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18 March 2020, Gateway House

India combats Coronavirus

India has responded swiftly to contain the spread of the Corona Virus Disease. The government’s prompt and well-coordinated response, including in the diplomatic realm, shows direction from the highest political leadership. Yet, there is no room for complacency or slackening of vigilance

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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On March 11 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) formally designated Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) a ‘pandemic’, and advised a vigorous global response to counter it.  India has been able to contain it so far: 126 confirmed cases and three deaths at the time of writing.[1] Given the size and density of its population and modest capacity to cope in a truly grave situation, the Indian government has proceeded to confront the challenge with an impressive mix of seriousness, sincerity and firmness. A multi-pronged robust Indian response has been evolving in recent weeks.

Domestically, strong pandemic mitigation steps have been taken by various ministries. On March 14, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 that temporarily gives it the power to take special measures and prescribe regulations for curtailing the effect of the pandemic.[2] [3] The same day, the Ministry of Home Affairs also deemed COVID-19 a ‘notified disaster’ and invoked the National Disaster Management Act of 2005.[4] Through this act, the central government has allocated the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) to the states for domestic COVID-19 mitigation and management mechanisms. The central government contributes 75% of SDRF’s resources to general category states, whereas it gives 90% of the same fund to special category states.[5] The SDRF can be used for procuring equipment, medication and creating testing and quarantine facilities.

The Ministry of Defence is operating numerous quarantine facilities at Indian Army, Indian Air Force and Indian Navy stations for isolating travellers from COVID-19 infected countries.[6]

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which is a constituent of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, has set up 72 Coronavirus medical testing laboratories across India[7] and provided Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for private laboratories to undertake COVID-19 tests.[8] The ICMR’s specialised research unit, the National Institute of Virology, has been able to isolate 11 different strains of COVID-19, causing Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), the aim being to go a step further in developing drugs, vaccines and rapid diagnostic kits for curing the disease. With this achievement, India has joined a coveted club of four countries –Japan, China, U.S., and Thailand.[9]

Given the globalised nature of the COVID-19 challenge, India has paid special attention to the external facets of its management. Several timely measures were initiated by closely monitoring and drawing appropriate lessons from the mitigation mechanisms used in the pandemic-affected regions.

First, India has accorded high priority to the evacuation of Indian nationals, providing prompt help to its students, pilgrims, tourists and others stranded in China, Iran and Italy. Over 1,400 were evacuated, as of March 15, through special flights organized by the Indian Air Force and Air India.[10] In addition, nationals of neighbouring countries too were extended this assistance. More are set to be evacuated in the coming days. A strict health protocol is in operation in respect of all evacuations. India now has an experienced playbook in such rescue operations.

Second, restricting the inflow of arrivals from abroad was necessary. The government suspended all existing visas, except for limited categories, from 13 March to 15 April 2020.[11] Most land borders too have been closed. The resultant ‘self-quarantine’ of the country will insulate it from imported infections – the first point of the pandemic’s spread. Strict screening of passengers at airports and seaports, surveillance and monitoring, and public communication are now in place.

Third, in a highly innovative diplomatic initiative, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used videoconferencing to convene a summit of leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries to devise a comprehensive regional strategy. The March 15 summit resulted in an emergency fund, with India contributing $10 million, its offer of assistance in the form of testing, equipment, medical teams and medicines, pandemic surveillance software, agreement to adopt best practices and ensure continuous coordination through health ministers.[12] The virtual summit has been widely welcomed in South Asia and beyond. It has even generated hopes of SAARC, whose activities have been largely frozen since 2014, resurrecting and gradually springing into action for rebuilding regional cooperation.

Fourth, New Delhi has initiated a move for convening a virtual G20 summit in order to craft consensus on the set of measures needed to fight the Coronavirus pandemic at the global level. The proposal has been acknowledged by Australian prime minister Scott Morrison.[13] Whether this proposal gains traction will become evident soon.

An informed and objective view suggests that COVID-19 may stay as a serious challenge for several weeks, if not months. India’s response has been professional and effective, driven by the imperative to contain the disease’s footprint and step up preparations to combat it.But its foremost challenge will be to prevent any domestic or overseas socio-geopolitical or socio-geoeconomic variables from overwhelming its medical workforce, supply chain, and infrastructure. There is little ground for vainglory, complacency or slackening of vigilance.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House, and a former ambassador to five countries.

Dr. Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme, Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact outreach@gatewayhouse.in

© Copyright 2020 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.

References

[1] Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, ‘Novel Corona Virus’, Government of India, 14 March 2020, https://www.mohfw.gov.in/

[2] Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, ‘States/UTs empowered for management of COVID-19′, Press Information Bureau – Government of India, 14 March 2020, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1606428#

[3] Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, ‘High-level Group of Ministers reviews current status, and actions for prevention and management of COVID-19′, Press Information Bureau – Government of India, 11 March 2020, https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=200106

[4] National Disaster Management Authority, Items and Norms of assistance from the State Disaster Response Fund’, Ministry of Home Affairs – Government of India, 14 March 2020, https://www.ndmindia.nic.in/images/gallery/Items%20and%20Norms%20of%20assistance%20(COVID-19).PDF

[5] Disaster Management Division, ‘SDRF/NDRF’, Ministry of Home Affairs – Government of India, https://www.ndmindia.nic.in/response-fund

[6] Press Information Bureau, ‘In a big boost to ‘Make in India’, DAC paves way for procurement of 83 indigenous Tejas fighter aircraft for IAF’, Ministry of Defence – Government of India, 12 March 2020, https://pib.gov.in/newsite/pmreleases.aspx?mincode=33

[7] Indian Council of Medical Research, ’52 testing sites for COVID-19′, Department of Health Research – Ministry of Health and Family Affairs – Government of India,

https://icmr.nic.in/sites/default/files/upload_documents/Testing_sites_for_COVID19.pdf

[8] Indian Council of Medical Research, ‘Strategy of COVID-9 testing in India’, Department of Health Research – Ministry of Health and Family Affairs – Government of India, 17 March 2020,

https://icmr.nic.in/sites/default/files/upload_documents/Strategy_COVID19_testing_India.pdf

[9] Kant, Rajni and Gupta, Dr. Nivedita, ‘India is the 5th country globally to isolate the COVID-19 virus strain’, Indian Council of Medical Research – Department of Health Research – Government of India – Ministry of Health and Family Affairs, 13 March 2020,

https://icmr.nic.in/sites/default/files/press_realease_files/Press_Release_ICMR_13March2020.pdf

 

[10] Ministry of External Affairs, ‘Press Release by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (14.03.2020)’, Government of India, 14 March 2020, https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32536/

[11] Bureau of Immigration, ‘Advisory: Travel and Visa restrictions related to COVID-19′, Ministry of Home Affairs – Government of India, https://boi.gov.in/content/advisory-travel-and-visa-restrictions-related-covid-19-0

[12] Ministry of External Affairs, ‘PM interacts with SAARC leaders to combat COVID-19 in the region’, Government of India, 15 March 2020, https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32539/

[13] Ministry of External Affairs, ‘PM interacts with SAARC leaders to combat COVID-19 in the region’, Government of India, 15 March 2020, https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32539/

 

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