Officials in Karnataka confirmed India's first fatality due to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) on Thursday, opening a worrying new chapter in the pandemic's spread in the country where 74 people have now been sickened and tens of thousands more put under surveillance for possible exposure to the infected.
The confirmation came on a day when 14 more people tested positive for the infection across the country, and authorities at various levels announced unprecedented new curbs.
Delhi declared Covid-19 an epidemic and ordered all cinema halls shut, Mumbai banned all public events, and at least four states said they were suspending regular classes in schools and colleges.
"A 76-year-old man from Kalburgi who passed away (on Tuesday) and was a suspected Covid-19 patient has been confirmed for Covid-19. The necessary contact tracing, isolation and other measures as per protocol are being carried out," said a statement by the Karnataka government.
The death was confirmed by the Union health secretary Preeti Sudan, who said the man also suffered from other conditions such as high blood pressure and asthma. "While he was asymptomatic on his return, he developed symptoms of fever and cough on March 6, 2020," the ministry added in a statement.
The victim returned from a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia on February 29 and died while being moved from a hospital in Hyderabad to his hometown. Officials suspect he may have acquired the infection abroad, as has been the case with all index patients in India.
From 60 on Wednesday, the rise in Thursday's tally of active cases makes it the biggest single-day jump in cases in over a week when infections of a cluster of 17 Italian tourists were detected.
The patients confirmed on Thursday included nine in Maharashtra, two in Uttar Pradesh, and one each in Delhi, Ladakh and Andhra Pradesh.
"About 1,500 people who came in contact with the positive cases are under observation while about 35,000 people across the country are under community surveillance as part of the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP) that monitors suspected cases at the community level," said Lav Aggarwal, joint secretary, Union health ministry at a press briefing earlier on Thursday.
Active patients include 16 Italians and one Canadian. The total tally of 74 -- not including the deceased -- includes three from Kerala who were discharged last month after recovery.
The new pathogen, called Sars-Cov-2, has raced around the world since it began from central China in late December, infecting at least 130,000 people till Thursday and claiming the lives of close 4,700. While most of these numbers are from China, the disease is now spreading at a growing speed in other parts of the world, particularly countries such as Iran, Italy and some other European nations.
All of India's cases can at present be traced to infections from patients who caught the disease while travelling in these nations – a factor that prompted the Union government on Wednesday to take the drastic step of shutting the country off for foreign tourists for a month.
The government also invoked two laws giving officials at state levels powers to take extraordinary steps to combat the outbreak. "The Delhi government has declared coronavirus an epidemic. We need to exercise abundant caution to contain the disease. All cinema halls, schools, colleges in Delhi will be shut until March 31, but exams will continue as scheduled. People are advised to stay away from public gatherings," said Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal after a crucial meeting to discuss the issue on Thursday.
Chhattisgarh, Manipur and Uttarakhand too ordered schools and colleges to be shut for the time being.
Urging people not to panic, the Union health ministry justified the intensifying new curbs.
"Cases doubling in a span of say four weeks (from January 31 to March 3) is not a concern for India as we have a small number of positive cases. However, as a matter of abundant precaution we are pulling all stops to contain the infection so that it doesn't spiral out of control," said Dr RR Gangakhedkar, epidemiology head, Indian Council of Medical Research.
The Delhi administration also directed made it mandatory for all offices, shopping malls and other public spaces to be disinfected on a daily basis.
Kejriwal also said the government will open unused flats and rooms in under-construction hospitals if needed.
Cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba outlined specific tasks to different ministries on Thursday to sharpen the government's efforts to contain the outbreak. Home ministry has been asked to identify facilities that can be used for isolation wards, quarantine centres or temporary hospitals. It has also been asked to ensure immigration services strictly implement the visa restrictions.
The foreign ministry has been asked to communicate with other countries and provide advisories to Indians abroad and advise the government on impact of trade and travel restrictions in the country.
The defence ministry has been told to extend its medical facilities for civilians and contribute to the pool of public health experts