Epidemic Act, complete visa cancellations: India's battle against the coronavirus

More than 60 cases have been reported in India so far

airport-security corona pti A medic uses a thermal-screening device on a passenger in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, at an airport in Dibrugarh, Assam | PTI

India has been facing a surge in coronavirus infections, with more than 60 cases so far, almost 15 of them tourists from Italy. India reported 10 new cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday, even as the country prohibited till March 31 entry of international cruise ships, crew or passenger with a travel history to coronavirus-hit nations. However, as per state health officials, the number of confirmed cases maybe up to 65.

Among the fresh cases, eight were from Kerala and one each from Delhi and Rajasthan since Tuesday, the Union health ministry said and gave state-wise breakup which included five (Delhi), nine (Uttar Pradesh), four (Karnataka) and two in Ladakh. While the Union ministry maintained that there are two confirmed cases of the infection in Maharashtra, the state health officials put the number to seven. Rajasthan, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab have reported one case each. Kerala has till now reported 17 cases, including the three patients who were discharged last month following recovery. 

As the infection continued to spread its tentacles in the country, state governments and UTs' took number of initiatives to check and prevent the spread of the infection. 

Epidemic Act 

In a measure meant to arrest the growth in cases, the cabinet secretary stated that all states and Union Territories should invoke provisions of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. The British-era Act ensures that all advisories issued by the Union health ministry and state governments from time to time are enforceable.

When at any time 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, the State Government, if it thinks that the ordinary provisions of the law for the time being in force arc insufficient for the purpose, may take, or require or empower any person to take, such measures and, by public notice, prescribe such temporary regulations to be observed by, the public or by any person or class of persons as 8[it] shall deem necessary to prevent the outbreak of such disease or the spread thereof, and may determine in what manner and by whom any expenses incurred (including compensation if any) shall be defrayed, according to the Act, the initial purpose of which was to fight an outbreak of the plague. 

The decision was taken at a meeting organised here by the cabinet secretary. It was attended by secretaries of departments concerned, representatives from Army, ITBP among others. "It was decided that all states/UTs should be advised by MoHFW to invoke provisions of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 so that all advisories being issued from time to time by the ministry of health/State/UTs are enforceable," the ministry said in a statement.

Suspension of all visas

India suspended all visas, except a few categories such as diplomatic and employment, till April 15 in a bid to contain the spread of the disease. The government also "strongly advised" Indians to avoid all non-essential travel abroad. The suspension will come into effect from March 13. Visas of all foreigners already in India remain valid. The decisions were taken at a meeting of a group of ministers held here under the chairmanship of Health Minister Harsh Vardhan.

Following the meeting, the bureau of immigration in a statement said, "All existing visas issued to nationals of any country, except those issued to diplomats, officials, UN/International organisations, employment and project visas, stand suspended till  April 15th, 2020. This will come into effect from 1200 GMT on March 13th, 2020 at the port of departure of any foreigner for onward journey to India."

Visa-free travel facility granted to Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) card holders is also kept in abeyance till April 15. 

Travel/Arrival measures tightened

The government advised the incoming travellers, including Indian nationals, to avoid non-essential travel and told them that they can be quarantined for a minimum of 14 days on their arrival in India.  "Indian nationals are strongly advised to avoid all non-essential travel abroad. On their return, they can be subjected to quarantine for a minimum of 14 days," it said. International traffic through land borders will be restricted to designated check posts with robust screening facilities. 

A high-level Group of Ministers (GOM), constituted on the directions of the prime minister  to review the measures against coronavirus, held a meeting on Wednesday. The meeting was held under the chairpersonship of Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan.

Minister of Civil Aviation Hardeep Singh Puri, Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Minister of State for Home Nityananda Rai were also present in the meeting. A presentation of the status of COVID-19 was made to the GOM.  The action taken for prevention and management of COVID-19 in India were presented, which included information about the various travel advisories issued in view of the evolving global situation regarding the disease, the ministry said in a statement.

As a measure of prevention, the meeting reiterated that passengers with travel history to China, Hong Kong, Republic of Korea, Japan, Italy, Thailand, Singapore, Iran, Malaysia, France, Spain and Germany should undergo self-imposed quarantine for a period of 14 days from the date of their arrival, and their employers should facilitate work-from-home for such employees during this period, the ministry said.

Health secretary Preeti Sudan apprised the GoM that the states/UTs are advised to do rigorous IEC (Information, Education and Communication) and make people aware about the precautions, symptoms and helpline numbers. The identification of additional quarantine facilities, development of isolation wards, training of health workers and doctors are also being undertaken, she said. 

The official said universal screening is being done for travellers from 12 countries for all the flights from China, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Nepal, Indonesia, Iran and Italy at the earmarked aero-bridges. 

-Inputs from PTI

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