India cancels all tourist visas as COVID-19 cases rise

India said on Wednesday it will suspend all tourist visas to the country in a wide-reaching attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as cases across the region continued to rise.

The novel coronavirus has hit Europe and the United States far harder than China’s most immediate neighbours in South Asia, where no one has yet died. But as the number of cases in the region topped 80, experts fear that overstretched medical systems may not be able to handle the type of intensive care required.

India’s health ministry said in a statement that all existing visas will “stand suspended” until April 15. Individuals holding an Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) — an immigration status that confers visa-free travel to India — will also be barred entry into the country until April 15. 

The ban comes to effect at 12 p.m. GMT on March 13 from the port of departure.

The statement said the ban does not apply to “diplomatic, official, U.N./international organizations, employment, project visas” and visas issued to diplomats.

The order will come into effect March 13.

‘A precautionary measure’

It was not clear if the ban would include short-term business visas, though the advisory said anyone with a “compelling reason” to travel to the country could contact their nearest Indian mission.

It also urged Indian nationals to avoid all non-essential travel abroad, in one of the most far-reaching advisories since the virus outbreak began in late December.

An Indian policeman looks out from a tent at an isolation ward set up for possible COVID-19 patients in Jammu, India. (The Associated Press)

Spokespeople for India’s health and foreign ministries did not respond to requests for comment.

On Tuesday, India stopped issuing visas to citizens of France, Spain and Germany until further notice. Such restrictions were already in place for citizens of China, Italy, Iran, Japan and South Korea — the five countries worst hit by the outbreak of the virus.

India has also closed a border with neighbouring Myanmar to counter the COVID-19 outbreak, as countries across South Asia reported a rise in cases on Wednesday. No cases have so far been confirmed in Myanmar.

“As a precautionary measure [to prevent] transmission of coronavirus/COVID-19, the international border with Myanmar has been closed … until further orders,” N. Biren Singh, chief minister of the northeastern state of Manipur, which shares a border with Myanmar, said in a tweet on Tuesday.

Total of 68 cases

Total cases in the country rose to 68 on Wednesday, according to data from the federal heath ministry and the chief minister of Maharashtra state.

The country’s southern state of Kerala, which reported three new cases over the weekend, said on Tuesday it was shutting schools and movie theatres to avoid a further outbreak. Schools in at least two more states have also been closed.

In Afghanistan, the number of confirmed cases rose to seven from four, the health ministry said on Wednesday.

Bangladesh’s High Court has directed the government to take measures to curb the soaring prices of masks and sanitizers, after it reported its first three cases of the virus on Sunday.

Two of those cases have since tested negative.

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