ON A day that the World Health Organisation (WHO) said the novel coronavirus (COVID 2019) outbreak could now be “characterised as a pandemic”, India on Wednesday took the unprecedented decision to suspend all visas, barring select categories, till April 15, effectively closing its borders for a month.
The Centre also advised all states and Union territories to invoke provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which will enable them to enforce advisories as and when needed.
“All existing visas, except diplomatic, official, UN/ international organisations, employment, project visas, stand suspended till 15th April 2020. This will come into effect from 1200 GMT on 13th March 2020 at the port of departure. Visa free travel facility granted to OCI (Overseas Citizenship of India) card holders is kept in abeyance till April 15th, 2020. This will come into effect from 1200 GMT on 13th March 2020 at the port of departure. Any foreign national who intends to travel to India for compelling reason may contact the nearest Indian Mission,” the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said in a statement.
The decision was taken at a meeting of the Group of Ministers (GOM) constituted to review, monitor and evaluate the preparedness and measures taken to fight the COVID outbreak. It means that no foreign tourists can enter India for over a month now, affecting an already stressed economy. Several sporting events, including the IPL and the India Open badminton tournament were also scheduled to start this month.
The GoM meeting, chaired by Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, also decided that “all incoming travellers, including Indian nationals, arriving from or having visited China, Italy, Iran, Republic of Korea, France, Spain and Germany after 15th February, 2020, shall be quarantined for a minimum period of 14 days. This will come into effect from 1200 GMT on 13th March 2020 at the port of departure.” The health ministry has said employers should facilitate work-from-home for such employees during this period.
Advising Indian nationals to avoid non-essential travel, the ministry said “international traffic through land borders will be restricted to designated check posts with robust screening facilities”.
At another meeting chaired by the Cabinet Secretary, attended by secretaries of departments concerned, 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 Welfare/ State/ UTs are enforceable”.
Section 2 of the Act states: “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 are 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 (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.”
In a separate order invoking the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, the Ministry of Home Affairs designated Secretary (Health) Preeti Sudan as the nodal authority for coordination, monitoring, preparation and implementation of a national disaster management plan.
Meanwhile, confirming the eight new coronavirus cases reported in Kerala and two fresh positive cases — one each in Rajasthan and Delhi — the Health Ministry said the total number of cases detected across the country has risen to 60. This includes the three who were discharged in Kerala last month.
Amid concern over the Centre’s circular barring the return of Indians from COVID-hit countries unless they produce a certificate that proves they have tested negative, the government is preparing to send a medical team to Italy to test Indians stranded there ahead of their evacuation.
Speaking in Rajya Sabha, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said: “…as the coronavirus is so strong in Italy, we wanted people boarding a flight to have a COVID-free certificate. Now, it has been difficult for people to get that in the Italian system, because the Italian system is busy treating patients in Italy. So, we are hoping, by tomorrow, to fly in a medical team to Italy, just as we have flown into Iran. We will do the testing of those people and try and put them on early flights thereafter”.
Outlining the government’s efforts in evacuating Indians from China and from the cruise ship Diamond Princess, Jaishankar said: “Our focus has since shifted to Iran, in view of the sharp increase of coronavirus in that country… There are over 6,000 Indian nationals in various provinces of Iran. These include about 1,100 pilgrims, mainly from the Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir and the State of Maharashtra; nearly 300 students, primarily from the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir; about 1,000 fishermen, including from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat; and others who are on longer term stay in Iran for pursuing their livelihood and religious studies.”
The first batch of 58 Indians — 25 men, 31 women and 2 children — were evacuated from Iran on Tuesday. So far, the government has evacuated 948 passengers from COVID-affected countries.
Meanwhile, 83 people who arrived in Delhi from Italy on Wednesday have been quarantined at the Indian Army facility in Manesar. Of these 74 are Indian nationals, six are Italians and three are US nationals.
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