March 20, 2020 / 8:39 AM / 8 days ago

Sri Lanka to impose national curfew as South Asia accelerates coronavirus battle

    By Waruna Karunatilake and Saurabh Sharma
    COLOMBO/LUCKNOW, March 20 (Reuters) - Mosques in Sri Lanka
were shut indefinitely from Friday, and the island is set to
impose a countrywide curfew over the weekend, as South Asian
countries step up efforts to check the spread of COVID-19 cases.
    The densely populated region of some 1.9 billion people has
been less badly affected than other parts of the world, but new
coronavirus cases in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka are all
accelerating, with the total across South Asia now exceeding
750. Seven people have died.
    Authorities worry that these countries could be especially
at risk, should the virus begin to spread locally, due to poor
health facilities and infrastructure in much of the region. The
virus has already infected more than 245,000 people worldwide,
and led to over 10,000 deaths.
    A police curfew is set to be imposed nationwide in Sri Lanka
from 6 p.m. local time on Friday until 6 a.m. on Monday, as
authorities on the island moved to slow the spread of the virus,
which has infected 65 people there. 
    The religious body that oversees mosques in the nation
directed all of them to shut indefinitely. About 10% of the
country's 22 million people are Muslims. 
    Meanwhile, mosques elsewhere in the region screened people
for high temperatures using thermometers and urged their
faithful to practice greater social distancing during Friday
    In an address to his nation late on Thursday, Indian Prime
Minister Narendra Modi appealed to citizens to stay home and
avoid panic-buying, as India outlined plans to halt all
international flights in an effort to stem the number of cases
in India, which passed 200 on Friday.
    Following Modi's appeal, a senior district official in the
town of Ayodhya in India's northern state of Uttar Pradesh, said
he expected the state government to call off the Ram Navami
Mela, a major Hindu religious gathering in the temple town. 
    "We're expecting an official order in a couple of days and
it will be in line with what our prime minister said yesterday
in his address," said the senior official.
    The annual Ram Navami fair in Ayodhya brings millions of
Hindus to the holy city. This year authorities were expecting a
surge in numbers, as the foundation-laying ceremony of the grand
Ram Temple, was also expected to take place. 
    Sharad Sharma, the spokesman for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad,
a Hindu nationalist organisation, said it had asked its cadre
not to hold any procession on Ram Navami. 
    "We're also requesting people ... pray and celebrate Ram
Navami in their homes, in community temples and  not to gather
in large numbers at any place. We will follow the appeal of our
prime minister," he said.
    Confirmed COVID-19 Cases in South Asia:
      PAKISTAN          447
       INDIA            206
     SRI LANKA           65
    AFGHANISTAN          24
     BANGLADESH          18
      MALDIVES           13
       NEPAL             1
       BHUTAN            1
       TOTAL            775
 (Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by Pravin Char)
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