The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, continues to spread at an alarming rate in India. Over the last 24 hours, 101 new cases have been reported, taking the total number of positive cases to at least 492 till 8.45 am today. The figure includes nine deaths.
Beginning today, almost the entire country enters a complete lockdown. Earlier, only 75 districts across 22 states were shut down since Monday morning. This covered major cities like Mumbai, Delhi-NCR, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Thiruvananthapuram, Ahmedabad, Pune, Lucknow and Jaipur, among others. Passenger trains including metro and suburban services were also suspended in the country.
Now, it has been extended to 548 districts in as many as 30 states and Union Territories. Most states will observe the shut down till March 31. Only “essential services” like medical facilities, grocery shops, fuel stations, police and fire service etc. will be allowed to operate during this period. Many of these states have sealed their borders with neighbouring states.
Goa and northeastern states like Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura have joined the rest of the country in announcing a complete closure from Tuesday onward. Most other states, which observed partial shutdowns earlier, will be entirely closed now. The exceptions remain only in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha which will have partial curbs in some districts.
Most state governments imposed the lockdown under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. Section 3 of the Act details penalties according to Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code for disobeying orders detailed in the Act. Punishments include imprisonment up to six months, a fine up to Rs 1,000, or both.
States like Maharashtra, Punjab, Puducherry, Gujarat and Delhi have invoked Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code to ensure people’s compliance of the orders. This means that assembly of four or more people will not be allowed unless specially approved by the administration. Tamil Nadu will invoke Section 144 from 6 pm today.
The Delhi police will issue curfew passes for goods vehicles entering the national capital from the NCR in order to ensure smooth availability of “essential services”. The police added that media persons and government officials will be allowed to move with their regular identity cards.
Despite such an announcement, a journalist named Navin Kumar, who works for Aaj Tak news channel, was stopped and beaten up by policemen near AIIMS when he was headed to his office in Noida Film City yesterday. The policemen, Kumar alleged, belonged to the Safdarjung police station.
This morning, as curbs are being tightened to contain the COVID-19 spread, the police cleared the Shaheen Bagh sit-in protest in Delhi. Led by women, the protest site in south Delhi became iconic in the country for its continued demonstration against the amended citizenship law in the country. Beginning in mid-December, the demonstration completed more than 100 days till this morning.
The All India Institute of Medical Science in Delhi will shut its out-patient department services. The announcements come into effect from today and will continue until further notice.
Supreme Court’s new directives
In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court of India on Monday afternoon asked all states to consider releasing certain prisoners in order to avoid overcrowding in the jails. As per the order, prisoners who are convicted or charged with offenses having jail term of up to seven years can be given parole.
"Each state shall constitute a high powered committee, it will determine which class of prisoners can be released on parole or interim bail for such period as may be appropriate," said the order by Chief Justice of India S.A Bobde.
Earlier, the apex court decided to hear all the cases through video conferencing from March 23 onward. Accordingly, the judges would sit in the court room while the advocates would be appearing and making arguments for the cases through a separate monitoring room in the court premises. In general, lawyers have been asked to bring only urgent cases to the top court.
Suspension of commercial flights
The central government on Monday afternoon announced the suspension of all domestic commercial flights in the country. This will come into effect from Tuesday midnight and will continue till March 31.
Earlier on March 22, an announcement was made terminating all international flights coming into the country. The window of two days was given to domestic flights to allow passengers flying in from abroad to reach their final destinations. Both the moves will ground nearly 3,300 daily flights in the country. During this period, only all-cargo flights, off-shore helicopter operations, medical evacuation flights, and special flights approved by the government will continue.
ICMR’s revised guidelines for testing kits in private labs
In a press briefing on Monday evening, the Indian Council of Medical Research, the country’s top medical research body, revised its guidelines for testing kits to be used by private laboratories for suspect COVID-19 cases.
Earlier, the council stated that only those commercial kits will be allowed for doing the tests which are “US FDA approved and European CE certified or both”. This effectively meant no test, as validated by the Pune-based National Institute of Virology, could be used. With COVID-19 cases mounting in the country, this posed a serious threat as most countries had already stopped exporting kits fearing a domestic shortage.
The revised guideline on Monday brought a relief as the Council now allowed NIV-approved kits to be used by private laboratories to conduct COVID-19 tests.