These are recommended preventive measures by WHO - social distancing, looking at guarding points of entry... You are doing active surveillance... These are required and sustained on an active footing."

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