India bans incoming international flights for a week over virus

Passengers wearing face masks amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, stand outside the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, on March 16, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - The Indian government will ban all international flights to India for a week starting Sunday (March 22), just one of the slew of very strict measures enacted to prevent mass coronavirus outbreak.

Senior citizens above the age of 65 have also been asked to stay at home, while parents have been told to keep children under the age of 10 at home, the government said on Thursday (March 19) in the latest of many guidelines it has issued.

The government has also asked private companies to let employees work from home, with the exception of emergency and essential service providers, while 50 per cent of government officials have been asked to come in on alternate days and at staggered timings.

The guidelines come ahead of a highly anticipated address to the nation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his first, later in the day.

India, so far, has 149 cases of Covid-19 and four fatalities.

The south Asian country is seen to be doing well with the number of cases still low compared to the country's 1.35 billion population, although questions have been raised over whether there are many more cases and enough testing has been done for the virus.

India started restricting the movement of people into the country last week. It started with temperature screening of travellers arriving from a handful of countries including Singapore before extending screenings to all international arrivals on March 3.

The government then banned flights from the European Union, Turkey and the United Kingdom on March 17, followed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Afghanistan on Wednesday.

According to the government, those who have tested positive so far have history of travel abroad or have been in contact with someone who has travelled abroad.

The Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), a government body, has maintained that there is as yet no evidence of community transmission meaning the virus has not spread through the population.

"There is no community transmission in this country as of today. The conscious effort of the government has seen to it that cases don't increase, even if we have some travel-related cases," said Mr Lav Agarwal, joint Secretary in the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare.

Still amid worries over whether enough tests are being carried, the official said at a briefing that private test labs that have "quality parameters and infrastructure" are being identified. So far testing has been going on in government centres.

Individual states in India have also been taking their own measures.

The northern state of Punjab, which recorded India latest and fourth fatality on Thursday - a 72-year-old man with a history of travel to Germany and transit through Italy - suspended public transport and restricted the size of any gatherings to under 20.

In different parts of India, otherwise busy areas have recorded very low footfall as people have preferred to stay indoors and practice social distancing.

Schools, colleges, theatres, malls and shopping areas have been shut across the country. The Taj Mahal and other monuments have been closed to visitors.

Indians have been stranded overseas due to the travel bans, but the message from the Indian government has been to stay put.

"If you analyse the gravity of the situation, it's not advisable for people to move from one region to another. We need to understand these restrictions are temporary," said Mr Dammu Ravi, additional secretary and coordinator for Covid-19 in the Ministry of External Affairs.

"One should not panic. Our advice is to stay put. Our missions and ambassadors are supporting stranded Indians wherever they are to the extent possible we are doing our best."

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