Bureau Report + Agencies
NEW DELHI: India’s government has asked the country’s states to keep a sharp lookout for any new variants of the coronavirus and urged people to wear masks in crowded areas, citing an increase in COVID-19 cases in China and other parts of the globe.
Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya met senior government officials on Wednesday to discuss the matter, with all those present wearing masks, a practice that has not been mandatory in most parts of the country for several months.
“COVID is not over yet. I have directed all concerned to be alert and strengthen surveillance,” he said on Twitter. “We are prepared to manage any situation.”
China has seen a surge in infections after ending strict restrictions, while data from the World Health Organization shows infections have risen in countries like Japan, South Korea and the United States in recent days.
The Indian government has asked all states to ensure that samples of positive cases are sent to the country’s 54 designated genome sequencing laboratories.
“Such an exercise will enable timely detection of newer variants if any,” Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan wrote in a letter to the states on Tuesday.
Some opposition leaders and Twitter users in India have called for a suspension of flights to and from China. A government source, who was not authorized to speak to the media and declined to be identified, said there was no such plan.
Broadcaster India Today said, citing sources, that authorities will randomly test international arrivals at airports. A spokesperson for the health ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mandaviya also asked participants in a cross-country march organized by the opposition Congress party to ensure they are vaccinated and follow safety measures like wearing masks.
With more than 44 million COVID cases to date, India has reported the most in the world after the United States. Its number of confirmed infections has, however, fallen sharply in the past few months, with about 1,200 cases being reported every week at present.
Meanwhile, India registered about 475,000 more total deaths in 2020 than the previous year, government data released months ahead of schedule on Tuesday showed, as the World Health Organization readies its estimates of excess COVID-19 deaths whose methodology New Delhi has opposed.
Some experts estimate India’s actual COVID-19 death toll is as high as 4 million, about eight times the official figure, especially as a record wave driven by the Delta variant killed many people in April and May of last year. The WHO’s estimate will be published on Thursday.
Vinod Kumar Paul, a top health official who has overseen India’s fight against the pandemic, said there was nothing “dramatic” in the total death data for 2020 and that those were “absolute, correct and counted numbers”.
He said the data showing 8.1 million total deaths in India in 2020 was released by the Office of the Registrar General two to three months in advance because of the attention on the country’s COVID-19 toll.
“There is a public narrative in the media, based on various modelling estimates, that India’s COVID-19 deaths are many times the reported figure – that’s not the case in reality,” he told state TV.
“We now have actual data for 2020, there is no need to do any modelling now. We will have actual, robust data for 2021 too. Modelling can lead to overestimation, absurd estimation.”
The death count grew slower in the country of 1.35 billion people in 2020 than in the previous two years, the data showed.