Indian authorities have said they will not expand coronavirus testing, as most affected nations are doing, despite criticism that limited testing could leave COVID-19 cases undetected in the world’s second-most populous country.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged countries to test as widely as possible to curb the pandemic, but India has only been testing those who have travelled from affected countries or come in contact with a confirmed case and shown symptoms after two weeks of quarantine.
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On Tuesday, it added healthcare workers with symptoms who are treating patients with severe respiratory illnesses.
India is conducting only about 90 tests per day, despite having the capacity for as many as 8,000. So far, 11,500 people have been tested, according to the Associated Press.
Coronavirus cases in India rose to 147 on Wednesday [Rajanish KakadeAP Photo]
WHO guidance ‘premature’
Officials have said the WHO guidance didn’t apply in India because the spread of the disease has been less severe than elsewhere.
Balaram Bharghava, who heads the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the country’s top medical research body, said the guidance was “premature” for India, where community transmission has not yet been detected.
“Therefore it creates more fear, more paranoia and more hype,” he said.
Last week, a British citizen who approached a public hospital in New Delhi for coronavirus test was told she was not eligible under India’s testing criteria and turned away.
The woman, who requested anonymity fearing business consequences for her employer, said she told hospital officials that she may have had contact with an infected person in her hospitality sector job, but could not be sure.
After trying and failing to be tested a second time, she left India this week for France, where her family lives and where President Emmanuel Macron had announced extreme measures to curb the coronavirus.
Indian authorities have justified their restrictions as a way to keep a deluge of people from demanding tests that would cost the government money it needs to combat other diseases such as tuberculosis, malnutrition and HIV/AIDs.
ICMR said there was no need to expand such testing. However, authorities said they’re preparing for community spread by bolstering their lab testing infrastructure. India has 52 coronavirus testing centres.
As a result of the narrow testing criteria, sick people with potential exposure to the coronavirus are being sent home, and some experts fear that India’s caseload could be much higher than government statistics indicate.
Bharghava, the ICMR chief, said virus infections in India can still be traced back to people who travelled into the country from affected locales and that testing protocols would be revised if community transmission is detected.
Coronavirus cases in India rose to 276 on Wednesday, a day after a third person, a 64-year-old man, died in the western state of Maharashtra.
The vast majority, 255, tested positive in Iran, with others in the United Arab Emirates, Italy, Kuwait, Sri Lanka, Rwanda and Hong Kong, V Muraleedharan, minister of state for external affairs, said in parliament on Wednesday.
The South Asian nation has closed most schools and entertainment facilities, including cinemas.
Authorities say most of the infections have been “imported” – linked to foreign travel or direct contact with someone who caught the disease abroad.
India has suspended all incoming tourists and will bar non-Indian passengers on flights from the European Union, the European Free Trade Association, Turkey and the United Kingdom from Wednesday.
Travellers coming from or transiting through the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait are required to undergo a 14-day quarantine when they arrive in India, the government announced on Monday.
Arrivals from China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, France, Spain and Germany are already subject to similar restrictions, while most border points with neighbouring Bangladesh and Myanmar have been shut.
India has been reluctant to expand testing, not wanting to trigger panic and overwhelm hospitals [Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]
But concerns of undetected communal spread are growing.
“Given the pattern of disease in other places, and given our low level of testing, then I do think that community transmission is happening, ” said Dr Gagandeep Kang, director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute.
WHO said that, while self-initiated isolation by people with mild symptoms remains the most important community intervention, testing of all suspected cases, symptomatic contacts of probable and confirmed cases, would still be needed.
“We need to be geared to respond to the evolving situation with the aim to stop transmission of COVID-19 at the earliest to minimise the impact. … We need to act now,” said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the WHO’s director for the region.
More than 400 million of India’s 1.3 billion people live in crowded cities, many without regular access to clean water, conditions that could allow the disease to spread rapidly.
“Community spread is very likely. But the only way to know for sure is through more expansive testing,” said Dr Anant Bhan, a global health researcher in Bhopal, India.
The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but severe illness is more likely in the elderly and people with existing health problems.
India has a lower proportion of elderly than other countries, but its healthcare facilities are limited and already struggle to accommodate the large number of patients with other diseases.
“This, along with our high population density, can be our great challenge,” public health researcher Oommen Kurian told the Associated Press.
India has been reluctant to expand testing, not wanting to trigger panic and overwhelm hospitals, but also because of the cost: While the tests are free for patients, they cost the government about 5,000 rupees ($67) each.
In an already stretched and underfunded public healthcare system, money spent on the coronavirus leaves less for other public health problems. India spends only 3.7 percent of its total budget on health.
The coronavirus may also be spreading in India because health officials have struggled to maintain quarantines, with people fleeing from isolation wards, complaining of filthy conditions.
In Maharashtra, five people, one of whom had tested negative and the rest who were awaiting test results, walked out of an isolation ward last Saturday.
The coronavirus may also be spreading in India because health officials have struggled to maintain quarantines [File: Amit Dave/Reuters]
India has implemented a 19th-century epidemic law that empowers public officials to enforce more rigorous containment measures and impose penalties and punishments for escapes.
Lav Agarwal, a health ministry official, said authorities “often don’t get enough support from people”.
Similarly, in neighbouring Sri Lanka, the government has ordered about 170 passengers who evaded airport screening after returning from several affected countries to report to police or face financial penalties and possible imprisonment.
Aditya Bhatnagar, an Indian university student who was studying in Spain, described unsanitary conditions at an isolation ward where he and 50 others passengers on a flight from Barcelona have been kept since landing in New Delhi on Monday.
Bhatnagar said the rooms, each holding about eight people, lacked basic hygiene features such as clean bedsheets and bathrooms. He told the Associated Press that the group, awaiting their COVID-19 test results, was not provided with masks or sanitiser.
“I don’t think these measures would be enough to contain the pandemic,” Bhatnagar, the ICMR chief, said, adding that some passengers had opted to move from the wards and into private hotels, paying 4,000 rupees ($55) a night to self-isolate for at least 14 days.
India’s Modi visits Ladakh region where troops clashed with China |NationalTribune.com
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said the “age of expansionism” is over, as he paid tribute to soldiers killed in last month’s border skirmish with China on a surprise visit to the northern Himalayan region of Ladakh amid escalating tension between the Asian giants. “Age of expansionism is over, this is the age of development.…
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said the “age of expansionism” is over, as he paid tribute to soldiers killed in last month’s border skirmish with China on a surprise visit to the northern Himalayan region of Ladakh amid escalating tension between the Asian giants.
“Age of expansionism is over, this is the age of development. History is witness that expansionist forces have either lost or were forced to turn back,” Modi said without naming China during his first trip to the disputed region since June 15 deadly border clash, in which at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed.
Modi, who has been under pressure to respond to what India deems Chinese incursions, met troops at a base in Ladakh’s Nimu area, pictures from Reuters partner ANI showed.
“Your courage is higher than the heights where you are posted today,” he said in his address to soldiers in Ladakh.
“The bravery that you and your compatriots showed, a message has gone to the world about India’s strength.”
Earlier visuals of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arrival in Ladakh, he was later briefed by senior officials in Nimmoo. pic.twitter.com/fDO6qvpMcM
— ANI (@ANI) July 3, 2020
Modi was accompanied by the chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat, and the chief of the army, General Manoj Mukund Naravane.
India and China have traded blame for triggering the high-altitude brawl in the Galwan Valley on June 15, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed and at least 76 were injured.
The border clash saw soldiers engaged in brutal hand-to-hand fighting with clubs and staves about 4,270 metres (14,000 feet) above sea level amid sub-zero temperatures. It was the worst border skirmish in nearly 50 years.
Officials said Modi was accompanied by the chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat, and the chief of the army, General Manoj Mukund Naravane [Reuters]
China has not disclosed how many casualties its troops suffered.
The nuclear-armed neighbours have amassed troops along the 3,500km (2,200 mile) long border, most of which is not demarcated, and military and diplomatic talks are going on to de-escalate the confrontation.
India claims 38,000sq km (15,000sq miles) of land currently under Chinese control while Beijing stakes claim to 90,000sq km (34,700sq miles) area within Indian territory.
Analysts say the current standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is a result of Chinese pushback against India’s building of military infrastructure at the de facto border in recent years.
Another reason, according to some experts, is linked to India’s unilateral move last year to repeal Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which had guaranteed a measure of autonomy to Indian-administered Kashmir, which also included the disputed areas of Ladakh region.
China, which, like Pakistan, saw India’s move as unilaterally affecting its territory, strongly denounced the move at the United Nations Security Council last year.
India buys fighter jets
Meanwhile, India’s Ministry of Defence on Thursday approved the purchase of 21 Russian MiG-29 and 12 Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter aircraft costing $2.43bn to augment its air force in the wake of the border standoff with China.
India is also awaiting the arrival of the first batch of 36 Rafale fighter jets ordered as part of a $8.78bn deal signed with France in 2016.
Last week, India banned 59, mostly Chinese, mobile phone applications in retaliation to the killing of its soldiers that has caused an anti-Chinese backlash.
China said on Friday that artificial blocks to bilateral cooperation would harm India’s interests and that the two countries should work together to uphold peace in their border region.
Beijing will take necessary measures to uphold the rights of Chinese businesses in India, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian told a news briefing.
India-China annual bilateral trade stands at $92bn.
India’s Anti-Terror Raids Are Leaving Kashmiris Homeless During Coronavirus
SRINAGAR, India — Insurgents and Indian security forces ambushed each other nearly every day this week in the disputed territory of Kashmir, despite calls for a ceasefire during the pandemic. On Tuesday, a fierce gunfight erupted in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital city, where police killed a top commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant outfit that’s thought…
SRINAGAR, India — Insurgents and Indian security forces ambushed each other nearly every day this week in the disputed territory of Kashmir, despite calls for a ceasefire during the pandemic.
On Tuesday, a fierce gunfight erupted in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital city, where police killed a top commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant outfit that’s thought to be supported by Pakistan. In the process, security forces destroyed about a dozen civilian homes.
“They kicked down the door to our house. They told us ‘put your hands up!’” Beba Bashir, a homemaker, told VICE News.
Bashir says the police accused her family of harboring terrorists, beat her two sons, and forced them to take a video of their home to prove there were no militants hiding inside. All the while, she said, they threatened to shoot them.
Eventually, Bashir and her children were allowed to leave. But when they returned the next day, their house was completely destroyed.
“We lost everything,” Bashir said. “They did this during this pandemic. Where should we go?”
The violence is only ratcheting up an already tense situation; Kashmir has been under lockdown since long before the coronavirus hit. Last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed the country’s constitution to do away with the disputed region’s special autonomy, jailing opposition leaders and restricting internet and phone services as a way to prevent a mass uprising against him.
Though he promised his reforms would bring economic prosperity to the valley, the unending political lockdown has made life in the pandemic near impossible.
“Throughout the world, people are saying work from your houses. Unfortunately, we are not able to do such things here in Kashmir; there is no internet,” Sheikh Ashiq, the president of Kashmir’s Chamber of Commerce, told VICE News.
And during the lockdown, Modi’s government passed a new law allowing outsiders to acquire property in Kashmir.
Pakistan, which also lays claim to Kashmir, accuses India’s Hindu nationalist leadership of using the coronavirus lockdown to engineer demographic change in its largest Muslim-majority region.
For business leaders like Ashiq, the timing of the new law shows the government is focused on controlling the political climate rather than caring for the well-being of Kashmiris.
“This [decision] is too much in haste,” Ashiq said. “At this time, I think one has to think about how to support people, how to give them a humanitarian touch, rather than going for all these things where they feel more insecure.”
Cover: Beba Bashir hugs a friend amidst the rubble of her home in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital city.
Video produced by: Angad Singh, Zubair Ahmed Dar
Video edited by: Danny Card
‘Stigmatised’: India’s coronavirus ‘heroes’ come under attack
Doctors, nurses and other frontline workers in the fight against coronavirus in India, who have been hailed as “heroes”, have come under attack and in some cases evicted from their homes by panicked residents. Some e-commerce giants have even halted deliveries partly due to the harassment of staff, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi said abuse…
Doctors, nurses and other frontline workers in the fight against coronavirus in India, who have been hailed as “heroes”, have come under attack and in some cases evicted from their homes by panicked residents.
Some e-commerce giants have even halted deliveries partly due to the harassment of staff, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi said abuse of hospital workers had become a “huge issue”.
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Reports of attacks and abuse have come from across India, increasing with the imposition this week of a 21-day nationwide lockdown. In at least one case, police were accused of beating a delivery driver carrying medicines.
Sanjibani Panigrahi, a doctor in the western city of Surat, described how she was accosted as she returned home from a long day at a hospital that is treating COVID-19 patients.
She said neighbours blocked her at the entrance to her apartment building and threatened “consequences” if she continued to work.
“These are the same people who have happily interacted with me (in the past). Whenever they’ve faced a problem, I’ve helped them out,” the 36-year-old told AFP.
“There is a sense of fear among people. I do understand. But it’s like I suddenly became an untouchable.”
This week, doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences appealed to the government for help after health workers were forced out of their homes by panicked landlords and housing societies.
“Many doctors are stranded on the roads with all their luggage, nowhere to go, across the country,” the letter said.
Modi called on Indians to stop treating medical workers as pariahs, describing those fighting the virus as “God-like”.
“Today they are the people who are saving us from dying, putting their lives in danger.”
Health workers are not the only ones facing the brunt of the frightened population in an environment where misinformation and rumours are thriving.
Airline and airport staff, who are still being called on for evacuations of Indians stuck overseas and to manage key cargo deliveries, have also been threatened.
Indigo and Air India have condemned threats made against their staff.
An Air India flight attendant told AFP her neighbours threatened to evict her from her apartment while she was heading to the United States, saying she would “infect everyone”.
“I couldn’t sleep that night,” she said, afraid to reveal her name over the fear of further stigmatisation.
“I was scared that even if I did go home, would someone break open the door or call people to kick me out?”
Her husband had to ask the police for help.
Others have not been as lucky, the flight attendant said, with one colleague – who declined to speak to AFP – forced out of her home and now living with her parents.
“With all the fake news and WhatsApp forwards, they don’t know what is going on, so there’s this paranoia that makes them behave like this,” she said.
T Praveen Keerthi, general secretary of the Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association (IPCA), told AFP the organisation had received more than 50 complaints from airline crew.
“Airline staffers are being stopped from entering their own residential premises by security guards,” he said.
“We also have families and children that we leave at home to help fellow citizens … The least we expect is for our colleagues to not be harassed and ostracised.”
Airport workers involved in moving essential supplies have also faced attacks as have delivery workers transporting medicines and groceries.
E-commerce giant Flipkart temporarily suspended services this week.
The Walmart-owned group said it only resumed home deliveries after police guaranteed “the safe and smooth passage of our supply chain and delivery executives”.
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