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The first Covid-19 case was detected in India on January 21, 2020. In February and March several Covid-19 cases were reported and lockdown was declared on March 24 for two months. Four chief carriers of the disease were the travellers, traders, tourists, migrants. With the publication of reports in the media of detailed cases of individuals who were infected and then arrived in India, it was possible to know how the disease was brought by the travellers, tourists and traders and how others contracted the virus from them. The migrants, especially large number of workers, too were carrying the infection from one part of the country to another. The main centres of spread in the urban areas were places of religious congregation, mandis and bazaars, slums, shopping malls and the like. Negative response from the members of the communities complicated the problem. A large number of cases were reported that showed health workers and doctors were denied access to their home, religious minorities were targeted, migrants were not allowed to enter to their villages. The state response to control the disease was far from adequate. Social scientists have a great deal to learnt from this unprecedented pandemic in India.
With the outbreak of Covid-19 in India in February, 2020 the government of India adopted a policy of ‘wait and watch’ to ascertain likely impact of the virus in the country. It was known that the origin of the disease or the epicentre was Wuhan Province in China. Therefore, the spread of the virus was only possible through human to human transmission, from one human being to another. The virus had its source then outside India. It was clear that the travellers are like to bring the virus from abroad and infect an Indian who does not have it. It would eventually spread like wild fire from one state to another, from cities to villages, from the rich to the poor, from non-Indian to Indian and also from Indian settled abroad to those who live in the sub-continent. The question that needs to be answered is what exactly was the nature of transmission of Covid-19? How grave was the crisis? How did India tackle the problem of the virus infection? The first part of the Report deals with some of these questions. In the second part, I will examine the nature of containment and control of the disease in different parts of the country.
By the end of February, utmost care was taken to stop entry of travellers who were likely to carry the infection. As a first step most airports were informed to keep an eye on those entering the country with the disease. For surveillance a special control area was created at the airport to check each passenger. The method was introduced in all important airports like Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai besides New Delhi, where passengers in large number arrive from abroad. However, this method was not enough to control Covid-19, a disease that can kill millions. Indian states responded differently. Some states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu were watchful right from the beginning by taking additional measures (like on the spot temparature checking) to ensure no person with the disease can manage to enter the country. Some were lackadaisical in their approach like Mumbai and Kolkata (to some extent Delhi). They were late in studying the effect of the spread of virus and its likely impact on the public and made no effort to create infrastructure to deal with the disease.
Covid-19 Spreads The first Indian Covid-19 case was detected on January 21, 2020. In February cases were reported from some Southeast Asian countries like South Korea, Thailand, Singapore. From the late February and early March the virus had spread to countries like Italy, Spain, France, U.K. and Germany. All these countries were not prepared at all to deal with the disease. Death rates began to climb, first in Italy and from there to Spain, France and U.K. It was kept under control in Germany as death rates there was significantly lower than the rest. It was quite evident that the next stop of the virus would be the other side of the Atlantic, the USA and Latin America. In USA it was particularly lethal as with inadequate infrastructure the death rate started rising over thousand on each day.
The spread of the virus showed no specific pattern. It was hurting most the countries which were less prepared and had a sizable elderly population. For example, in Italy, it was sudden, virus attacked the vulnerable sections and within a short time played havoc. It was too sudden for most European states. They were all unprepared for an attack of this kind. They lacked enough man power, medical practitioners, personal protection equipment (PPE) and other items required for the treatment like ICU, ventilators. By the time they went for lockdown and other kinds of restrictions, damage was done. The virus had spread far and wide. Italy, Spain, France, Britain all had been fighting a losing battle in late March and early April.
As the virus reached the United States, citizens there found medical facilities far from adequate. The virus had a free run again, from late February and early March news of death due to Covid-19 began to pour in from New York, California, Washington and so on, first in hundreds and then in thousands. The big cities went for lockdown. Medical facilities were just missing to face this big challenge. The media reported at length the death and devastation caused by Covid-19 in all these countries. This triggered an alarm in countries in Asia as they wondered if developed countries failed so miserably in dealing with the disease then how are they going to face the challenge.
From early March Indian were watching with bated breath all that was happening in Europe and USA. Indian government realized that it was just a matter of time for the virus to strike Indian cities. However, from the mid-February a large number of travellers began to arrive in India where the virus caused havoc. No control was ordered, except screening of passengers from countries like China, Thailand, Korea and later Japan. This measure was too little and too late. Infected persons began to arrive in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Jaipur and Kolkata airports. As the number of Covid-19 cases began to increase the Indian government took serious note of the matter. Experts were asked to assess the situation, Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) was requested to do all that they can to stop its spread in India. As a first step on the 22nd of March the Prime Minister announced one day ‘Janata Curfew’ or lockdown for one day. Then on March 24 a full-scale nationwide lockdown was declared for 21 days up to April 14 for 1.3 billion population of the country. On 14 April, lockdown was extended again up to May 3. On May 1, again the lockdown was extended up to May 17. Nearly two months of lockdown. In the final stage the country was divided into red, orange and green zones on the basis of the report on the spread of the virus.
Arrival of travellers with the disease was the main cause of worry for the government. A large number of Indians lived in West Asia, in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai and the like. Countries in West Asia too were having Covid-19 cases among their citizens. From West Asian countries Indians were arriving in India with the disease. They went to Kerala and Mumbai and in other parts of the country. Several migrants from Kerala went to West Asia and their remittances helped Kerala to prosper economically. Kerala took an early call to examine each one of the migrants from West Asia. They maintained strict surveillance, suspected cases were sent to quarantine and for some conducted tests.. Kerala with better medical facilities and skilled man power managed to contain the spread from infected persons and fatality rates remained low. It was the first state to flatten the curve. ‘Kerala model’ became well-known all over the country. It was the first state that successfully followed the three cardinal principles to combat the disease, tracing, testing and treatment.
For trade and business many Indian from the middle class and lower middle class travelled to China for several years. Some of them were just middle men who negotiated deals for their employers in India. Nearly a 5 to 6 flights used to ferry them to China almost everyday from cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai to Chinese cities like Guanzhou, Hanzhou, Shanghai, Beijing and other places. Many of them were not familiar with the spread of the Covid-19 and as a result they continued travelling. These travellers contracted the disease and carried them to India. In February and early March they were hardly detained at the airport for check up. Some of these lived in cities like Jaipur, Bhupal, Indore the places that became hotspots of the disease. In March, reports of Covid-19 positive cases began to pour in from these cities.
Finally, European tourists to India from countries like Italy, U.K., France were also arriving in India to visit popular tourist destinations. One group of tourists from Italy were found infected with the virus in Jaipur in mid-March, they were immediately quarantined and treated. They interacted with several Indians, particularly with those involved in tourism business. Some tourists in Kerala too were found positive, they were sent to local hospital for treatment. One such tourist area that became hotspot was Jaipur in Rajasthan.
No official data is available on the entry of the travellers, traders, tourists, migrants and others who entered to India in the month of February, although officials kept tacking them from March, 2020. But by then it was quite late, the virus had spread to a large number of places. With the publication of reports in the media of detailed cases of individuals who were infected and then arrived in India, it was possible to know how the disease was brought by the travellers and from them went to others, how their cases were detected, and what kind of treatment they received. The case of some Italian tourists who went to visit Jaipur was reported at length in both print and electronic media. Similarly, the story of a student who arrived in Kolkata from the U.K. also received media coverage. The student arrived in Kolkata from London with the infection with infection, stayed with his family and interacted with others, in spite of having symptoms of the disease. He was sent to quarantine, tested positive and was admitted in the local hospital for treatment. This was the first case of Covid-19 in the city of Kolkata. In Delhi a Muslim sect called Jamat Tablighi organized a congregation in which a large number of travellers from countries like Malayasia, Indonesia attended. They too carried the disease and infected many attendees. Some of the infected persons in the congregation went to Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Karnataka. They then infected others in the community.