BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN –  The government has suspended travel to and from India as coronavirus cases surge in the subcontinent due to a potenntially virulent new strain of COVID-19.

All foreign nationals departing or transiting in India will not be allowed entry to Brunei, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said in a statement issued Tuesday evening.

The temporary suspension also applies to foreign nationals who have been granted pre-approvals to enter Brunei from India via pre-authorised flights.

The suspension is effective from April 27 until May 24, 2021.

Likewise, the PMO will not grant any exit approvals for travel to India, except if a person’s employment pass has been cancelled or revoked, or they hold a ‘Special Authorization Work Pass’ or ‘Professional Visit Visa’.

The government still maintains a ban on any outward travel for Brunei residents unless for business or essential purposes.

Official numbers underestimate vast scale of India’s tragedy

India is seeing a deadly new surge in COVID-19, recording more than 300,000 new cases every day for the past week, and more than 2,000 deaths daily.

It has recorded the highest single-day infection and mortality rate of any country since the start of the pandemic in December 2019.

Doctors and experts say official statistics are vastly underreported, with actual deaths estimated between two to three times reported figures.

India’s healthcare system is buckling under the weight of the tragedy, with shortages of medicines, hospital beds, and, crucially, oxygen to help severely ill patients breathe.

What’s causing the ‘tsunami’ of new cases?

Experts believe a number of things have coalesced over the past months to bring India to the point of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak.

Scientists are investigating a new variant of the virus, B1617, which may be more contagious and have an increased ability to evade the immune system. However, sample testing is not widespread enough to determine how far or quickly the variant is spreading.

The highly-contagious UK variant has also been circulating widely in India since late last year.

The country had largely relaxed its social distancing and quarantine measures by March – the government permitted election rallies, cricket matches and a religious gathering which drew millions of pilgrims to the banks of the river Ganges.

For many people, living in crowded slums or forced to work to survive, social distancing impossible.

Vaccination rates are also lagging due to shortages — despite being the world’s largest vaccine producer, India has exported a large number of doses to due to contractual obligations.

The state healthcare system is one of the most poorly funded in the world, hovering at a little over one percent of GDP. There is less than one doctor for every 1,000 people, and that figure drops further in rural areas and poorer states.

India’s crisis will have ripple effects on global vaccine distribution

As the world’s foremost vaccine producer, the country is now constrained in how much it can export due to its unfolding domestic disaster.

Back in June 2020 — before the vaccine was even authorised for use — the Serum Institute of India struck a deal with drugmaker AstraZeneca to manufacture one billion doses for low and middle-income countries, making it the principal source for the COVAX facility worldwide.

The institute is also licensed to manufacture the US’s Novavax and Johnson & Johnson shots.

On April 24, despite contractual pressures, India slapped a temporary ban on vaccine exports, meaning it will only ship 145 million doses by the end of May, instead of the 240 million that was expected.

The bulk of vaccines delivered to the developing world — including Brunei — are supplied through COVAX.