An Indian social activist distributes masks to pedestrians at the landmark Charminar in Hyderabad, India, March 5, 2020.
An Indian social activist distributes masks to pedestrians at the landmark Charminar in Hyderabad, India, March 5, 2020.

NEW DELHI - For weeks India, the world’s second most populous country, stayed alert but hopeful that it was escaping the worst of the coronavirus outbreak – only three cases had been detected in a southern state among students who returned from China.  

That optimism was shattered when the number of cases jumped this week to 29 including 16 Italian tourists.  

The spurt in cases has prompted authorities to announce extra precautions.

Primary schools in the capital New Delhi have been shut till the end of the month.  

Screening will be stepped up at airports to cover all passengers arriving in the country instead of those from 12 countries listed earlier.  “

The government has initiated measures to contain the virus,” Health Minister Harsh Vardhan told parliament on Thursday saying that there is no need to panic.

The potential for rapid spread of the virus in India given the country’s dense population has been a focus of serious concern for health experts.   

Intensive efforts are on to identify and isolate the hundreds of people who came in touch with those who are infected with the virus including the Italian tourists who travelled widely in the northern state of Rajasthan.  

"With the increasing global spread of the disease, we are confronted with new challenges. The contact tracing of positive cases requires the tracing of hundreds of contacts in multiple locations and monitoring their health," Vardhan told reporters earlier.  

Agra, home to the famous Taj Mahal, was among the places put on alert after six cases were identified from the city.  

A summit of India and the European Union scheduled to be held on March 20 in Brussels has also been postponed in view of the coronavirus outbreak.  “Health authorities of both the countries suggested that travelling must not take place at present,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said.  

India, a key supplier of generic drugs to the world, this week also announced restrictions on export of some common medicines raising fears of creating shortages in other countries. They include the widely-used pain reliever paracetamol, certain antibiotics and vitamins.  

A young man buys medication at a pharmacy in New Delhi, March 6, 2020. (A. Pasricha/VOA). India is one of the world's major producers of affordable drugs.

India’s drug industry, that imports nearly 70 % of the raw ingredients from China, is struggling to get stocks amid disruptions in production and supply chains in China. The restriction on 26 pharmaceutical ingredients and the medicines made from them were announced to ensure adequate domestic stocks.  

Meanwhile, the spurt in cases of coronavirus is casting a dampener on the country’s much-loved Hindu festival of Holi when people throw brightly colored powdered paint on each other to mark the advent of spring.  

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first to send out the message that Holi events to be held next Tuesday should be avoided. “

Experts across the world have advised authorities  to reduce mass gatherings to avoid the spread of COVID19 Novel Coronavirus,” Modi said in a tweet on Wednesday. “Hence, this year I have decided not to participate in any Holi Milan (meeting) program.”

Holi festivities at the presidential palace were also canceled.

Even before the advise to skip large gatherings went out, social media had been abuzz with claims that Chinese goods imported for the Holi festival should be avoided because they are infected with the coronavirus. Experts have reassured people that it was a misleading claim.    

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