India’s scramble against COVID-19 has become an uphill task with the deadly virus spreading rapidly in the Middle-East and South-East Asia where lakhs of Indian ex-pats are employed.
According to highly-placed government officials, it may be more difficult to restrict travel to countries in these two regions and mount preventive screening effectively to cover a large number of people returning to India from these countries.
The latest data indicates 21 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection in UAE, 56 cases in Kuwait and 49 cases in Bahrain. In addition, a dozen confirmed COVID-19 cases have come to light in Oman and Qatar has reported 8 cases.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) data, Saudi Arabia has reported a confirmed case while Iraq has reported 26 cases.
Widening Gulf risk
Large numbers of Indians, who are employed in various countries like Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia are at risk and it is one of the major worries of top government officials since the families of those ex-pats too live in the Middle-East. There is a high chance that these families return to their native places during vacations and in some cases, other members visit them. This could facilitate the spreading of the virus.
Even as Iran has the maximum number of cases in this region with 2,336 confirmed infections, the travel-related issues cannot be ignored.
In case panic spreads in these countries, there will be a large number of people returning to India, feel the officials. This, in turn, increases the risk of coronavirus spreading in the country which already has 28 confirmed cases, including Italian tourists who are being treated here.
Tigers not spared
The other region where a lot of Indians are settled in South-East Asia where the virus is spreading despite a brave battle by countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong.
In view of the proximity to China, the Tiger economies of the region are more vulnerable than countries in other regions.
Malaysia, which already has 36 cases of confirmed COVID-19 infections at last count was surpassed by Thailand which reported 43 cases. Hong Kong, which is part of China now, has so far reported 101 cases while Singapore has listed 110 cases. Taiwan has 42 positive cases while COVID-19 has not spared the Philippines and Indonesia as well.
A large number of flights operate to South-East Asian destinations and are usually full. Due to business and employment links, a lot of travel happens between Indians and these countries, the sources said.
Unlike London, New York or Tokyo, flights operate from the Middle-East and South-East Asia to smaller non-metro destinations like Tiruchirapalli, Guwahati, Kozhikode, and Mangalore. To screen all the people travelling to India from these destinations may not be as easy as doing so in larger cities like New Delhi or Mumbai, opines the officials.
Heat on airlines
In addition to the passengers, crew of dozens of flights hopping between Indian and destinations like Dubai, Singapore, and Bangkok have to be screened. Officials said these flights have to be sanitized after landing in India so that the passengers who board them subsequently are not subject to COVID-19 infection spread and that too at smaller airports where facilities may not be adequate.
While the number of infections in India is only 28, the risk cannot be underestimated as a single infected passenger on a flight bound for India can potentially spread the infection to dozens of people. Therefore, airports have become a prime focus in the fight against the spread of coronavirus.
Officials said the authorities concerned have discussed the risk potential since hundreds of people go through airports at the same time and the “point of contact” for the spread of infection are too many to be controlled in a fool-proof manner.
The Union government is also quietly working to ensure that masks and sanitizers are available in adequate quantities in coordination with the state governments to prevent hoarding and black-marketing. Officials are also in touch with manufacturers to step up production of protective gear and essential medicine.
For overall coordination at the national level, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is monitoring the fight against COVID-19 and officials of the PMO and Cabinet Secretariat are involved in these efforts on a daily basis.
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Health Minister Harsh Vardhan is coordinating with the Health Ministers of States for steps to be taken at each state. In addition, a group of ministers is ensuring that decisions are taken for support from all departments concerned. The defence forces are also pitching in to boost the efforts, officials said.
Origin China; arriving via other countries
While the speed at which the novel virus was spreading in China is decelerating, the situation in other countries is getting more worrisome.
Of the 93,469 confirmed cases worldwide, 80,270 have been reported from China alone. However, the spread in other parts of the world is alarming now with 2,502 cases in Italy, 5,328 cases in South Korea and 2,336 cases in Iran.
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Many other European countries and the US have reported more than 100 cases while Japan has nearly 300 cases. That leaves only South America, Australia, New Zealand and some parts of Africa, among the places with significant human population, as the only areas that have not reported alarming numbers.
Though it is located close to the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, China, the region is facing an increasing threat of infection spreading from other areas, especially the Middle-East and South-East Asia.