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Explained: How SAARC countries are fighting COVID-19

From India going into total lockdown to the Taliban saying they will cooperate with the Afghanistan government, here is how the SAARC countries are coping.

Written by Neha Banka | New Delhi | Updated: March 26, 2020 4:20:54 pm
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Since it was first detected in Wuhan, China, in December last year, COVID-19 has spread across the world, barring a handful of countries. Many analysts believe it is more likely that cases in these nations have not yet been detected.

Frequent international travel and greater connectivity are two reasons why the disease has spread so rapidly.

With coronavirus making inroads into South Asia by March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed the creation of a SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund. For countries in this intergovernmental organisation, any public health crisis in one nation can potentially severely impact its immediate neighbours.

Within days of the conference call between leaders and representatives of SAARC nations, all, with the exception of Pakistan, had made contributions to the Emergency Fund. indianexpress.com brings a situation report of the region.

INDIA:

By March 25, confirmed COVID-19 cases in India had crossed 600. After a few cases in January, the numbers witnessed a spike in March, all attributed to people who had returned from COVID-19-infected countries or had travelled to India from those countries.

The first reported COVID-19-related death was in Karnataka on March 12, of a 76-year-old man who had returned from Saudi Arabia.

What has India done to tackle COVID-19?

Although the Indian government has received criticism for not having done enough to prevent the spread of infections, the administration had begun implementing measures in January. This included the repatriation of Indian citizens stranded in Wuhan and other affected nations.

Airports across the country began thermal screening of passengers arriving from China, which was later expanded to include other nations with high rates of infections, including South Korea, Japan, and European countries. India’s focus, much like some other nations, has been to monitor and control the entry of travellers into the country.

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On March 3, visas were suspended for citizens of Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan. The next day, India announced compulsory thermal screening for all incoming passengers in the country. Within days, the government instituted a total ban on all visas to India, with the exception of diplomatic, official, United Nations, employment and project visas till April 15. Visa-free travel for OCI card holders was also suspended. Indian nationals flying into the country from COVID-19-impacted countries were asked to submit to a 14-day self-administered quarantine period.

With cases rising, India expanded travel bans to include citizens in the EU, the UK, Turkey, Malaysia, the Philippines and Afghanistan. States like Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh began instituting their own domestic bans on entry for people.

PMRDA Fire Brigade spray disinfectants on streets and housing societies at Bavdhan area as precautionary measure amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 novel corona virus on Monday. (Express photo by Ashish Kale)

Between March 9-13, India closed its land borders and suspended international passenger traffic at border check posts. From the first week of March, various state governments announced measures to limit the gathering of large crowds, by closing educational institutions. By the second week of March, public places like shopping malls, cinema halls, gyms, swimming pools etc. were closed by state governments. School and board examinations were postponed, as were several government entrance examinations. India’s Ministry of Culture also ordered the closure of monuments, culture heritage sites and museums.

On March 23, major cities across the country, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai etc. were placed under curfew to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections. The next day, on March 24, Prime Minister Modi announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days across the country with suspension of all domestic transportation, including inter-state transport, with the exception of essential services like medical and grocery stores.

Kolkata coronavirus news, Kolkata coronavirus lockdown, PM Modi India lockdown, India lockdown Coronavirus, Kolkata city news Shops in Kolkata have downed their shutters in light of the nation-wide lockdown.

However, the government’s plans to institute this three-week lockdown has received criticism on several fronts, including for its possible impact on India’s poor, migrant labour and daily-wage earners.

India’s policy to control the outbreak has largely centered around controlling and interrupting the chain of transmission, and this lockdown is one application of its epidemic management policies.

AFGHANISTAN:

As of March 24, the country has 74 recorded cases of COVID-19 and 1 fatality.

The country recorded its first COVID-19 case when one of the three travellers who had returned from Qom, a holy city in Iran, that has seen some of the highest rates of infections, tested positive. Over the next few weeks, all patients with COVID-19 infections, rising in number with each day, had travel-history to Iran and were largely centered around Herat province in the country. This prompted the Afghanistan government to close its border with Iran on February 23.

Afghanistan, Afghanistan COVID-19, SAARC A volunteer in a protective suit sprays disinfectant outside the offices of a local police station to help curb the spread of coronavirus in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, March 23, 2020. (Photo: AP)

With COVID-19 cases rising, local news reports stated that on March 16, approximately 38 patients had assaulted medical workers and escaped quarantine facilities, including one patient who was reportedly COVID-19 positive. Out of these 38 patients, seven were returned to quarantine the next day.

What steps did Afghanistan take?

Afghanistan recorded its first COVID-19-related death when a 51-year-old Afghan citizen, who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia, died after contracting the virus on March 23. According to a Reuters report, Afghanistan’s head of disease surveillance Sayed Attaullah Sayedzai said that the country had sent COVID-19 tests to the Netherlands for accuracy and had also set up isolation centers in health centers around the country.

By mid-March, the situation in the country prompted Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani to address citizens, urging them to avoid large gatherings in public and maintain personal hygiene. Within days, public spaces like playgrounds, swimming pools, wedding halls and entertainment facilities were closed down. Public awareness drives were launched to inform people of how the virus spreads.

Afghanistan, Afghanistan COVID-19, SAARC A street vendor selling protective masks that could help curb the spread of the new coronvirus waits for customers in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, March 23, 2020. (Photo: AP)

The Taliban temporarily set aside their conflict with the Afghan government and international aid agencies, by expressing concern about the possible spread of the virus in prisons. According to The National newspaper, a Taliban commander in the northern province of Samangam said that their leadership was very concerned about the pandemic. “The Taliban are very serious about this sickness and our fighters are co-operating with public health centres and assisting doctors,” the commander told The National.

“We are asking all returning refugees and those coming from outside the country to get themselves checked. There was one suspicious case here and we made him get checked for the coronavirus. Thankfully, he tested negative,” the commander told the newspaper. According to this news report, in the northern Balkh province in the country, the Taliban also “arrested” a patient who tested positive for COVID-19 and had escaped a local hospital. Local doctors told the newspaper that Taliban insurgents handed the patient back to health officials.

Nowruz celebrations were suspended across Afghanistan and sports events were cancelled. On March 13, Afghanistan closed its land borders with Pakistan.

BANGLADESH:

The first case of COVID-19 in Bangladesh was recorded on March 7, when two Bangladeshi nationals who had returned from Italy tested positive. At least two people who had come in close contact with the patients were put in quarantine. By mid-March, the numbers had increased, most likely due to community transmission that had resulted in patients coming in proximity with people who had returned from overseas, prompting the Bangladesh government to close all educational institutions till the end of the month. School examinations were also postponed.

Bangladesh, Bangladesh COVID-19, SAARC People line up to shop for essential items from a roadside truck Wednesday in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Photo: AP)

What has Bangladesh done to tackle COVID-19?

According to a Reuters report, the Bangladesh government also ordered the closure of one of the world’s largest brothels in Daulatdia, to curb the infection’s spread. The country recorded its first death on March 18 when a patient with pre-existing medical conditions died of COVID-19.

Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star said that the government had ordered the closure of all public and private offices from March 26 to April 4, barring emergency services, hospitals and police stations. Public transport and banking services were limited, and markets were allowed to remain open. Citizens were urged to maintain social distancing. A monitoring cell operating out of the Prime Minister’s Office will be functioning 24×7 to oversee the situation in the country.

Bangladesh, Bangladesh COVID-19, SAARC In this Monday, a policeman urges residents not to come out of their homes as residents stand behind a gate, hours after the second death from COVID-19 was confirmed from the area, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Photo: AP)

As of March 24, Bangladesh has 39 confirmed cases and 4 COVID-19 related fatalities. However, according to an Al Jazeera report, many Bangladeshis are struggling to get themselves tested and the rates of infections could be more than what is being declared in the official count.

BHUTAN

The small land-locked kingdom of Bhutan recorded its first COVID-19 case when a 76-year-old US citizen travelled to the country via India and was hospitalised after showing symptoms on March 5. Local health officials said approximately 90 people in the country may have come in contact with him, including his wife, a driver and a tour guide.

coronavirus, covid 19 india, Bhutan, Bhutan Coronavirus, coronavirus cases in India, indian express, indian express news A woman in Bhutan wears a mask amid COVID-19 outbreak in the country. Express Photo

What steps did Bhutan take to curb spread of COVID-19?

Health officials in Bhutan put the patient’s wife, the driver and the guide under quarantine and raced to trace others whom the patient may have met. According to Bhutan’s government sources, eight Indian nationals who were on the flight with him from India to Bhutan were also traced and put into quarantine.

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Days later, Bhutan announced that the US citizen’s wife had also tested positive for COVID-19, while the driver and the tour guide were still under observation. Restrictions were put in place on all tourists with immediate effect. On March 22, the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, in an address to the nation stated that the country’s land borders would be sealed to contain the spread of the virus.
According to local news reports, schools had been shut down in various parts of the country, including the capital Thimphu, for two weeks. With the exception of the US citizen and his wife, no other COVID-19 cases have been recorded in the country.

MALDIVES:

The island-nation of Maldives confirmed its first COVID-19 case when an Italian tourist returned to Italy and tested positive for the virus in his country. Two resorts that the tourist visited, the Kuredu Island Resort and the Summer Island resort, were put under lockdown. On March 7, tests conducted on employees at the resort showed that at least two had contracted the virus. This resulted in the resorts and the employees being placed under quarantine.

What has the Maldives done to tackle COVID-19?

The Maldives being popular with tourists meant that the resort had a substantial number of employees as well as tourists, and the government was attempting to trace the exact number of foreign nationals who were also under lockdown in the resorts and under automatic quarantine.

With the spread of COVID-19 around the world, starting on February 4, the Maldives began placing travel restrictions on nationals from countries with the highest rates of infections. To date, citizens of China, Italy, South Korea, Bangladesh, Spain, Germany, France, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, the US and the UK have been barred from travelling to the Maldives till further notice.

The Maldives Ministry of Health began engaging in contact tracing and declared a public health emergency on March 12 for a period of 30 days. According to local news reports in the Maldives, most COVID-19 were traced to foreigners who had been on holiday in the innumerable resorts across the country.

According to the health ministry, as of 24 March, there have been 13 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 16 people having been placed in isolation and 574 people in quarantine facilities.

NEPAL

Since COVID-19 was first detected in Nepal in January, there have been only two known cases of the virus. The first patient had been a student who returned from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the pandemic, in the first week of January. After showing symptoms and getting preliminary testing, the student had to wait for at least two more weeks before testing samples that had been sent to Hong Kong for confirmation came back showing he had contracted the virus.

Nepal, Nepal COVID-19, SAARC Nepalese men line up outside a pharmacy to buy face masks which are in high demand due to COVID-19 situation in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo: AP)

Nepal did not have infrastructure to engage in the required testing. The Kathmandu Post reported that the student was released after he recuperated.

How has COVID-19 impacted Nepal?

The next few days tested Nepal’s health and medical infrastructure as it became clear that the country did not have the resources to manage a pandemic like COVID-19. Local hospitals were put on high alert and the Ministry of Health and Population started awareness drives to inform people about how the virus spreads.

Community spread of coronavirus: What is it, and what does it entail?

The country’s second COVID-19 case was recorded in a 19-year-old Nepali student who had returned from France via Qatar on March 17. Nepal’s Minister for Health and Population Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal said that the student had been admitted to the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital in Teku in Kathmandu.

The Kathmandu Post reported that the woman had placed herself under self-quarantine after her return and went to get tested after her roommate in France informed her that she had tested positive for the virus. Test results for the Nepali student in Kathmandu came back positive the next day.

The Nepali government began tracking down people who had come in contact with the student and health workers had to be briefed for precautions when undertaking duties. Reports say that contract tracing is ongoing and the student’s acquaintances fear they may have been exposed to the virus.

Nepal, Nepal COVID-19, SAARC A Nepalese woman walks past pigeons near Patan Durbar square during the first day of a lock down in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19. in Kathmandu, Nepal on Tuesday. (Photo: AP)

By mid-February, Nepal evacuated its citizens stranded in China and placed them into mandatory quarantine for 14 days near the city of Bhaktapur. News reports said that the international airport in Kathmandu did not have the infrastructure to monitor all passengers arriving in the country and there was a shortage of medical supplies, including masks.

On March 1, Nepal suspended visa-on-arrival facilities till the end of March for citizens of China, South Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran. Health check points were established on check posts at the border with India. Sports and cultural programmes were also suspended and the government advised the public to avoid large gatherings.

Within days, Nepal suspended visa-on-arrival facilities for all foreigners, with the exception of official and diplomatic visas. Land borders were closed and Mount Everest was closed off for tracking expeditions. By March 18, Nepal closed schools and universities and ordered examinations to be postponed. All public spaces were closed till further notice.

Markets have been impacted domestically in Nepal because they are heavily reliant on international markets, particularly India and China. Remittances, that form an important part of the country’s economy, have also been impacted due to travel restrictions, along with COVID-19’s impact on various employment sectors like the hospitality industry, construction, etc, around the world.

As of March 24, there have been no reports of other cases or deaths in Nepal.

PAKISTAN:

Pakistan’s first two COVID-19 cases were recorded in two patients who had recently returned from Iran. Within days, three more cases were detected in Rawalpindi but it is not clear if the patients had foreign travel history. Following this, Pakistan suspended all flights to and from Iran.

Coronavirus outbreak, coronavirus pandemic, Coronavirus Covid 19, coronavirus pakistan death toll, coronavirus death, Coronavirus update, Covid 19 news, indian express As on Sunday, the coronavirus pandemic has claimed four lives and infected over 750 people in Pakistan. (Photo: AP)

At land borders with Iran and at international airports, screening measures were put in place. The government also ordered for the establishment of isolation wards in all provinces. The first cluster of cases in Pakistan all had reportedly returned from infected countries.

Within days, the densely-populated country began witnessing a spike in infection numbers, presumably resulting from widespread community transmission.

What advisories did Pakistan’s government give to citizens?

On March 13, Pakistan’s President, Arif-ur-Rehman Alvi, urged citizens to avoid large gatherings and to take precautions in the event of flu-like symptoms. Pakistan also announced that international flights would be operational only from Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore airports. The country also closed its borders with Afghanistan and Iran for 15 days.

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Schools and universities were closed for students but staff and faculty were expected to work as usual. The Pakistan Day parade that is annually held on March 23 was cancelled and the government ordered the closure of other public spaces, gatherings and events.

By March 19, the number of confirmed cases had reached 80, only to continue increasing. On March 20, the first death in a COVID-19 patient was recorded where a 77-year-old patient who had no history of recent foreign travel died. The next death recorded was that of a doctor who had been treating COVID-19 patients in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Few vehicles drive through empty roads due to the travel restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus, wait to receive free food in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on Tuesday. (Photo: AP)

Following the death of the doctor, Radio Pakistan reported that the Gilgit-Baltistan government had ordered the observation of a lockdown in the region, indefinitely. Reports emerged of doctors saying that they did not have adequate protective clothing and gear to treat COVID-19 patients.

On March 21, Pakistan introduced screening of passengers at domestic airports as well. In an address to the nation on March 22, Prime Minister Imran Khan ruled out the possibility of a complete lockdown of the country, stating that it was not feasible because 25 per cent of the country’s population lives below the poverty line.

Across the country, sports events were cancelled and matches rescheduled. On March 21, the city of Islamabad imposed section 144 for 15 days, with orders for public spaces like restaurants and malls to be closed. As of March 24, Pakistan has recorded 972 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 7 related deaths.

SRI LANKA:

Sri Lanka recorded its first COVID-19 case when a Chinese tourist from Hubei province tested positive for the virus after having been screened at Bandaranaike International Airport. On February 1, 33 Sri Lankan students were evacuated from Wuhan and kept in quarantine in Diyatalawa. After the 14-day observation was completed, no cases of COVID-19 infections were found in this group.

Sri Lanka, Sri lanka COVID-19, SAARC Sri Lankans queue for kerosine oil along a road during a temporary lift of a curfew as virus-containment measures in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (Photo: AP)

How has Sri Lanka tackled COVID-19?

Following the spread of the virus, Sri Lanka required passengers arriving from Italy, South Korea and Iran to be quarantined for two weeks at designated government facilities. On March 10, the country put over 160 passengers from South Korea in quarantine, a group that included two Sri Lankan nationals. On the same day, 20 passengers from Italy were also sent to quarantine.

On March 10, Sri Lanka recorded its first COVID-19 patient, a tour guide, who had helped a group of Italian tourists visiting the country. Prior to this, on March 3, a Sri Lankan national in Italy was confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 and on March 10, two Sri Lankans in the UAE, were detected with the virus.

Within days of the first recorded case of COVID-19 on Sri Lankan soil, more cases were recorded among people who had come in close contact with the first patient. Following this, with Sri Lankan nationals returning to their homeland from various parts of the world, the country began seeing an uptick in COVID-19 patients. Community transmission followed in larger numbers and spread across the country.

Sri Lanka, Sri lanka COVID-19, SAARC Sri Lankan police officers spray disinfectants at a Hindu temple as part of measures to control the spread of the coronavirus in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (Photo: AP)

The Sri Lankan government declared March 16 a public holiday to tackle COVID-19 in the country. Hospitals across the country were made to prepare for a surge in cases and a potential nation-wide outbreak. The government advised the public to work from home between March 20 to 27, for a period of one week. After rolling out travel bans for travellers from COVID-19 infected countries, on March 22, the country issued a ban on the entry of all passenger flights and ships.

The country has also ordered the closure of schools and educational institutions till April 20. The government has also ordered public spaces like cinema halls and zoos to close till further notice. Sports and matches have also been postponed indefinitely.

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