India reported its first case of novel coronavirus infection caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus on 30 January in Kerala. On 24 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of the infection. The lockdown made it easier to implement social distancing and gave the authorities time to ramp up testing and facilities to take in more patients.

Read more: COVID-19 India timeline

Researchers have argued that the lockdown was a necessity in India: A projection study by researchers at the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, Johns Hopkins University and Princeton University indicated that the original 21-day lockdown in India slowed the transmission rate, while also giving the healthcare system more time to better prepare for a large number of cases.

Read more: How does COVID-19 spread?

Now as countries around the world prepare to lift lockdowns, India too is starting to ease the strict lockdown rules that came into force from 25 March. To be sure, India's nationwide lockdown has already been extended twice due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases. And while it is possible that the lockdown will remain in place in one form or another, in some parts of the country, it obviously cannot go on indefinitely.

As and when the lockdown is lifted, you will have to take extra precautions to keep infection at bay. If you need to travel for something urgent, Indian Railways is resuming services with some changes to prevent infection. Read on to know what to expect, and how to get ready for train travel after lockdown.

  1. The effects of a prolonged lockdown
  2. New rules for passenger trains and ticket booking
  3. Tips and health measures for train travel after lockdown
  4. Post-lockdown strategy
Doctors for Train travel: what to do and what not to do when the lockdown is lifted

There have been contrasting views on the extended lockdown the Indian government put into place. Going by government data, the intended increase in testing, as well as medical facilities, was achieved. However, the number of cases has continued to rise significantly. The economy too has taken a hit in the process, with several businesses across industries being ordered to shut down.

The sudden lockdown also led to a sea of migrant labourers fleeing the cities of their work. Many of them were left with no choice but to travel on foot, thanks to the shutting down of all modes of transport and state borders being sealed off.

The government did begin to ease restrictions by allowing certain sectors like the manufacturing industry to restart operations post the end of the first lockdown, and continued to add more industries to the list, but in a regulated capacity. Businesses that fell in areas which were considered hotspots or outbreak zones, however, were asked to remain shut, in a move called the containment strategy.

Read more: Can physical distancing still work in India?

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While it is a good idea to avoid non-essential travel for some time after the lockdown is lifted, if you must travel by train, do check the latest government advisories. The Ministry of Home Affairs on 11 May laid down a Standard Operating Protocol (SOP) for the movement of people by train. Here's a look at the new protocols, and what they could mean for you:

  • Trains will restart in a graded manner: the railways' ministry will be in close touch with the health and home affairs ministries to decide which routes can open and when.
    As the train services in your sector resume, make sure you limit your travels to essential trips for the time being.
  • Further, the rail ministry is issuing specifications on how passengers can buy tickets, enter the railway station and trains and the services available to them during the journey.
    If you need to travel over the next few months, make sure you read the guidelines before you set out. 
  • Only passengers with confirmed e-tickets will be allowed to enter the railway station.
    This would help to reduce the crowds in railway stations. It is a good idea to avoid large send-offs at this time. 
  • A confirmed e-ticket is a must for passengers as well as the driver of the vehicle transporting the passenger to and from the railway station.
  • On the part of the Ministry of Railways, it will ensure:
    • Screening of all passengers is mandatory and only asymptomatic passengers shall be allowed to board the train.
    • Hand sanitizer will be provided to all passengers at the entry and exit points of the station as well as the coach they are boarding.
    • The Ministry of Railways will also issue health advisories and guidelines through their information, education and communication (IEC) campaign for their staff and passengers. Make sure you check and abide by all messages that the railways' portal sends you with regards to your booking and your journey.
  • Masks or face covers are a must for all passengers while entering the train as well as during travel. Make sure you have your mask on at all times during the journey. (Read more: How to make your own face cover at home)
  • Social/physical distancing must be followed by all passengers while boarding and during travel.
  • All passengers must adhere to the prevailing health protocols of the respective destination state or union territory they are travelling to. Going forward, it might be a good idea to check where the hotspots are in the city you are travelling to, so you can avoid those areas.
  • Along with these measures, passengers have also been told to reach the station of boarding 90 minutes before time to facilitate thermal screening.
  • No additional items will be available during travel, such as linens and blankets. So passengers have been asked to carry their own.
  • Food and drinking water, earlier included in the price of the ticket, would be available for an extra charge.
  • Passengers have also been advised to download and use the Aarogya Setu mobile application on their phones, a tracking app made by the government of India to inform its citizens about COVID-19.

Read more: Social distancing hygiene tips

As we come out of lockdown, the onus will be on us to take extra precautions. This includes the precautions we need to take while stepping out of the house and travelling to another city. Here are some things you should keep in mind:

  • Avoid non-essential travel: staying at home as much as possible is the best strategy against infection - at least until there is an approved cure or vaccine for COVID-19.
  • Practise social distancing without fail when you are outdoors. Try to maintain 1-2 feet of distance between you and everyone else.
  • Wear a face cover or mask every time you go, especially in confined spaces like a rail compartment. You can also wear disposable gloves to avoid touching common surfaces such as door handles directly.
  • Remember, you now need to reach the railway station 90 minutes before your train is scheduled to leave. Make sure you leave on time, to avoid stress and anxiety.
  • While there is soap and hand sanitizer available at railway stations and in trains, it is a good idea to carry your own. Wash your hands for 20 seconds, every few hours. (Read more: Right way to wash your hands and maintain hand hygiene)
  • If possible, carry a disinfectant and wipes with you to wipe down your seat and window. (Read more: Which disinfectants are effective against coronaviruses?)
  • Remember to carry your own blanket and sheets, if you have an overnight journey.
  • If possible, carry your own food and water. Though these will be available for a charge, as per railway ministry guidelines.
  • Avoid travelling if you feel sick. Of course, the authorities will check everyone for COVID-19 symptoms before letting them board the train, but you know your body better than anyone. If you feel like you have a sore throat or cough, fever, fatigue, loss of sense of smell, report these immediately to check if they could be signs of COVID-19. After all, no one wants to spread the infection inadvertently or be labelled a super-spreader.
  • Avoid large gatherings as much as possible, in your travels.
  • Before you reach your destination, do a little bit of research on the hotspots in the area, isolation facilities and hospitals.

As the lockdown lifts, life will not go back to normal immediately. It's a good idea to keep this in mind and take extra precautions at a time when we will be mingling with people after a hiatus of many weeks. This is especially true when we are travelling to a new place, in a closed compartment with dozens of other passengers!

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Complete or partial restrictions have been enforced by a majority of the countries around the world, and India is no different. However, most countries have introduced their own methods and interpretations towards the lifting or easing of restrictions, and have not opted for some uniform measures.

While the Indian railways made the announcement to resume operations albeit in a limited capacity, there are several other industries that would require a number of considerations, such as educational institutions like schools, colleges and universities, to ensure risk of transmission is low or minimized. The International Labour Organization (ILO), says that worldwide lockdowns have affected the livelihoods of an estimated 1.6 billion people globally, despite relief being provided by various countries in the form of monetary funds.

According to the 2020 edition of the Global Report on Food Crises compiled by the World Food Programme, as many as 265 million people could be under severe threat due to growing hunger and shortage of food as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is roughly twice as many as the 135 million affected by hunger and poverty.

India’s 1.3-billion-strong population will have to be gradually eased back into their usual, day-to-day lives, as places of public gatherings will have to operate very carefully after the lockdown period comes to an end. Restrictions may continue at places where high levels of contagion is still present, while large-scale operations including places of entertainment and leisure may still have to wait for their turn, or protecting the most vulnerable of the population, i.e., senior citizens as well as those living with underlying health conditions.

Read more: COVID-19 prevention steps every office must take after the lockdown

The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a set of guidelines for countries looking to ease restrictions last month, advising them on steps needed to be taken to minimize the spread of the disease. What applies to one country may not work for another, but the overall target remains controlling the spread of the disease, at least until a vaccine or treatment method is developed against COVID-19.

Greater cooperation between countries about best practices or methods to control the spread of infection while also keeping the welfare of their citizens in mind remains critical to how they bounce back from this extended period of lockdown observed around the world. 

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in India - the country is registering an alarmingly high number of cases of late - easing restrictions could also backfire, as warned by epidemiologists as well as health experts around the country. 

As the Indian government continues to monitor the situation, there are more relaxations of restrictions in store after 17 May. States, however, have been asked to not let up in their efforts of surveillance, contact tracing as well as regulating the movement of people.

Dr Rahul Gam

Dr Rahul Gam

Infectious Disease
8 Years of Experience

Dr. Arun R

Dr. Arun R

Infectious Disease
5 Years of Experience

Dr. Neha Gupta

Dr. Neha Gupta

Infectious Disease
16 Years of Experience

Dr. Anupama Kumar

Dr. Anupama Kumar

Infectious Disease


Medicines / Products that contain Train travel: what to do and what not to do when the lockdown is lifted

References

  1. Ministry of Home Affairs: Government of India. [Internet] New Delhi, India. Order - Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India
  2. Schueller E et al. COVID-19 in India: Potential Impact of the Lockdown and Other Longer-Term Policies Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy [Internet]
  3. World Food Programme [Internet] Rome, Italy 2020 - Global Report on Food Crises.
  4. World Health Organization [Internet]. Geneva (SUI): World Health Organization; Considerations in adjusting public health and social measures in the context of COVID-19
  5. Vaidyanathan G. People power: How India is attempting to slow the coronavirus Nature. 2020 Apr; 580, 442.
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