Travel to India during Covid-19: What you need to know before you go

Editor’s Note — Coronavirus cases remain high across the globe. Health officials caution that travel increases your chances of getting and spreading the virus. Staying home is the best way to stem transmission. Below is information on what to know if you still plan to travel, last updated on May 14.

(CNN) — If you’re planning to travel to India, here’s what you’ll need to know and expect if you want to visit during the coronavirus pandemic.

The basics

India is currently the global center of a devastating new wave of the pandemic, with the country’s health system close to collapse.

The country swiftly closed its borders at the start of the pandemic, banning all scheduled international flights in March 2020.

Tourists are still banned, though those traveling on other visas from the continents of Europe, Africa and South America are allowed, along with travelers from other destinations who meet strict criteria.

Current flight bans

Due to the second wave of infections, many places are massively reducing, indefinitely suspending or banning travel to and from India. At present, those destinations include Australia, Canada, China (including Hong Kong), Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the United Kingdom (which added India to its “red list”) and the United States.

Australia even banned its own citizens from returning from India — although that policy was revoked on 7 May.

The U.S. State Department alert reads in part, “If you must travel to India, get fully vaccinated before travel. All travelers should wear a mask, stay six feet from others, avoid crowds, and wash their hands.”

A planned travel bubble with Sri Lanka has been postponed.

What’s on offer

The question is: What isn’t on offer in India? This vast country has an astonishing range of landscapes, architecture, cultures and religions. Most first-timers stick to the “golden triangle” of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, but other big hitters for newbies include the Kerala waterways, beaches of Goa and Mumbai, one of the world’s most thrilling cities.

Who can go

Tourists are not yet permitted. Only Indian nationals, those moving to the country as residents, and those from certain countries who qualify for visas other than tourist visas may go. From the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, things are more restricted — only diplomats and those listed in a government memorandum may travel. However other visa holders from the European Union, Africa and South America may travel — as long as it is not on a tourist visa.

What are the restrictions?

Regular international flights are suspended, although Vande Bharat Mission repatriation flights are operating, as are “air transport bubbles” from various countries around the world — although only those meeting the visa criteria for entry are allowed on these flights.

All arrivals are screened. Anyone showing symptoms will be taken to a medical facility. Land borders are closed, other than for returning India nationals.

As of February 22, all travelers must upload a self-declaration form on the Air Suvidha Portal, as well as a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of the journey. They must also declare via the portal that they will quarantine at home for 14 days on arrival.

Travelers arriving from the UK or Middle East must fill in the same form, declaring their travel history of the past 14 days, and any connecting flights on arrival in India, as well as provide a negative PCR test. They will be segregated in-flight or while disembarking and must undergo a further PCR test on arrival at their own expense. They must stay at the airport until they get their results.

Transit passengers coming from these countries who test negative can catch their connecting flights, but must quarantine at home for seven days, and take a test at the end of the quarantine period.

What’s the Covid situation?

India is currently at the center of the global crisis. On May 7 it recorded more than 400,000 new cases of Covid-19 for the third time in the last seven days, breaking global records once again. The record stands at 414,188, registered on May 6. However, experts suggest the real number is much higher than those cases officially recorded.

The northwestern state of Rajasthan, like several others, has announced a temporary lockdown, while the positivity rate in the western state of Goa is more than 50%.

The country has seen over 24 million cases and 262,317 deaths as of May 14, overtaking Brazil as the country with the world’s second highest case numbers, after the United States. Although new infection rates appear to be dropping — from 2.7 million May 2-8 to 2.5 million in the following week, the past week has seen a record number of deaths: 28,234. On May 13 alone, 4,000 people lost their lives.

Health services are close to collapse. With no space left in hospitals, patients are being left to die at home, in ambulances and outside clinics. Even those who are given a bed remain in danger, with hospitals running out of oxygen and asking patients’ families to bring their own. People are mobilizing on social media to help track hospitals with space to receive patients, clinics where oxygen is available, and places to source antiviral medication Remdesivir for their loved ones.

On the first anniversary of its initial lockdown, India recorded 50,000 new cases — a record since November. On April, 21, it reported 295,041 cases of coronavirus and 2,023 deaths, its highest rise in cases and highest death increase recorded in a single day since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a CNN tally of figures from the Indian Ministry of Health.

By April 28, that figure was 379,308 new cases, and 3,645 deaths — another record.

And by the first week of May, it was tallying at 400,000 cases a day.

It follows what experts say was a relaxing of behavior in early March, after the federal health minister declared that India was “in the endgame” of the pandemic.

On April 20, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal — who has previously warned of a “fourth wave” — warned that some Delhi hospitals had just “a few hours of oxygen” left.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced plans for the delivery of 100,000 cylinders of oxygen nationwide, new oxygen production plants, and hospitals dedicated to Covid patients.

Countries around the world are sending oxygen supplies and oxygen concentrators to India.

And there are multiple individual efforts on the ground, including in Mumbai, where “oxygen man” Shahnawaz Shaikh is raising money to provide oxygen cylinders.

There are said to be nearly 800 variants present in the country.

In the city of Surat in Gujarat state, nearly 150 people are being turned away from hospitals every day, Dr. Hiral Shah, president of the state-level Indian Medical Association, said in the last week of April.

“Our hospitals are overwhelmed with our own population and we are running low on oxygen so we are not able to admit those coming in from surrounding areas,” he said. “The supply (of oxygen) is uncertain, hospitals don’t know what will happen today or tomorrow.”

The situation has serious implications for the rest of the world, say experts.

“If we don’t help in India, I worry about an explosion of cases” around the world, said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has expressed fears as the variant has already made its way to the UK, despite the successful vaccination drive there.

Over 162.6 million vaccination doses have been delivered so far — with over 31.5 million, or 2.31% of the population, fully vaccinated. Maharashtra, Odisha and Punjab state health officials have previously reported vaccine shortages. The country has currently bought enough vaccines to cover 8% of its 1.4 billion population.

Ahmedabad, in the west of the country, started a drive-through vaccination facility on May 8 to ramp up the immunization drive.

On 14 May, prime minister Narendra Modi finally addressed the crisis, saying that Covid hospitals “are being constructed quickly,” and that oxygen plants are planned in “far-flung” areas with the assistance of oxygen trains.

What can visitors expect?

India imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in March 2020, though restrictions have been eased as the months have gone on. Weddings and religious events are now allowed to take place, and domestic travel is allowed. However, different states are imposing different regulations. Maharashtra — where Mumbai is located — imposed an evening curfew on 28 March.

Non-essential shops are now closed in Maharashtra, and grocery stores are only open from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Gatherings of more than five people are banned.

Rajasthan has entered a temporary lockdown.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been holding political rallies across the country, addressed the nation on April 20. He appealed to states to “use a lockdown as their last option,” even as the capital New Delhi entered its first full day of lockdown. There is still no national lockdown.

The Kumbh Mela, an important Hindu festival and one of the biggest pilgrimages on Earth, went ahead throughout April. Millions of Indians have traveled from across the country to Haridwar, an ancient city in Uttarakhand state, to attend ceremonies and prayers and take sacred dips in the Ganges River. Visitors had to register online and test negative before bathing, but experts warned it “could go down as one of the largest mass super spreading events ever.”

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CNN’s Julia Buckley, Swati Gupta, Aditi Sangal, Esha Mitra, Sophia Saifi, Rishabh M Pratap, Jessie Yeung, Vedika Sud and Eoin McSweeney contributed to this report

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