* Front Page & Nation

2,653 cases confirmed across country, 647 of which are from Nizamuddin cluster

In the slow lane: Essential commodities being transported on a bullock cart in New Delhi on Friday, amid the lockdown restrictions.R.V. Moorthy

The number of COVID-19 cases continued to rise in the country with 336 new cases reported in the past 24 hours taking the total tally to 2,547, while 18 more deaths were reported, the Union Health Ministry said on Friday.

India has registered 62 deaths due to COVID-19 so far, while 162 patients have been discharged. Nationwide, 66,000 samples have been tested so far, which includes repeat tests on patients to confirm health status.

“India, due to its early measures, had been able to keep its COVID-19 numbers low but one incident has caused our numbers to rise, which highlights the need for absolute compliance. The 647 coronavirus cases reported over the last two days are linked to the religious gathering of the Islamic sect Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi. These cases are spread across 14 States. Some deaths have also been linked to this,” Joint Secretary at the Union Health Ministry Lav Agarwal said at the Ministry’s daily press briefing.

According to reports from State Health Departments, the total number of confirmed cases nationwide was 2,947 with 2,655 active cases. The death toll rose to 83.

Maharashtra continued to report the most cases at 417, followed by Tamil Nadu and Delhi where numbers have spiked to 411 and 386 repectively. Kerala reported 286 cases, while Telangana reported 229 cases.

Despite the rise in cases, Mr. Agarwal said the revised testing guideline is still under consideration and would be released by Saturday. He added that the Ministry’s newly launched app — Aarogya Setu — had been downloaded by 30 lakh people.

Rapid antibody test

In an interim advisory, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recommended the use of the rapid antibody test in the country’s coronavirus hotspots. The decision was taken at an emergency meeting on Thursday of the National Task Force dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. “Population in hotspot areas may be tested using rapid antibody test. Antibody positives to be confirmed by RT-PCR (reverse transcription-PCR) using throat/nasal swab, and antibody negatives to be quarantined at home,” the ICMR advisory said.

The official said the Health Ministry was in touch with the States to trace, track, isolate and treat cases.

MEA says move is important to ensure safety of the ‘larger community’

No entry: The government said it would not allow passengers to fly till the lockdown ends.ReutersReuters

Twenty-three-year-old Rahul V., an MBA student in East London, first heard about Air India flights coming to the United Kingdom from a British government website he has been tracking for the past two weeks, ever since India banned travel for passengers from the U.K. due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The student from Hyderabad, one of hundreds stranded in the U.K., among the about 25,000 Indians stranded in different parts of the world, says he felt let down when he was informed that the flights would go back to India empty as the government has refused to lift its strict ban on any passengers, including Indian citizens, to enter India.

“The British government is bringing its people home, despite the pandemic, it’s just sad that the Indian government isn’t doing the same,” he told The Hindu, disappointed that despite several flights being operated to the U.K. from April 4 by the national carrier, he cannot return home on them.

No change in rules

Indian missions in several other capitals are facing similar questions from thousands of Indian citizens who are stranded and need to return. Air India announced on Thursday that it would operate chartered flights to Paris, Frankfurt and London for citizens of the U.K., Germany, France, Canada and Ireland. In Germany, dozens of students recorded a videotaped appeal to the government, offering to pay full fare if Air India flights would accept passengers on the way back. However, the government says it will not change its decision to not allow any passengers, including Indians, to fly here from about 37 SARS-CoV-2-affected countries, until the lockdown ends, as it is due to, on April 15.

“We are asking stranded Indians to stay put wherever they are in view of local restrictions as well as travelling restrictions to and within India. This is good for their own health and safety as well as that of their family and larger community,” a Ministry of External Affairs official told The Hindu.

Among the Indians stranded worldwide are students whose universities are shut down, business travellers who were unable to return in time before the lockdown, and tourists who were stopped from boarding when the Indian travel bans went into place. The MEA did acknowledge that some of them had been stopped wrongfully, as airlines read the travel deadlines over-zealously or misinterpreted them, but pleaded helplessness at changing the rules for their return.

Significant backlog

Officials also point out that it will take some days to clear the backlog of passengers given their numbers, depending on how quickly regular commercial flights will be allowed to resume. Many of the passengers will need assistance as they have spent money buying tickets on airlines that cancelled flights and are unable to afford another full fare ticket. Finally, there remain questions about quarantine requirements for all those passengers returning home, given the limited quarantine capacity in India, and the Ministry of Health would have to take a decision on whether they can return right after the lockdown is lifted.

“Most of the students here are desperate now, and have no money. They are willing to do any job, even if it means catching the virus, because they are struggling to survive,” said Mr. Rahul, one of the several students The Hindu spoke to.

Reaching out daily

On the Indian High Commission’s helpline, and social media portals, several students like Mr. Rahul call or write in everyday, describing their problems, including details of ailing parents back home, health problems they have, trouble with the long supermarket queues for food, and difficulties in finding accommodation. Officials say they are coordinating their requests as much as possible, and have had to reach out to local NGOs and food aid groups as well as Indian student associations to help.

CPCB data shows pollution fell with cities recording a ‘good’ on AQI

The ongoing lockdown has pushed pollution levels in Delhi to a 5-year low and, across India, the number of cities that recorded ‘good’ on the air quality index (AQI) jumped from 6 — on March 16 — to 30 as on March 29, according to data from the Central Pollution Control Board.

PM 2.5, the most dangerous pollutant, measured at the pollution monitoring station in Anand Vihar, New Delhi, ranged from 16 g/m³ - 42g/m³ (microgram per metre cubed) from March 25 to April 1, the first week of the lockdown.

By comparison, PM 2.5 had ranged from 72-187g/m³ during the corresponding period last year, and 72-171g/m³ in 2018.

In 2016, it spanned 49-116g/m³, station data on the website of the CPCB shows.

It wasn’t possible to compare the air quality index, which is a weighted average of the contribution of several pollutants, in this week from that in previous years, as such data wasn’t available on the website.

Janata curfew report

The CPCB in a report on the impact of the ‘Janata curfew’ on March 22, said that on the day before, AQI was ‘Moderate (101-250)’ in Delhi.

“Overall, up to 44% reduction in PM10 levels was observed in Delhi during March 22-23, 2020, compared to previous day. The PM2.5 reduction was 8% on the curfew day but declined to 34% next day owing to negligible combustion activities on March 22-23, 2020, in and around the city,” the report said.

The key factor that triggered the decline was the number of on-road vehicles, which contributed to a 51% reduction in NOx levels and a 32% reduction in carbon monoxide levels during March 22-23 as compared to March 21.Unlike in the winter months, Delhi and other regions of the Indo Gangetic Plains generally tend to have better air quality in March, aided by consistent wind and sunlight, which help flush out pollutants.

“The impact of meteorological factors was partially favourable... however the reduction in air pollution can be largely attributed to transport and commercial-industrial restrictions,” the CPCB said in its report.

Research studies have attributed the key sources of PM2.5 in summer to be: dust and construction activities (35%), transport sector (20%) and industry (20%).

Lockdown effect

During the lockdown PM10 and PM2.5 levels were reduced by about 35-40%.

The cessation of industries contributed to this reduction by 10%, vehicles 10-15% and dust another 10-15%, the organisation calculated.

As on March 29, a total 91 cities were under ‘Good’ (0-50) and ‘Satisfactory (51-100)’ categories, with 30 cities with ‘Good’ AQI values. However, Lucknow, Muzaffarpur, Kalyan, Guwahati and Singrauli were under ‘Poor’ category during March 25-28.

High emission levels in Lucknow and Guwahati were noted for PM2.5, attributable to ‘local’ combustion related activities.

As on March 29, no city was under ‘Poor’ AQI (251-300) category.

‘Despite the hardships, people have accepted our strict decisions, and are complying with the guidelines’

Rohit Kumar Singh, Additional Chief Secretary (Medical & Health), steers the huge health workforce in Rajasthan, which is toiling round the clock to tackle COVID-19 and control the spread of the novel coronavirus. He discusses the strategies to deal with the situation in an interview to Mohammed Iqbal in Jaipur on Friday.

What are the special steps the Medical & Health Department is taking in Rajasthan to tackle COVID-19, which are different from other States?

‘Ruthless containment’, which we have adopted at the hotspots of infection, is the key to controlling the spread of coronavirus. Despite the hardships, people have accepted our strict decisions, and are complying with the guidelines. You have to weigh what you want — people’s comfort or spread of the disease. We also went to all households in the affected areas for screening. For example, we touched 40 lakh people in the worst-affected Bhilwara district, while the figure for the entire State is 4.16 crore.

Did the screenings lead to identification of COVID-19-positive cases?

After going to every individual in Bhilwara district and asking them about symptoms, we identified 14,000 people who had influenza-like condition. We kept track of them and if anyone showed the COVID-19 symptoms, along with a history of contact or travel, he or she was isolated. We have followed a very structured standard operating procedure.

What is the purpose of the 11-day-long “all down curfew”, which has started in Bhilwara on Friday?

We wish to cover every person who might have been left out. The figure of recovery of COVID-19-positive people in Bhilwara is very encouraging. Of the 26 infected persons, 17 have recovered. The strategy is: Don’t let the virus spread and treat the people who are already infected. The government is working on both fronts.

Will the random sampling also help prevent the community spread?

Because of the nature of the disease, there might be the people hovering around in the sub-clinical stage. They may not be showing symptoms, but they are carriers. The community sampling involves rapid test, instead of a diagnostic procedure. If there is a probability that someone is carrying the virus, we start isolating them and go for confirmation.

After Bhilwara, the Ramganj area in Jaipur has emerged as a major hotspot. How are you tackling the situation there?

Ramganj is our bigger worry now. The character of the area is different, as it is densely populated and has small and congested houses. People live there in close proximity, and it is not possible for them to maintain social distancing. We have been carrying out an intense contact tracing there since the first case was detected and have asked the people to keep distance from the suspected cases. Only today, two bus-loads of people were sent to an isolation facility after being asked to live separately for some days until the disease settled down. The good news from Ramganj is that no COVID-19-positive person has come up in the 170 tests we conducted since Thursday.

Are Tablighi Jamaat members who have returned to their native places or travelled to different towns after the attending the Delhi event emerging as a greater risk?

Tablighi Jamaat members are, indeed, a big risk. The infection has emerged in the districts such as Dholpur, Bharatpur, Churu and Tonk, which were earlier unaffected. Tonk is a big hotbed now, with 17 cases. But the saving grace is that they have been largely identified. We have persuaded them to give details about where they went and whom they met. Our attempt is to isolate them and test them.

Were there some instances of attacks on doctors and health workers who went to the affected areas in the State?

There were some instances because of the emotional and social issues involved in this entire scenario. But the situation has improved with the protection given by the police to the teams of the Medical and Health Department. I have received reports that the people gathered in large numbers to get screened at several places when they were convinced about the exercise.

Will the situation be under control in Rajasthan by the time the nationwide lockdown is lifted?

I believe the situation will come under control, unless an unforeseen incident like the Nizamuddin centre’s infection takes place. Before the Tablighi Jamaat cases were detected, we were reasonably in control till April 1. But these cases will be controlled, as they are very defined and structured. We are handling the entire of set of Tablighi Jamaat members, not just those who attended the Delhi event, to be on the safe side.

Pages ( 1 of 4 ): 1 234Next »