New Delhi: Only 19 per cent of international passengers arriving in India were screened for Covid-19 between 15 January and 23 March, a day before the lockdown was announced, an RTI reply from the government has revealed.
While only passengers from China and Hong Kong were being screened in January, the screening was expanded in early February to include Thailand and Singapore. Italy was included only on 26 February, when it still had 322 infections. Even then, other European countries were not included, said the RTI reply received by activist Saket Gokhale on 11 May.
I'd filed an RTI asking how many incoming intl' passengers were screened at airports between 15 Jan-18 Mar.
Modi govt says 15,24,266 passengers were screened.
DGCA stats say total intl' passenger traffic Jan-Mar is 78.4 lacs
INDIA SCREENED ONLY 19% OF ARRIVING PASSENGERS. pic.twitter.com/Nb5oy71Vlz
— Saket Gokhale (@SaketGokhale) May 14, 2020
Universal screening began only on 4 March, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that global infections had crossed 93,000, with over 14,000 infections outside China.
India shut down all air travel on 23 March, nearly two months after it saw its first confirmed Covid-19 case on 30 January. The nationwide lockdown was imposed on 25 March.
Some health experts told ThePrint that the Covid-19 crisis could have been averted in India had the screening ambit been widened earlier, blaming air travel for the spike in cases. In a conversation with ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on the digital Off The Cuff last month, WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan had pointed out that a lot of infection cases sneaked into the country in late February and early March, even as she lauded the government response in tackling the crisis. Other experts also highlighted the need to keep livelihoods in mind.
In a tweet on 15 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said, “We started screening entry into India from mid-January itself, while also gradually increasing restrictions on travel. The step-by-step approach has helped avoid panic.”
We started screening entry into India from mid-January itself, while also gradually increasing restrictions on travel.
The step-by-step approach has helped avoid panic: PM @narendramodi #SAARCfightsCorona
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) March 15, 2020
ThePrint reached out to the Ministry of Civil Aviation through a phone call and WhatsApp message, but it refused to comment on this report. However, sources in the ministry said it was only following the directions of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Passengers from Europe initially exempted
According to the RTI reply from the Directorate General of Health Services, over 15 lakh passengers — 15,24,266 passengers to be exact — were screened between 15 January and 23 March. During this period, over 78.4 lakh passengers arrived in India, said the data from Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
The response laid out the details of the screening process as it was carried out.
On 17 January, only passengers from China and Hong Kong were being screened at three Indian airports — Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata. Four days later, this was expanded to include four other airports — Chennai, Hyderabad, Kochi and Bengaluru, but passengers from other countries were not included.
By this time, the WHO had already announced that there were 282 confirmed Covid-19 cases, with four cases outside China.
On 2 February, passengers coming in from Thailand and Singapore were also brought under the screening process. At this time, global infections had touched 14,557 with 146 cases outside China.
On 12 February, screening had been extended to 21 Indian airports and passengers from Japan and South Korea were also being screened. Global infections stood at 45,171 across 24 countries then.
It was only on 26 February that the passengers coming from Italy were started to be screened, but passengers from other European countries were exempted. According to the WHO data, infections had already spread to 37 countries and were nearing 400 cases in Europe alone as of 26 February.
India began universal screening across all airports for all international passengers on 4 March. By this time, the country already had 44 confirmed Covid-19 cases, while the global infections were nearing 1 lakh across 76 countries.
The RTI reply also said that in the period between 15 January and 23 March, outgoing international passengers and domestic passengers were also not screened.
‘Waves of infection from Europe’
As India’s current number of infections nears 1 lakh, some health experts told ThePrint that this emergency could have been avoided if more people had been screened early on.
“India should have cut off international travel completely for six months at least when the first case surfaced. Spike in cases was because of free-for-all travel,” said Dr S.K. Sadhukhan, professor of epidemiology, All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, Kolkata.
On 25 April, the WHO had lauded India’s response to the pandemic saying the government’s actions managed to prevent an exponential growth of infections. But it highlighted that a lot of cases came in from Europe in late February.
“A lot of people who came back from Europe brought in later waves of infections in late Feb-March, and then there were too many contacts,” WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan had said on Off The Cuff.
However, some other experts said the point about the ambit of screening can be made in hindsight but public health policy also has to consider other factors like lives and livelihoods.
“Our strongest tool always is widespread screening. In hindsight, we can say we should have screened passengers from Europe since many cases were coming from there but apart from South Korea and Taiwan, no other country had started large scale screening. India widely responded to WHO directives and guidelines,” said Dr Preeti Kumar, vice president, health systems support, Public Health Foundation of India, New Delhi.