With close to two lakh confirmed cases from 155 countries in its ambit, the coronavirus pandemic has brought life to a standstill in many countries, particularly European nations like Italy, France, Spain and Germany.
Grappling with shutdowns, many Indian nationals living abroad are flocking home in panic. Starting today, March 18, incoming passengers from member countries of the European Union, the European free trade association, Turkey and the United Kingdom to India are prohibited, aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), said. This ban follows a recent ban on the entry of foreign passport holders and Overseas Indian Citizen (OCI) cardholders into the country from March 13 but Indian passport holders were allowed to enter India. Previously, in March, the government had announced that passengers, whether Indian or foreign nationals arriving on international flights, will be required to go through medical screening when entering India.
The Outcry at Delhi Airport:
Those who managed to reach India have shared harrowing accounts of negligence and mismanagement, which could possibly risk the lives of others.
Meghna, a student based in Paris, took an Air India flight which landed in Delhi on March 16 of March. What followed was an ordeal lasting for over 24 hours, concluding without any testing, leaving many distressed and in danger of contracting the coronavirus.
Elaborating on what Air India passengers dealt with, she said, “When we first de-boarded, passengers of two flights were huddled together. Initially, only our temperature was checked and nobody was let out after this process and even our passports were seized. After landing in the morning, we were not informed of any process over the course of the day. Many of us cooperated for as much as we could but the situation soon turned stressful. We were kept without food or water, some passengers were given water bottles but many like me did not receive one. We were served meals on the flights but for over 10 hours we had not eaten anything. Many broke down in tears,” she added.
Passengers added that those on two flights from France were being checked together, without any safe distancing between people who were also showing symptoms of the virus. Meghna said that it was “concerning for me to be kept in the same space. Even after 10 hours following the landing of the plane we were at the airport. We were taken to a quarantine facility in Narela only in the evening but we were not informed of the process throughout. Moreover, our temperatures were not taken so we had to self diagnose.”
Passengers also showed evidence of no sanitary facility at Narela which also had unclean toilets. “We were let off only the next day after being taken back to the airport, without any proper check. So even if someone had symptoms, they were not screened and after leaving the airport many went back to their homes on their own, using public transport. While many are glorifying the government efforts by showing that we were provided with slippers, an electric kettle etc, they were token gestures as our primary concern of being tested was not followed up,” said Meghna.
Corroborating Meghna’s account, Krishna, a student who flew to Delhi from Paris said, “This was essentially torture for us. We were not cared for and not provided for till evening. It was just starvation and suffering for us; there were pregnant ladies, students all huddled up together. We did not know if we are infected or not and the way we were huddled up together, we were at an extreme risk of contracting it from other people.”
India is facing flak for limited testing which could leave COVID-19 cases undetected in the world's second-most populous country. The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged countries to test as widely as possible to curb the pandemic, but India has only been testing those who have travelled from affected countries or come in contact with a confirmed case and shown symptoms after two weeks of quarantine.
WHO said that while self-initiated isolation by people with mild symptoms remains the most important community intervention, the testing of all suspected cases, symptomatic contacts of probable and confirmed cases, would still be needed.
While India has consistently claimed that it has delayed the community transmission stage a major reason for under testing in India is also the cost of testing. While tests are free for patients, they cost the government about Rs 5,000 ($67) each. India is currently spending an abysmally low amount of money in fighting the coronavirus. The Indian government has so far announced that the State Disaster Relief Fund (SDRF) should be used by state governments to tackle the looming emergency. As of February 27, 2020, the total funds available in SDRF were Rs 24.8 thousand crore according to information put out by the Disaster Management Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs.