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Wearing masks in public places is compulsory & spitting is an offence, says MHA

Wearing face covers and masks is now compulsory in public places and workplaces, spitting in public is a punishable offence and selling liquor, gutka and tobacco is strictly prohibited. All industries operating in rural areas and the government’s flagship rural jobs scheme will also be allowed to reopen from April 20 if they follow social distancing norms and other safeguards against the COVID-19 infection.

These are some of the directives in a fresh order issued on Wednesday by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to manage the pandemic. The lockdown is scheduled to end on May 3.

People violating quarantine will be punished under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, which prescribes six months imprisonment, if convicted. In the case of containment zones or hotspots, there will be a strict perimeter control. The State governments may impose stricter measures as per requirement in local areas, the order issued by Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla said.

Apart from rural industries, the guidelines permit the construction of roads, irrigation projects, buildings and industrial projects in rural areas. Construction of renewable energy projects will be allowed. In urban areas, only in situ construction projects will be allowed if workers are available on site. Brick kilns in rural areas can resume work.

207 districts have been classified as ‘potential hotspots’

Nearly one in five districts in India is a hotspot, the Health Ministry said on Wednesday, a day that saw at least 1,036 COVID-19 infections.

The government said it had classified every district into a hotspot, potential hotspot or a green zone. Of India’s 736 districts, 170 were ‘hotspots’, defined as places with at least 15 confirmed infections or where there was an exponential rise in cases. There were 207 ‘potential hotspots,’ Lav Agrawal, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, said at the daily media briefing.

There were 11,439 confirmed cases and 377 deaths. A total of 1,306 people have been been discharged after recovery.

Details of these districts were not shared but in all of these places —potential or not — testing would be ramped up to include checking even those who displayed ‘influenza-like illnesses’ and breathlessness.

According to reports from the State Health Departments, the total number of cases rose to 12,380, of which 10,566 were active ones. While 422 people have died of the disease, 1,392 have recovered.

Special teams had been set up to trace all contacts and to conduct house-to-house surveys. These teams will include health staff, local revenue staff, corporation staff, Red Cross and volunteer groups who have undergone an online training course, Mr. Agrawal added.

He said District Magistrates had the authority to declare regions as hotspots, and a protocol would be in place to check how a district was performing in containing the spread of the virus.

Trump alleges ‘severe mismanagement’

Donald Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump has ordered a freeze on funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) for “mismanaging” the coronavirus crisis.

With the world battling to get on top of the pandemic that has killed 1,25,000 people, Mr. Trump fired a broadside at the WHO and halted payments amounting to $400 million last year.

Funding would be frozen pending a review into the WHO’s role in “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” said Mr. Trump, who accused the Geneva-based body of putting “political correctness above life-saving measures”.

The outbreak could have been contained “with very little death” if the WHO had accurately assessed the situation in China, where the disease broke out late last year, charged Mr. Trump.

Beijing hit back, saying the move was bad for the global fight. “This U.S. decision will weaken WHO’s capacities and undermine the international cooperation against the epidemic,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.

‘At present, our efforts and attention are fully focused on dealing with COVID-19 pandemic’

India on Wednesday refused to criticise the United States defunding of the World Health Organisation (WHO), saying that it was currently occupied with the domestic campaign to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.

A source indicated that India was not inclined to immediately join the controversy that erupted after the President Donald Trump declared a “halt” to American funding of the WHO.

“At present, our efforts and attention are fully focused on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the world has addressed this crisis, we can revisit this question,” said a source familiar with India’s official decision- making on international organisations.

Mr. Trump on Tuesday suspended his government's funding of the multilateral body accusing it of “severe” mismanagement of the COVID-19 epidemic.

President’s charge

He accused the WHO of opposing travel restrictions to China which he termed “disastrous”.

“Today, I am instructing my administration to hold the funding of the World Heath Organisation while a review is conducted to assess the WHO’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus... As the organisation’s leading sponsor, the United States has a duty to insist on full accountability,” the U.S. President said at the White House.

The WHO’s latest documents show that the United States is its top contributor with around $58 million and halting that payment is expected to hit many health initiatives across the world, including in India.

Contrary to India’s stand, the European Union’s top foreign policy representative Josep Borrell Fontelles has “deeply” regretted the U.S. decision, saying, “There is no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever to help contain and mitigate the Coronavirus pandemic.”

Bill Gates’s stand

Microsoft founder Bill Gates too sounded a note of caution, saying “no other organisation can replace” the WHO.

Since March, India has taken the initiative to several countries in the region and beyond by supplying protective equipment and medicines.

According to the WHO's March 31, 2020 assessment, India committed around $2 million, whereas China committed approximately $28.7 million.

Budget contributions

The WHO's budget is funded by a mix of assessed and voluntary contributions. Assessed contributions mainly refer to financial support from the member-countries of the world body, which is relative to the member- state’s wealth and population.

The WHO claims that contributions from the member-states had declined over the years and now accounts for less than one quarter of its programme financing. The rest of the resources, it says, is raised through voluntary donation.

The major European economies are among the bigger contributors to the organisation.

The disastrous impact of this gap is being seen in the middle of a crippling lockdown, say Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera

Over 10 crore people have been excluded from the Public Distribution System because outdated 2011 census data is being used to calculate State-wise National Food Security Act (NFSA) coverage, according to economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera.

The disastrous impact of this gap is being seen in the middle of a crippling lockdown, as people who have lost their livelihoods depend on PDS for daily survival.

Under the NFSA, the PDS is supposed to cover 75% of the population in rural areas and 50% of the population in urban areas, which works out to 67% of the total population, using the rural-urban population ratio in 2011. India’s population was about 121 crore in 2011 and so PDS covered approximately 80 crore people.

However, applying the 67% ratio to a projected population of 137 crore for 2020, PDS coverage today should be around 92 crore. Even taking into account growing urbanisation, the shortfall would be around 10 crore people who have slipped through the cracks, said the two economists and Right to Food campaigners in a statement on Wednesday.

Big gaps

The biggest gaps are in Uttar Pradesh, where 2.8 crore people may have been left out, and Bihar, which would have had almost 1.8 crore people excluded from the NFSA. State-specific birth and death rates from 2016 were used to calculate the population growth rate and projected population estimates, said the statement.

When the NFSA came into effect in 2013, State-wise ratios were worked out for rural and urban areas, using National Sample Survey data, in such a manner that everyone below a given national “per-capita expenditure benchmark” is covered, meaning that PDS coverage should be higher in poorer States.

While the population data from the 2011 census was used to translate these ratios into absolute numbers, Right to Food activists have long argued that the numbers should have been updated using projected population figures, allowing State governments to issue new ration cards over time. Instead, the Centre’s calculation of the actual number of people to be covered in each State has remained “frozen.”

Many State governments are reluctant to issue new ration cards beyond the numbers that will be provided for by the Central quota, making it difficult to reduce exclusion errors in the PDS.

For example, there are about seven lakh pending applications for ration cards in Jharkhand, because the State government stopped issuing new ration cards several years ago to avoid exceeding the numbers provided for by the Central government, said Dr. Khera and Dr. Dreze.

With the 2021 census process being delayed due to the COVID-19 crisis, any proposed revision of PDS coverage using that data could now take several years.

The government has sought testing of vulnerable groups in 353 districts that are yet to report a case

Specific guidelines: The Centre has asked the States to open COVID care centres and hospitals.

The Centre on Wednesday asked the States to ramp up testing among vulnerable groups in the 353 districts that have not reported any COVID-19 cases so far.

The ‘unaffected’ districts need to be under enhanced surveillance for influenza-like illnesses (ILI) and severe acute respiratory illness (SARI), the Centre said. It recommended that the ILI and SARI cases be tested, and asked the States to make preparations to set up dedicated COVID care centres, health centres and hospitals in these districts as well.

Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba held a video-conference with the Chief Secretaries and Directors-General of Police of all the States on Wednesday where a presentation on ‘COVID-19 Containment Measures’ was shared. The States were also informed about the revised guidelines issued by the Home Ministry that need to be implemented from April 20 to give relief to specified sections of people from the lockdown that has been extended to May 3. The Centre used the presentation to reiterate its recommendation that hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) be administered to “health workers in the field and those working in hospitals” as the number of COVID-19- affected patients has crossed the 11,000 mark.

Emphasis was also laid on ensuring that “personal protection of health workforce is of prime importance and sufficient stock of PPE/N95 masks etc. to be made available in the districts” in accordance with the guidance on the rational use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

The Centre said that in severe cases where healthcare professionals were infected, the patients “should be treated with HCQ in the prescribed dose”.

The Union Health Ministry has repeatedly cautioned that HCQ is only for the specific use of healthcare workers and that it has “side effects”.

Potential hotspot

The Centre noted that while there were 170 districts defined as “hotspots” or red zones, there were another “207 districts that have reported cases and could be a potential hotspot”. It asked the States to undertake “pre-emptive action for cluster containment in all these districts”.

A senior State government official, who attended the meeting, said they had been given a “tutorial” on the road map as the States would have to chalk out a strategy to implement the guidelines. “States cannot be more liberal than the Centre, instead we will be stricter but some relief ought to be given to people to earn a livelihood,” said the official. “Inter-State movement, however, is strictly opposed at this stage,” the official added.

The “hotspots” have been divided into two categories —123 districts with “large outbreaks” and 47 districts classified as “clusters”. A district could be excluded from the hotspot category if no cases were reported there in the last 28 days. The “large outbreak” category was defined as those districts reporting more than 15 cases that may not be epidemiologically linked and where “localised increase” in COVID-19 cases occurred within a defined geographic area — a village, town, or city.

The donation would be a first as India has so far not taken funds from foreign state-run entities

The firm is set to supply the S-400 air defence systems.

In the first such donation of its kind, Russia’s State-owned defence exports company Rosoboronexport has committed $2million (₹15.3 crore) to the newly set up ‘PM CARES Fund’, diplomatic and government sources confirmed. The proposed donation to the fund that has been set up specially to assist the government’s efforts in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, marks a significant shift in India’s policy on accepting contributions from foreign government owned companies. Thus far, the government had been only open to contributions from “NRIs, PIOs and international entities such as foundations”.

“The transfer is yet to be made” the sources told The Hindu on Tuesday, while confirming that Rosoboronexport — Russia’s umbrella group for all defence exports and a subsidiary of the state-owned defence manufacturing company Rostec — had indicated its intentions to make then donation. The firm is the largest source of India’s arms imports and is set to supply defence equipment including the S-400 air defence systems, stealth frigates and AK-203 assault rifles.

When asked if the donation would constitute a shift from past practice, the Ministry of External Affairs declined to comment. In August 2018, the Indian government had refused to accept offers of aid from several countries including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and the Maldives during the Kerala floods. At the time, the government had said that it was committed to meeting relief and rehabilitation requirements “through domestic efforts”. “Contributions to the Prime Minister's Relief Fund and the Chief Minister's Relief Fund from NRIs, PIOs and international entities such as foundations would, however, be welcome," the MEA spokesperson had added.

On March 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM-CARES) Fund, putting aside the ‘Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF)’. Mr. Modi had made a personal appeal on social media and directed Indian missions to invite contributions for the fund. “What has been announced is that the PM CARES fund will simply accept donations and contributions from individuals and organisations that are based in foreign countries,” government sources said in a statement, and referred again to the 2018 decision to only accept foreign donations from Indians living abroad, NRIs, international foundations and UN agencies. As a result, the donation offer from Rosoboronexport is a departure from precedent for New Delhi.

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