Quarantining is toughest part of planning evacuation

Coronavirus: Making arrangements for quarantining most difficult part of planning evacuation of citizens stranded abroad

Workers unload the luggage of Indian nationals evacuated from Iran at Jaisalmer Military Station. Two Air India flights carrying over 230 Indians from coronavirus-hit Iran landed here on Sunday morning. (PTI Photo)

Making arrangements for quarantining a large number of evacuees for at least 14 days after their return is proving to be the most difficult part of the planning, as India is weighing options to bring back home its nationals stranded in France, Italy, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other foreign countries.

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Though the Centre and the State Governments are announcing relaxations to the curbs imposed across the country to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the blanket ban on the arrival of commercial passenger aircraft from foreign cities is likely to continue even beyond May 3 – the day the nationwide lockdown is currently scheduled to end. As a large number of Indians – students, professionals, tourists and others – got stranded around the world due to the curbs, New Delhi is working on plans to bring them back, either by sending chartered aircraft for the evacuation, or by granting special permissions for private airlines to fly them home on commercial flights.

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The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is holding consultations with the State Governments on bringing back the Indians, who got stranded abroad after the ban on arrival of international passenger aircraft to any airport was imposed.

The decision on facilitating their return to the country would be taken after getting feedback on the preparedness of the States and the Union Territory to receive them following all required health precautions, said Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, who had a video-conference with the Chief Secretaries of all the States and the Union Territories on Saturday to review the implementation of the restrictions on travel and transport as well as the lockdown imposed across the country to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

India’s diplomatic missions around the world are collecting details of the country’s citizens stranded in foreign countries, including some of the worst COVID-19 affected countries.

New Delhi is planning to prioritize the students, tourists and others who got stranded in the foreign nations and have compelling reasons to return to the country urgently, a source in New Delhi told the DH. “But the number of evacuees will still run into thousands. The biggest challenge for the government is that it will have to ensure that the returnees are not already infected by the COVID-19 virus. As it is going to be difficult for them to get themselves tested abroad and obtain Covid-19 negative certificates, the government may have to send medical teams from India to run tests on them,” said the source. “This is going to be a very lengthy process”.

The government had last year sent medical teams to Italy and Iran to collect swab samples of people stranded in the two coronavirus hotspots. The samples were brought back and tested in India. Only the COVID-19 negative Indians were evacuated. They were however still quarantined for 14 days on their return to India – in facilities set up by the armed forces.

The Centre, according to the sources in New Delhi, now wants the State Governments to share the burden of making arrangements for quarantining the evacuees on their return.  

“It will be very difficult if the task of quarantining the evacuees is left only for the Union Government. The respective State Governments will have to share the burden,” said the source the DH spoke to.