New Delhi: Ringing alarm bells, the Centre has pulled up state governments for not monitoring all Indian citizens who have returned from abroad in the past two months, stating that this could “seriously jeopardise” efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
In a letter to state chief secretaries dated March 26, union Cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba said that there was a considerable gap between the numbers of international passengers who have returned and those who were being monitored.
On Friday morning, India had 640 active cases of COVID-19 and has reported 17 deaths.
From January 18, India began screening international incoming passengers at international airports, wrote Gauba. “I have been informed that up to 23rd March 2020, cumulatively, Bureau of Immigration has shared details of more than 15 lakh incoming international passengers with the States / UTs for monitoring for COVID-19,” he said
But state governments may not have been monitoring all the targeted Indian returnees, as required.
“However, there appears to be a gap between the number of international passengers who need to be monitored by the States / UTs and the actual number of passengers being monitored,” wrote Gauba.
This discrepancy could potentially spell a disaster for India’s COVID-19 combat strategy, he said.
“This may seriously jeopardise our efforts to contain spread of COVID-19, given that many amongst the persons who have tested positive for COVID-19 so far in India have history of international travel. It is important that they are put under close surveillance to prevent the spread of the epidemic,” wrote Gauba.
This warning is critical as the Indian government has repeatedly said that the COVID-19 pandemic has not gone into stage 3, i.e there is “no hard evidence” to support “community transmission” of the novel coronavirus in the country.
As per the Indian government figures, most of the positive cases reported so far, have had travel history abroad.
For example, 66% of the first 122 cases in Maharashtra, which has reported the second-highest number after Kerala in the country, have international travel history, reported the Times of India on Thursday. Another 29% came in contact with these patients.
Gauba stated that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has repeatedly urged states and union territories to “take immediate steps in this regard”.
“I would, therefore, like to request you to ensure that concerted and sustained action is taken urgently to put such passengers under surveillance immediately as per MoHFW guidelines. I would also urge you to actively involve the district authorities in this effort,” he wrote.
The cabinet secretary stated that screening of incoming passengers had begun on January 18 in some Indian airports, restricted to those coming from China. The travel advisory dated January 17 largely called for travellers from China to monitor their own health and self-report to airport health authorities.
On March 10, the travel advisory for the first time mentions that passengers from China, Hong Kong, Republic of Korea, Japan, Italy, Thailand, Singapore, Iran, Malaysia, France, Spain and Germany should undergo “self-imposed quarantine” for 14 days.
Several states had started to take measures to monitor home-quarantined Indians by stamping their hand and serving them notices. But, it has not always been easy to keep an eye on them, with media reporting several cases of Indians ‘escaping’ from self-quarantine.
In Kerala, a case has been registered against an IAS officer for reportedly fleeing from quarantine and travelling back to his home state.
The most high-profile cases was, of course, of Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor, who had returned from the UK and did not self-quarantine. She attended parties in Lucknow, where she interacted with several politicians and celebrities, causing a stir.