New Delhi, Mar 20
The number of COVID-19 positive cases in the country has risen to 223, including 32 foreign Nationals, it was revealed today. At least 50 fresh cases were reported today, making it the largest single-day jump since the outbreak began weeks ago. At least four deaths have been linked to the virus. This evening the Health Ministry urged people to follow Prime Minister Narendra Modi's call for a "janata" curfew on Sunday, saying "a day's cooperation will help break the chain of transmission". The Ministry also said people could call on 1075 - a toll free number - if they had questions about the outbreak. In a televised address on Thursday night, the Prime Minister called for a "janata" (public) curfew from 7 am to 9 pm. The Centre has shut borders to international flights and suspended incoming visas, while States have closed public spaces and asked people to work from home.
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In today's press briefing Health Ministry officials said there was no shortage of essential goods and urged people not to panic. Senior Ministry official Lav Agarwal also said people had been advised to stay away from large religious gatherings and such festivals had been requested to be postponed. The Ministry's comment came hours after a Ram festival in Uttar Pradesh's Ayodhya was "suspended".
The Health Ministry also responded to concerns over suspected COVID-19 patients jumping quarantine and spreading the infection. "States have the power to take action against those who jump quarantine. We have asked States to implement all such steps. We are dealing with a very infectious disease," Agarwal said.
India is still only testing at 10 per cent of its capacity, Dr Raman Gangakedhkar of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) said in the briefing. Medical experts have expressed worry over the low rate of testing in the country, suggesting mass-level aggressive testing, like that by South Korea, could be key to containing the virus. On Wednesday the ICMR said private labs could be roped in to increase testing facilities.
India is still in Stage 2 of the outbreak, as per the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR). This means transmission is via local means - through individuals who have travelled abroad or their family members or acquaintances, which can be traced. Stage 3 involves community transmission and an exponential growth in the number of cases.
"Under this janata (public) curfew, no one should leave their homes or gather in their neighbourhoods. Only those related to essential services should go out," Prime Minister said in his televised address last night. The Prime Minister also said the one-day curfew would help people get used to self-isolation, in an indication that restrictions of longer periods could be announced soon.
In his address, PM Modi also urged senior citizens (those over 65) to stay at home. The Prime Minister's warning comes as medical experts say that peopled over 65 years of age (and those under 10 years) are most susceptible to infection. All four deaths in India linked to COVID-19 are of senior citizens.
Educational institutions and other public spaces in several states have been shut down. Earlier today Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said shopping malls in the national capital would also be closed. Punjab has shut down all public transportation. Malls and cinemas have also been shut down in Kerala, Maharashtra (which has reported the maximum number of cases at 48), Odisha, Bengal and a number of other states.
In a notification issued Thursday evening, the centre asked its employees to work from home in a phased manner. As per the notification, 50 per cent of Group B and C employees will work from home, while the rest will attend office during staggered working hours. Government offices had already discontinued biometric attendance systems.
A special task force, headed by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, has been set up to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Indian economy. The task force comes amid warnings by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi that the outbreak will have "devastating" economic consequences. Indian stock markets, and indeed those abroad too, have reached sharply and nervously, with millions in investor wealth being wiped out.
The impact of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country has extended to religious centres as well. This morning a member of the organising committee of the "Ram Kot Parikrama", which marks the start of Ram Navami festivities in Uttar Pradesh's Aydohya next week, told NDTV the event had been suspended. In Andhra Pradesh the Tirupati board has shut down the iconic temple over virus fears. The famous Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai has already been shut down. Sporting events have been affected too, with the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament postponed and the India-South Africa series called off. NDTV