As of Monday evening, more than half the patients (53.97%) who tested positive for COVID-19 in the worst-hit states Maharashtra, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, had an overseas travel history. Significantly, two of every three of them (67.22%) had returned from or via a country in the Gulf other than Iran.
An analysis by The Indian Express of the travel history of positive cases from 10 states Maharashtra, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and West Bengal — together, these account for more than 70 per cent of all cases in India — shows that more than half (54.94%) of them with international travel history had come from or through the Gulf nations.
Even considering the total number of cases in these 10 states, travellers from the Gulf account for over one in every four positive cases. They have also contributed to indirect cases transmitting it to people came in contact with them.
One possible factor is that curbs on travellers from the Gulf came late, almost two months after the government’s first global travel advisory related to the outbreak on January 17 — when it called for avoiding travel to China.
Since then, it issued as many as eight advisories that included suspension of a e-visas for Chinese nationals (February 3); avoid travel to Iran, Italy and South Korea and screening of passengers based on risk assessment (February 26); suspension of all visas for travellers from Iran, Italy, Japan, China and South Korea (March 3); 14-day home quarantine for those with travel history to China, Italy, Thailand, Iran, France, Spain and Germany (March 10).
It was only on March 16 when the Government started mandatory quarantine of passengers coming from the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait. The same day, passengers from EU, Turkey and the UK were banned and on March 22, all international flights were suspended.
Incidentally, the Gulf countries, especially United Arab Emirates and Qatar are major ports of transit for flights between India and most of the western world, including Europe, Africa and North and South Americas.
Barring in Iran, the number of positive cases in the Gulf countries has not been very high, which could have explained India allowing travellers from the region to come in unchecked.
According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the total number of cases in UAE on Monday were just 570, and there were 1299 positive cases in Saudi Arabia, 634 in Qatar, 515 in Bahrain, and 266 in Kuwait.
As the epicentre of the global pandemic was China, followed by Iran and Italy and now the US, India focused on China, southeast Asia and Europe in trying to control Indians traveling to these regions and screening or prohibiting travellers coming from there. The virus, meanwhile, sneaked in largely through travellers coming back from the Gulf countries, who have passed on the virus to others in their home states.
A senior health official from a state with more than 50 positive cases said: “Initially, if we had focused on the Middle-East, we would have been better off. We were focusing more on Spain, Italy, the US, the UK, China. We missed out on the Middle-East and Dubai. We were a bit late.”
Result: in state after state where corona cases have global travel history, there is a high share from the Gulf.
In Maharashtra, which had the highest case load, 203 cases until Monday, 36 were travellers from the Gulf, almost half of those who tested positive and had overseas travel history.
In Kerala, the share is much higher. Almost 87 per cent of those with travel history are from the Gulf.
For Karnataka, according to the March 30 data, 22 out of the 49 positive cases with international travel history had touched the Gulf. The state had 74 positive cases until Monday.
Of the 32 positive cases in Gujarat that have international travel history, more than half, 18, had come from the Gulf. Gujarat has 70 positive cases.
The Gulf share for other states isn’t as high. Telangana has 71 total cases with 35 who came on international flights, but only six of them were from the Gulf. Of the 67 cases in Tamil Nadu, of whom almost half are those with international travel history, only four were from the Gulf. There were none in Punjab which has a total of 39 cases includes eight with international travel history. West Bengal has 19 positive cases, only five of whom had travelled abroad, and none came back from the Gulf.
Country-wise data of travel history of positive patients is not publicly available for all states.
(With inputs from Sohini Ghosh, Gopal Kateshiya, Ravik Bhattacharya and Liz Mathew)
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