Mumbai: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address to the country today, claimed that India had begun screening of passengers from COVID-19 affected countries before it had a single patient. In fact, only three Indian airports--Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata--had begun screening passengers from only China and Hong Kong from January 18, 2020, four more airports from January 21, 2020, and 13 more from January 28, 2020.

When India reported its first COVID-19 case on January 30, 2020--the same day that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public health emergency--its airports were not screening passengers from countries other than China and Hong Kong, though 20 countries had reported cases.

These included: Thailand (14), Singapore (10), Australia (5), USA (5), Japan (8), South Korea (4), Malaysia (7), France (4), Vietnam (2), Canada (2), Nepal (1), Cambodia (1), Sri Lanka (1), Germany (4), UAE (4), Hong Kong (10), Macao (7), Taiwan (8), Finland (1) and Angola (1). The US had confirmed its first case on January 23, 2020, while Italy and Spain reported their first case on January 31, 2020 and February 1, 2020, respectively.

Of the first 27 patients who tested positive for COVID-19 in India, the first three--detected on January 30, February 2 and February 3, 2020--had a history of travel to China. The fourth and the fifth patients (detected on March 2, 2020) had a history of travel to Italy and Dubai, respectively. On March 4, 2020, India detected 22 new cases--14 of the patients were Italian tourists in Jaipur.

The government mandated universal screening of all international flights only on March 4, 2020, by when 27 cases had been detected across five states in India.

Prior to this, India had sporadically expanded screening to flights from Kathmandu, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia along with an advisory to avoid non-essential travel to Singapore on February 22, 2020; issued an advisory to avoid travel to Iran, Italy and Republic of Korea on February 26, 2020; and called for suspension of visas to Italy, Iran, South Korea, Japan and China on March 3, 2020.

Further, both Indian and foreign passengers (other than those restricted) “arriving directly or indirectly from China, South Korea, Japan, Iran, Italy, Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, Singapore and Taiwan must undergo medical screening at port of entry”, it said on March 3, 2020.

"When we started screening passengers at the airport, we tested people coming from the list of countries given by the Centre. But some of the countries were not included in this list and certain incoming passengers slipped through,” Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray said on April 11, 2020, while announcing an extension of the lockdown in his state. This list did not include the US and the UAE, which had reported cases, as Firstpost pointed out in a report on April 14, 2020.

The COVID-19 cases were reported from Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, “posing a problem that the government had not exactly foreseen,” The News Minute reported on March 24, 2020. As many as 63 of 95 positive cases in Kerala till March 23, 2020, were those who returned from these countries, mainly UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

"Kerala has discovered this after testing many of its Gulf returnees, however in many other states, the focus is firmly on those who have come back from Italy, Korea and Spain to name a few countries," the report said.

Cases were also traced to Indians returning from Italy (such as here and here), the UK (such as here and here) and Spain.

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