by Peerzada Arshad Hamid
NEW DELHI, March 15 (Xinhua) -- A total of 83 COVID-19 cases and two deaths have been officially reported so far in India as the epidemic has developed into a pandemic and become a critical threat to the medical system of a country with the world's second-largest population.
Health experts in India said the next 10 days are crucial for the country vis-a-vis the outbreak.
"We have been able to contain the infection and put people in quarantine, but it is really premature to say we have less cases," said Nivedita Gupta, a scientist at Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). "We have kept our fingers crossed. Let us see how it unfolds in the days to come."
The ICMR is an apex body in India for the formulation, coordination and promotion of biomedical research.
With over 1.3 billion people, India is the second-largest country in terms of population in the world. Experts said that its healthcare infrastructure is not adequate to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak at a major scale.
"It is concerning that infrastructure, such as hospital beds, intensive care units, ventilators, and specialized manpower are poorly available in India for managing the higher burden of cases. The good news is we are not going into that stage," said Giridhar Babu, professor and head of lifecourse epidemiology at the Institute of Public Health in Bengaluru.
Following the coronavirus outbreak, the Indian authorities initiated measures like screening at airports and the establishment of testing laboratories, which the government said has helped the country tackle the outbreak. However, experts said it was too early to show complacency.
"The moment (the) COVID-19 cases started coming in India, it needs 14 days incubation period. By that time all the cases were traced immediately along with their contacts. The unprecedented measures of shutting down by government have been very useful in containing the outbreak," Babu said.
"For the actual outbreak, we have to wait for one week to 10 days to see if there are further symptoms," he added.
The government has dedicated helpline numbers across the country, urging people to get information on whether they need to go for a COVID-19 test. It has tried to raise awareness about the virus among the public through advertisements in print and online media. Even mobile phone calls begin with coughing, followed by a recorded message about COVID-19.
"India has done a very good job of containing the transmission after travel-related cases were found," he said. "But the fact is caseload in India is very low, and so far we have not come across the cases wherein people complain that they were not tested."
The government has set up 52 laboratories for COVID-19 testing and it takes over five hours to test each case.
"We are soon going to increase the number of testing facilities. Each laboratory can handle 90 tests a day at present. The current load is far less, so it will not be right to say we don't have adequate testing facilities," Gupta said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said precautions are necessary and people should not panic. Modi proposed that countries in South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) should formulate a joint strategy to fight COVID-19.
On Friday, the Indian government declared masks and hand sanitizers as "essential commodities," after fears over the virus led to shortages and black marketing of these items, which will remain under the essential commodities segment till the end of June.
The move is aimed at ensuring availability at reasonable prices and cracking down on hoarders and black marketeers. The federal government has also advised all states and union territories to invoke provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which will enable them to enforce advisories when needed.
Many states have closed educational institutions and cinemas until March 31 as a precautionary measure. Major sports events have also been canceled. People have been urged to avoid unnecessary foreign travel and large gatherings. The Indian government also suspended visas until April 15.
Experts fear that if the virus enters the community, it would become difficult for the authorities to handle because of the space congestion and poverty India has.
"We have sealed the borders and it is not possible to go for a complete shutdown for it has so many implications including the economic one," Gupta said. "We are trying hard to keep up with the detection of cases and prevent community transmission."
India is in a stage where disease transmission is limited to those linked to travel to the affected countries and those that had contact with the infected persons.
"In India so far, only travel-related cases have been found to carry the virus, which means it has come from (the) outside and not emerged here. The contacts are being traced and isolated accordingly," Babu said. "India has not reached the community transmission stage when the virus starts spreading through the community."