India's Modi to go into virus lockdown for Holi festival

New Delhi (AFP) –


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Wednesday he will stay away from celebrations during one of the country's biggest festivals as coronavirus fears gripped the country of 1.3 billion people.

India has been one of the latest countries to report a surge in cases, sparking a run on masks, while the government said all air passengers entering the country would now be screened for the virus that has killed more than 3,000 around the globe.

Modi said he would stay away from events for Holi, the "festival of colours", which is normally a raucous day when paint and water are splashed in the streets of many cities.

"Experts across the world have advised to reduce mass gatherings to avoid the spread of COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus," Modi said on Twitter.

"Hence, this year I have decided not to participate in any Holi Milan programme."

The Hindu festival, which this year falls next Tuesday, marks the beginning of spring.

Ever since he became prime minister in 2014, Modi has taken part in high-profile events for Holi and other major festivals, mingling freely with crowds.

India has reported 28 cases of the new coronavirus so far, up from five on Tuesday, with 16 of them Italian tourists who have been quarantined in New Delhi.

India is the world's second-most populous country after China, where the virus first emerged last year.

Worldwide, around 3,200 people have died from the virus with more than 90,000 infections.

With the new cases, India has stepped up preventive measures.

Health Minister Harsh Vadhan said all air passengers entering the country would now be screened for symptoms.

India has already barred visitors from Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan, except diplomats and officials from international bodies.

Authorities say isolation wards are being set up in 25 Delhi hospitals in expectation of a flood of cases.