The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Northeast India Sealed off Amid Rising Coronavirus Pandemic

Northeast India is taking precautions as the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a global pandemic.

By Rajeev Bhattacharyya for
Northeast India Sealed off Amid Rising Coronavirus Pandemic

Screening for COVID-19 at Guwahati airport in Assam.

Credit: Special arrangement

India’s frontier region of the northeast has sealed borders with the neighboring countries to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The eight border states of the region have gone into overdrive with precautionary measures after neighboring Bhutan announced that a tourist from the United States was confirmed to have been infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus. The patient is a 76-year-old U.S. citizen who had landed in Bhutan from Assam, which is a centrally located state in India’s northeast, on March 2.

The tourist was in Assam for over a week, where he also spent some days on a cruise on the Brahmaputra river before embarking on the trip to Bhutan.

Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that at least 400 people in the state who were believed to have come in contact with the tourist have since been identified and quarantined. The second floor of a hotel in Guwahati where the tourist stayed has also been sealed and sanitized.

The Assam government has taken preventive measures at all the land ports bordering Bhutan and Bangladesh and has stationed medical teams to screen people coming from the neighboring countries.

The twin states of Mizoram and Manipur, which share a border with Myanmar, have issued orders to seal the entry points along the international boundary. Mizoram has also ordered increased surveillance of the porous stretches of its border with Bangladesh.

So far, India has over 30 confirmed cases of people infected with the virus while nearly 29,000 people have been put under surveillance. The new virus first appeared in neighboring China.

India’s northeast is considered vulnerable since it shares 98 percent of its borders with four other countries. Much of the border is hilly and porous, facilitating movement of people and contraband items. The “free movement regime” allows citizens of India and Myanmar to travel to up to a distance of 16 kilometers on the other side of the border. On many occasions earlier, cases of swine flu that were detected in the border states of India’s northeast were believed to have originated in Myanmar.

Manipur has also imposed restrictions on the movement of people across the 398-km long border with Myanmar.  “In view of possible threat of transmission of Coronavirus/Covid-19, Government of Manipur hereby prohibits movement of people across the international border,” an order issued by the state’s home department said.

Manipur has banned the import of packaged food items from China, Myanmar, and Southeast Asian countries that do not comply with the stipulated norms.

Two other northeastern states, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, that border China have banned the entry of foreigners to check the spread of coronavirus. Trade with China conducted through Nathu La in Sikkim has been suspended and all check posts in the hill state reinforced with additional manpower for screening visitors to the border areas.

Meanwhile, all airports across India’s northeast have been equipped with screening and testing centers. Airport Authority of India (AAI) regional executive director Sanjeev Jindal was quoted by the media as saying that trained medical teams have been deployed at all the airports in the region to curb the threat.

The World Health Organization, on March 11, declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam, India.