Countries enact travel bans to contain India’s COVID variant—and protect against ‘a global resurgence all over again’

April 28, 2021, 10:58 AM UTC

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, India is in the throes of a public health catastrophe. A second wave of infections has blindsided the country that until March seemed to have the coronavirus under control. Hospital beds are full, and medical supplies—most crucially, oxygen—are in short supply. India on Wednesday recorded 360,000 new COVID cases and 3,000 deaths in a 24-hour span. All the while, scientists are concerned that a new variant—an ominously titled “double mutant strain”—is behind the skyrocketing case count. 

As India grapples with its crisis, other countries have locked their borders to any visitors from the country, whose diaspora is the largest in the world.

As of Wednesday, at least 10 countries including Italy, Germany, and Singapore have instituted new bans on flights to and from India. Other countries, including Australia, France, and the United Kingdom, have reduced flights or extended mandatory quarantines for travelers arriving from India.

In Hong Kong, authorities implemented a two-week ban on all flights from India on April 18 after authorities detected that over one-third, or 52, of all passengers on an April 3 flight from New Delhi tested positive for COVID-19. All of the travelers submitted negative tests within 72 hours of boarding the plane, meaning that Hong Kong only detected the cases after the passengers arrived in the city.

Hong Kong authorities said in a statement that the high number of cases on the flight, combined with worries about the Indian variant of the virus, prompted the government to temporarily suspend the flights.

Nicholas Thomas, a professor of global health governance at the City University of Hong Kong, says the flight ban “was not just about the India mutation.” The ban was also “about the fact that the virus is now truly endemic throughout India” and the “high chance” that any passengers arriving could be carrying it.

Thomas says that other countries may not be acutely concerned about India’s variant, called B.1.617, since it’s not yet proven more transmissible or resistant to vaccines. What’s prompted such swift, definitive action from other countries is the potential for the India outbreak to knock the world back from what feels like a turning point in the pandemic. 

India is now recording nearly half of the world’s new confirmed COVID-19 cases each day, and case counts appear to be leveling off or falling in countries like Brazil and the U.S., which are recording the second- and third-most new infections per day, respectively. 

“You can easily see the virus getting out unless it’s properly contained within India,” Thomas says. “If there aren’t flight bans in place to stop India’s virus from spreading beyond its borders, we really are looking at a global resurgence all over again.”

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India handled the first wave of COVID-19 reasonably well last year, with daily cases falling below 10,000 in January. But the nation was caught off guard by the second wave after Narendra Modi’s administration and the general public eased COVID precautions too soon, says Suranjit Chatterjee, senior consultant for internal medicine at New Delhi’s Apollo Hospital.

People were so exhausted from following a strict regime for a whole year that they relaxed and became casual about preventive measures like wearing a mask, says Sudhir Kalhan, chairman at the Institute of Minimal Access, Metabolic, and Bariatric Surgery. Now, people are panicking, which is creating a different kind of problem. “People are hoarding antibiotics, antiviral drugs, and even things like oxygen concentrators are not available at three or four times the normal market rates,” he notes. “Medicines like Tamiflu, remdesivir, and even steroids, which were plenty, are in short supply.”

Tens of thousands of appeals for help getting medical supplies such as oxygen and admission to hospitals have streamed across Facebook and WhatsApp in recent days. Scenes of people lugging oxygen tanks on their motorcycles and cars are now common in New Delhi. 

“It’s a kind of tsunami, a deluge,” Kalhan says. “There are whole families, apartments, and entire neighborhoods that are being infected. What we have found is probably a double mutant strain [of COVID].” Mutations are a significant change to the genetic code of a virus. A double mutation means that the variant underwent two such changes that may make it a greater risk to humans.

It’s understandable that other countries are imposing travel bans on India, Chatterjee says. 

“They really don’t know what type of virus strain is affecting Indians. I don’t think their decisions are unfair,” he says. “If we had the facility to genome-sequence the type of virus, they would have been less suspicious. We have not done a good job.”

The average prevalence of the mutant virus surged to more than half of all samples sequenced in April, up from almost nothing in January.

Bharat Gopal, senior consultant in pulmonology at New Delhi’s Fortis Hospital, says that rather than finding fault with other countries for imposing a travel ban, India should have been extra cautious.

“We have to know that there is no protocol that is foolproof, especially as the gold standard test is only 70% true. So for a highly contagious variant—30% is a big number. I feel such steps should have been taken by India too a few months back when the U.K., South African, and Brazil variants were causing havoc,” he notes.

In fact, India and over 40 countries and territories including Germany, France, and Hong Kong imposed at least temporary flight bans in December 2020 after the U.K. reported that a new COVID-19 variant was rapidly spreading across the country. Most of the countries resumed flights to and from the U.K. in the days and weeks following their initial bans, but at least one location, Hong Kong, has continued to ban flights from the U.K.

Public health experts stress that locked borders may help limit the spread of the Indian variant—already, the coronavirus strain first spotted in India has been detected in the U.S. and 18 other countries and territories—but they won’t ease the devastation currently gripping the subcontinent.

“Unless wealthier countries start donating resources to India in significant numbers…the virus is going to come back to bite the world again,” Thomas says. The COVID-19 aid packages that countries like the U.S., China, and the U.K. have announced so far have not been enough to make a material difference in India.

Kalhan predicts that the wave in India could recede as quickly as it swelled since people are recovering from infections and India’s vaccination campaign is plowing ahead. “Typically, whenever this kind of wave occurs, they go up very fast and also go down equally fast,” he notes. But he says that comprehensive solutions, including discipline in maintaining hygiene and safety protocols, are as crucial to taming the outbreak as vaccines.

No matter how quickly India’s crisis eases, the recent spike in infections and flight restrictions have slammed a travel industry that was already on the brink. 

Tourism contributes about 10% of India’s GDP and employs around 50 million people directly and indirectly. Subhash Goyal, chairman of STIC Travel Group and a veteran travel and tourism industry official, estimates that 10 million people have already lost jobs since the pandemic began, and about 40% of tour operators have shut down.

“The position is indeed very grim in this country at the moment. If India can put a travel ban on England in January when the country was experiencing its second wave, I feel this ban is justified,” Rajiv Mehra, president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators tells Fortune. He notes that the current restrictions arrived just as outbound travel firms had reopened bookings, starting with destinations like Dubai and Maldives. “As soon as things improve,” he says, “these bans should be lifted.”

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