Locked down versus locked out
From Wuhan to London: Some have arrived, some still wait
India was the first one to reach out to its citizens stranded in different countries as the COVID-19 started spreading. However, as the country gears up to fight the deadly battle, is it leaving the most vulnerable citizens, thousands of students, stuck abroad to fight their own battles?
India was quite proactive in its first evacuation operations from the Chinese city of Wuhan, in Hubei province. Indians citizens were rescued from the Chinese city as soon as the news broke out. A total number of 324 Indian citizens were evacuated from Wuhan on February 1 and the health officials also made sure to test them twice and quarantine those citizens who had just returned from the epicentre of the outbreak. “All of these evacuees were placed in the isolation facilities for 14 days,” the Indian statement noted. “They were tested twice and were found negative for COVID-19.” Afterwards, the Wuhan evacuees were discharged, on February 18.
Similarly, a separate Indian Air Force evacuation mission retrieved 112 people, including 76 Indian citizens and also citizens of Myanmar, Bangladesh, Maldives, China, USA, Madagascar and South Africa from Hubei province more broadly.
Another notable Indian evacuation effort focused on 16 COVID-19 diagnosed Indian citizens (out of more than 700 positive cases of COVID-19 in general) that had been quarantined on board the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship, which was kept in the waters off the Japanese port of Yokohama for several days.
Other rescue operations included the retrieving of 124 passengers from the Diamond Princess, including five foreign nationals from Sri Lanka, Nepal, South Africa and Peru. Similarly in the earlier weeks of March India sent a military aircraft to Iran to evacuate its nationals from the Persian Gulf nation, where at least 5,823 people were tested positive for the Covid-19 infection and 145 had already died.
However, the Indian policy vis a vis its citizens stuck overseas due to to the virus has taken a complete U-turn. Over the past two weeks, India has shut its borders and not just to foreigners. It has also slammed shut the door on its own citizens, becoming perhaps the first country in the world to take such a dubious step vis a vis its nationals.
The decision to shut its borders has made the students the most vulnerable group of its citizens blocked overseas. The Indian officials have failed to bring back most of its students who are stuck in the UK and are waiting to come back. As per reports from March 20, around 60 Indian nationals, primarily students, are at the High Commission of India (HCI), London, demanding to be sent back to India.
HCI officials said, “About 60 students came on March 20 asking to be taken back to India despite the curfew and the travel advisory. They were counselled by the high commission officers and were suggested options for accommodation and food at highly subsidised rates. Eventually, more than half have left. The rest are still holding the building to ransom and putting each other’s health at risk.”
Similarly, many more Indian citizens are left in Italy and several other parts of the world. New Delhi already restricted entry of any of its nationals as well as of foreign citizens from Europe, after the rapid spread of the virus. The government has further announced that no passenger would be allowed to disembark from a scheduled international commercial passenger aircraft in any airport in India after 1:30 am on March 23 till the same time on March 31.
An aircraft which flew from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam with 117 Indian transit passengers from the United States, Mexico and Canada onboard, had to fly back after it was denied permission to land in New Delhi on Saturday. The aircraft was not allowed to land apparently due to confusion over implementation of the travel restrictions, which were brought into force earlier, but were applicable only on passengers from Europe, not on the ones transiting through Europe. The passengers onboard the aircraft included several elderly persons and a pregnant woman. However, soon arrangements were made and the Indian citizens were brought back to New Delhi early Sunday.
The situation for Indian students in Kazakhstan is no different. Around 300 Indian medical students are stranded in Kazakhstan’s Almaty Airport after India’s ban on international arrivals till March 31. The students haven’t been able to leave the airport for more than three days now as Almaty is under lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic and now they feel not just trapped but are also facing discrimination amid the outbreak.
The students have reached out to the Indian embassy there, but failed to receive a satisfactory response. “We don’t know whom to contact here, that’s why we reached out to the embassy. But they have asked us to return to our hostels. How are we supposed to do a 15-hour journey back to our hostel amid the transportation lock down,” said Deepak Dhaka, a student from Rajasthan, a state in north India.
The student communities stuck abroad have high hopes from the Indian government. Each country will favour its own citizens. Therefore, in a situation if the virus spreads who should the students turn to for help? The policy of India at a time when its people need them the most seems unjust as it’s their job to protect its citizens who are stuck in a foreign land without families. If other countries decide to turn a blind eye towards these students thinking they are not their responsibility, whom should the students turn for help?
At a time when people at their homes are struggling to manage their expenses, it can be extremely difficult for the Indian community to survive as they might have limited amount of money that can keep them going for a certain period of time. The government has to take special steps for these students to make sure that they too are back to a place they call home.
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