AGRA: Visitors wearing facemasks as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus have their picture taken outside Taj Mahal following its closure yesterday. – AFP

MUMBAI: India closed the Taj Mahal, its principal tourist site, and the financial hub of Mumbai ordered offices providing non-essential services to keep half their staff at home in increased measures to curb the coronavirus in South Asia. Mumbai, a metropolis of 18 million people, also authorized hospital and airport authorities to stamp wrists of those ordered to self-isolate with indelible ink reading "Home Quarantined" and displaying the date the quarantine ends. There have been concerns that over-stretched health systems in India and the rest of the region could struggle to handle a surge in cases.

New Delhi has already taken measures including suspending most visas into the country. Indian health authorities are analyzing data from more than 1,000 patients who had not travelled to coronavirus-affected regions or known to have come in contact with confirmed cases, to determine whether the disease has begun spreading through the country, a senior official from the Indian Council of Medical Research said. "That will tell us whether it has already reached in-community, or we are still in the earlier stage where the disease is limited to the traveler and close contacts," the official told Reuters.

Restrictions mount
India's western state of Maharashtra, home to Mumbai, has been the hardest hit with 39 confirmed coronavirus cases, or about a quarter of the 126 cases in the country. A patient there died after contracting the virus yesterday, Praveen Pardeshi, who heads Mumbai's civic body, told Reuters. It was the third death in India. Along with the Taj Mahal, dozens of other monuments and museums including the Ajanta and Ellora caves and religious sites such as Mumbai's Siddhivinayak Temple were closed.

The curbs in Mumbai come just days after the city shut down schools, cinemas, malls and gyms, and also banned mass gatherings. India expanded its travel restrictions on Monday, banning passengers from countries of the European Union and European Free Trade Association, Turkey and the United Kingdom - including its own citizens. Neighboring Sri Lanka said it would suspend all international flights for two weeks beginning Wednesday. Indian airline GoAir suspended all international operations and asked some of its employees to take unpaid leave.

Pakistan rise
Pakistan reported the number of confirmed cases had more than doubled for a second consecutive day, reaching 195. Officials said the jump was largely due to errors in testing and quarantine of travelers who recently returned from Iran through a border crossing in Balochistan province.

"If the arrangements were better we could have saved these people from the virus," Saeed Ghani, a minister in the provincial Sindh government where many of the cases were detected, told a television channel on Monday night. Pakistan postponed its Pakistan Super League cricket tournament. Authorities in South Asia have struggled to get travelers to self-isolate or stay quarantined in medical facilities that many view as poor and unhygienic.

At least 38 Afghans who recently returned from Iran and were in isolation escaped from a facility in western Afghanistan on Monday after breaking windows and attacking hospital staff. At least one of them was confirmed to have the coronavirus. The country currently has 22 confirmed cases. Separately, in Navi Mumbai, a suburb of India's financial hub, local media reported that 11 people, who had been isolated after returning from Dubai, also fled the hospital, forcing police to launch a manhunt.

With the overnight rise in Pakistan, the overall number of confirmed cases in South Asia is now approaching the 400 mark. Sri Lanka, which is heavily reliant on tourism for foreign exchange, saw its currency hit a record low against the dollar yesterday. Pakistan's stock market slid again a day after recording one of its biggest ever one-day declines. Its central bank cut its policy rate by 75 basis points yesterday ahead of an expected decline in inflation due to the virus. - Reuters