To Curb Coronavirus, Indian Govt Puts Citizens Abroad In Catch-22
To return to India, one must submit a negative certificate for COVID-19 – but that’s often not possible.
As the world grapples with the novel coronavirus, several accounts of Indians being stranded in different countries have emerged. One of them is a Delhi-based writer and poet, Janice Pariat, who was stuck in Rome, Italy, trying and failing to get help from the authorities.
Speaking to The Quint, Pariat, explains the frustrating catch-22 she was put in by the Indian government.
“I was meant to fly back in an Alitalia flight on 11 March. But we were not allowed to fly till we had a health certificate from the Italian health authorities,” she said.
Just a few days ago, the Government of India announced that people travelling from Italy and South Korea would now have to submit a certificate of having tested negative for COVID-19 from laboratories, authorised by the health authorities of those countries.
Here’s the catch: Pariat has claimed there’s a crucial difficulty in proving herself coronavirus-free, as “the authorities are only testing and granting the certificates to those who are showing symptoms of the virus, and not just anyone walking in for the test.”
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in a letter to the PM, demanded the circular be withdrawn, pointing out the same concern with the fact that foreign authorities are not testing people who don’t have symptoms, as their hospitals are stretched for resources.
A New York Times article also highlighted how the coronavirus epidemic has overloaded Italy’s health system with hundreds of patients, with doctors having to work round the clock.
‘Indian Embassy’s Response Fell Abysmally Short’
Stating that she has found herself between the devil and the deep blue sea, Pariat communicated that she was stuck in limbo, assumed to be too sick to come home, yet not sick enough to be able to prove her health – a kind of Schrödinger’s patient.
Speaking about the Indian embassy’s handling of the crisis, Pariat said she is disappointed by their indifference to her situation.
“What was most precarious to us is getting through to anyone at the Indian embassy in Rome. I have been trying to call them since Wednesday with no luck whatsoever,” she said.
“I have to admit that the response from them fell abysmally short. They are our port of call and contact, and I would expect a little more clarity or help,” she continued.
Pariat also came across news of medical teams being sent across Italy for medical examinations. To confirm this, she managed to contact Reenat Sandhu — the Indian ambassador to Italy. However, the conversation left her underwhelmed.
Pariat said, “I understand if they don’t have the information to share with us, but some reassurance can go a long way in calming people down.”
She was also told to call the emergency hotline number (+39 331 614 2085) listed on the website, but couldn’t get through to them.
The only message the embassy conveyed to her was that they were “putting pressure” on Italy’s health ministry, leaving many questions still unanswered — What will follow now? Whom should the Indians contact now? When will the medical team arrive in Italy?
The Quint has also reached out to the Indian Embassy in Italy. The copy will be updated once their response is received.
‘Home Feels Terribly Far Away’
The Delhi-based writer won the Sahitya Akademi Yong Award and Crossword Book for Fiction Award in 2013. This time, she travelled to Rome for two weeks to work on her next novel, for which she needed access to the Goethe museum and reading room.
Along with Pariat, who was stuck at the airport for five hours on Wednesday, there were around 60 more Indians, all of whom, she alleged, “were told point-blank that they couldn’t board the plane.”
Peeved by the government’s response and feeling helpless, she also posted on Instagram and Facebook about her situation.
“Hours of trying to make calls, being given multiple numbers and conflicting information, and of course with no compensation in sight,” she wrote.
On Thursday, Pariat managed to catch a flight to Berlin to stay at a friend’s place. She then tried reaching out to the Indian embassy in Germany but said that they haven’t responded yet.
From thereon, Pariat travelled to Helsinki on Friday and has planned on taking a flight to Delhi late at night.
PM Modi Says ‘Don’t Panic’
As the crisis unfolds, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Health Ministry have laid down a number of efforts to evacuate the Indians stuck in Italy and Iran.
Addressing the media on Friday, the government said, “The central government has decided to regulate the international passenger traffic through the land immigration check-post. The traffic will only be allowed through 19 such check-posts.”
This move, the government said, is only to ensure the smooth screening of passengers for COVID-19.
Reiterating efforts taken by India, MEA’s Additional Secretary Dammu Ravi said, “Our ambassadors in Italy and Iran are in contact with the passengers there. They are working with the local governments in Rome, Milan and Iran and making considerable efforts.”
“Air India would be sending a flight to Milan on Saturday to bring back the stranded Indians. It would reach at noon and land in India on Sunday,” added Rubina Ali, joint secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation Air India.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Modi also urged Indians to “avoid non-essential travel.”
The confirmed cases in India alone now stand at above 75. In a bid to control the situation, the government is bringing out a number of travel restrictions.
The Indians stuck abroad are simply hoping for a safe and speedy return.
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