MATHURA: Women beat men with sticks during the Lathmar Holi celebration in the village of Barsana on the outskirts of Mathura in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh yesterday. Lathmar Holi is a local celebration of the Hindu festival of Holi, usually some days ahead of the Holi festival which is a spring festival, also called 'festival of colors' observed in India at the end of winter season. - AFP

NEW DELHI: Sixteen Italians in India have tested positive for coronavirus, India's health minister said yesterday, as the total number of cases in the country rose sharply to 28. On Monday, the world's second-most populous country had only six reported cases of coronavirus, but it is one of places US intelligence agencies are most closely monitoring due to concerns over how it would cope with a widespread outbreak.

An Italian visiting the western desert state of Rajasthan was among those who had tested positive earlier. And yesterday, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said 15 of 21 tourists from Italy - Europe's worst-affected country - who had been taken to a quarantine facility on the outskirts of New Delhi had tested positive for the virus. Their Indian driver was also placed in quarantine, the minister said.

Vardhan said authorities were taking extra precautions against the spread of the virus after the sharp rise in cases. "We will now screen all international passengers. We will not limit our screenings to 12 countries as we did earlier," Vardhan told a news conference. More than 93,000 cases have been reported worldwide, and several thousand have died from the flu-like coronavirus, which emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has since spread to more than 80 countries.

Virus lockdown
Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said yesterday 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 colors", 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 program."

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. - Agencies