WHO categorises India as having local transmission of Coronavirus, but government downplays it

14 March 2020
India continues to respond to COVID-19 with a focus on “imported” cases. With the current limits on testing for the virus, the Indian government is likely blind to the full scale of local transmission.
Sanjeev Verma / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
India continues to respond to COVID-19 with a focus on “imported” cases. With the current limits on testing for the virus, the Indian government is likely blind to the full scale of local transmission.
Sanjeev Verma / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

On Friday, 707 employees of a Noida-based leather company were put in home quarantine after one employee at the firm tested positive for COVID-19. The infected employee, a 46-year-old man, had recently returned from Italy, which has emerged as one of the nations worst affected by the virus outside China. The number of confirmed cases in Italy stands at 17,660, jumping by over 2,500 in twenty-four hours. Italy’s COVID-19 death toll is already 1,266—meaning seven percent of confirmed cases in the country have been fatal.

Prior to the mass quarantine at the leather company, the infected employee had continued to work even after showing initial symptoms of infection. Health ministry officials clarified that quarantine does not indicate suspected infection. “We are in touch with the people who’ve been recommended to isolate themselves,” Lav Agarwal, a joint secretary at the ministry, said at a press briefing on Friday. “If they show symptoms, they will be moved to a quarantine centre and given appropriate medical attention.”

The circumstances of the case, and the quarantine in response to it, indicate a serious chance of local transmission of COVID-19—that is, transmission that has not occurred outside Indian borders. At two separate press briefings held on Friday, both the health ministry and the Indian Council of Medical Research—also a government body—downplayed the possibility of local transmission. The latest Situation Report from the World Health Organisation, issued on Thursday, categorised India among countries having local transmission. India has joined countries such as Italy, Korea and China in the category, all with high burdens of the virus and ongoing human-to-human contagion domestically.

In its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian government continues to operate under the assumption of having to deal with what the WHO categorises as “imported cases only”—where transmission has been limited to international travellers alone. This is reflected in the decision to cancel all but a small set of visas, largely sealing the country’s borders, and to limit testing for the virus to those with a history of recent international travel and individuals who have had contact with them. The WHO’s indication that India is working under a faulty assumption shows the government’s present approach to the pandemic to be hugely inadequate. With the current limits on testing, India is likely blind to the scale of local transmission.

“I’d trust the WHO report because they have clearly-defined criteria,” a health-policy expert with a private think-tank explained, speaking on condition of anonymity. The government shut borders a few days ago, the expert said, but it is clear that many asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19—people who had yet to show symptoms of infection—came into India in the last weeks. “We don’t know who they are, and we are not trying to find them aggressively.”

Vidya Krishnan is a writer and journalist. Her first book, Phantom Plague: The Untold Story of How Tuberculosis Shaped our History, will be published by PublicAffairs in 2021.

Keywords: COVID-19 World Health Organisation Indian Council of Medical Research
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