India closes its railways for the first time in 167 years over Covid-19

Thousands queue to buy train tickets at a railway station in Mumbai, India on March 21, 2020. [Reuters]

The rising number of positive coronavirus cases in India has prompted its government to convert railway carriages and sport stadiums into isolation wards in a bid to deal with an anticipated surge in the cases.

The railway network which is the world’s fourth-largest rail operator and India’s oldest and biggest employer was suspended for the first time in 167 years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 25.

According to Indian Railways, modifying 20,000 carriages into medical facilities had begun last week Wednesday, with each carriage containing 16 beds. “This means that a total of 320,000 patients could be cared for in the quarantine coaches,” a statement from India railways said.

Each of the carriages will have nurses’ stations, doctors’ cabin, and space for medical supplies and equipment. The trains, once ready, will be sent to any location that might be facing a hospital bed crunch due to a potential spike in positive cases.

The rail operator already operates 125 hospitals across the nation, so has the expertise to expand into mobile beds. According to India’s ministry of Health and Family Welfare, local health authorities will assign government doctors, paramedics, nurses, and volunteers to the trains.

Indian government has also instructed railway factories to assess the feasibility of manufacturing hospital beds, stretchers, medical trolleys, masks, sanitisers, aprons, and medical apparatus such as ventilators for use in railway hospitals and other government hospitals.

“Now, the railways will offer clean, sanitized and hygienic surroundings for the patients to comfortably recover,” Piyush Goyal, the Railways Minister said in a tweet.

The first 5,000 isolation wards will be ready within a fortnight, and if necessary, more carriages can be converted within 48 hours, said Rajesh Dutt Bajpai, executive director of information and publicity at the Railway Board.

Normally, Indian Railways runs more than 20,000 passenger trains a day, on long-distance and suburban routes, from 7,349 stations across India.

The lockdown has put nearly 67,368 kilometres of track out of use and left thousands of passenger trains sitting idle. Freight trains in the country, however, remain operational.

Apart from converting railway coaches, Indian states have also begun converting sports stadiums into quarantine facilities and temporary hospitals, taking a cue from other countries which resorted to similar measures to cope with the huge number of cases.

In New Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium would be converted into a quarantine centre to deal with the rising numbers of Covid-19 patients in the city.

On March 22, 2020, India observed a 14-hour voluntary public curfew at the instance of the prime minister Narendra Modi.

The government followed it up with lockdowns in 75 districts where Covid-19 cases had occurred as well as all major cities.

Further, on March 25, the Prime Minister ordered a nationwide lockdown for 21 days, affecting the entire 1.3 billion population of India.

Despite the lockdown, there has been a spike in Covid-19 cases this week, with authorities confirming a total of 4,067 cases, 292 recoveries and 109 deaths in the country as of April 6 2020.

Experts suggest the number of infections could be much higher as India’s testing rates are among the lowest in the world. The infection rate of Covid-19 in India is reported to be significantly lower than in the worst affected countries.

The first case of the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic in India was reported on January 30, 2020, originating from China.

Source: Reuters.