Covid was back at the centre of India’s health and political map on Wednesday with the government advising people to get vaccinated and mask up, and saying random sample testing will be conducted at airports for passengers arriving from China and other countries.
As a political storm brewed with Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya writing to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to consider suspending the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the party reacting with anger, three cases of the Omicron subvariant BF.7, apparently the strain driving China's current surge of Covid cases, were detected.
The first case of BF.7 in India was detected in October by the Gujarat Biotechnology Research Centre, official sources said, adding that two cases have been reported from Gujarat and one from Odisha.
Mandaviya chaired a Covid review meeting with experts and senior officials stressing the need for continued surveillance even though there is no overall increase in the Covid caseload as of now.
"Covid is not over yet. I have directed all concerned to be alert and strengthen surveillance. We are prepared to manage any situation," the minister said.
He directed that the surveillance system for whole genome sequencing of positive case samples to track variants through the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) network be strengthened.
States/UTs have been requested to send samples of all COVID-19 positive cases to INSACOG Genome Sequencing Laboratories (IGSLs) on a daily basis, for sequencing, to track new variants, if any, a health ministry statement said.
India has been witnessing a steady decline in cases with average daily cases falling to 158 in the week ending December 19, 2022, the minister was briefed in a presentation.
However, a consistent rise in global daily average cases has been reported for the last six weeks, with 5.9 lakh daily average cases reported in the week ending December 19, 2022.
"Random sample testing will be done for international air passengers arriving from various countries including China," an official source said after the review meeting.
NITI Aayog member (Health) Dr V K Paul noted that only 27-28 per cent of India's eligible population had taken the Covid precaution dose and said people should take the jab and also wear masks in crowded places.
The Karnataka government will also start screening international passengers at Bengaluru airport in view of the sudden spurt in Covid cases in some parts of the world, state Health Minister K Sudhakar said.
Other state governments such as West Bengal, Maharashtra and Delhi also expressed their concern and expressed their readiness to tackle an eventuality of cases going up.
As concern mounted, Mandaviya wrote to Rahul Gandhi and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot citing concerns raised by three BJP MPs from the desert state and urged the Congress leadership to consider suspending their yatra if Covid protocols could not be followed.
He said the three MPs had flagged concerns, requesting him that Covid protocols, including the use of masks and sanitisers, be strictly followed during the march and only those who are vaccinated be allowed to participate. The MPs also requested the Union minister to ensure that participants are isolated before and after taking part in the march.
Stung to the quick, the Congress accused the government of selectively picking on the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Pointing to the BJP taking out marches in Karnataka and Rajasthan, party leaders, including Jairam Ramesh and Pawan Khera, said public health is far too serious an issue for party politics.
"Parliament is meeting normally. Masks are no longer compulsory anywhere including on flights. The BJP has taken out yatras in Rajasthan and Karnataka. There has been no advisory from the Centre to states of late except the one issued yesterday on genome sequencing," Congress general secretary (communications) Ramesh said in a statement.
Ramesh also said that in March 2020, the Modi government allegedly delayed imposition of lockdown by at least a week to enable the toppling of the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh.
“If there is a protocol for gatherings Bharat Jodo Yatra will abide by it undoubtedly," he said.
“I can understand that the BJP is afraid and is in trouble after seeing the success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra,” Ramesh told reporters.
Khera, who pointed to the lack of restrictions in public transport, also asked the government to announce Covid protocols and said the party would follow them. "We are wondering why a similar letter was not sent to the president of BJP in Rajasthan Satish Punia who is carrying out a Janakrosh Yatra there. We understand there is not much of a response to that Janakrosh Yatra. There are no people there," he told reporters. "We also understand there is a huge response across the country to the Bharat Jodo Yatra and there is a lot of crowd here," he added. The senior Congress leader said the BJP was taking out yet another yatra in Karnataka. "Has the health minister also sent this letter to the Karnataka BJP. We want to know. Today, if you were to travel by air, nobody will ask you to wear a mask or use a sanitiser," said Khera. The yatra entered Haryana on Wednesday from Rajasthan on Wednesday morning.
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