“When travel restrictions were eased, the number of COVID-19 cases rose in Kerala, as seen in the figures when repatriation flights started (on May 7). On May 8, Kerala had only 503 cases; today, we have 2,697 COVID-19 cases in the state,” said Chief Minister Pinaray Vijayan, as he began explaining the state’s insistence that all international passengers be tested before boarding the flight to Kerala.
Last week, the Kerala government said that all international passengers arriving by chartered flights from June 20 onwards will have to procure a certificate stating that they do not have COVID-19, before boarding the flight.
On Wednesday, the state government said that passengers arriving on repatriation flights as part of the Vande Bharat Mission, too, must possess such a certificate.
However, several expatriates and Indians stranded abroad, especially in the Gulf countries, are worried if the new rule to procure a certificate will further delay their return to India.
Speaking to TNM, Naseer Vatanappally, a prominent social worker in Dubai, said, “In UAE, about 60% of those who wish to fly out are not expatriates, but Indians who had come here on a short visit, either for a job interview or to meet their children and grandchildren. Many have run out of money, food and proper accommodation by now. Among the approximately two lakh people in the UAE who wish to travel to Kerala, about one lakh are those who want to return for emergency purposes.”
“We have been pushing for this (coronavirus-negative certificate) since last month. On May 5, in a letter to the Centre, the state had asked for such a mandatory test certificate, even for those coming via Vande Bharat Mission flights,” said Pinarayi Vijayan at the media briefing on Wednesday.
The Chief Minister explained that the private airline SpiceJet follows this. “In early June, Kerala had given the no-objection certificate to SpiceJet to operate 300 chartered flights to the state. The airline said that it was testing all passengers, and only those who tested negative for the virus were allowed to board the flight. If SpiceJet could, why can’t others do the same?” asked the Chief Minister.
Not specifying what kind of tests the international passengers must undergo, Pinarayi Vijayan said, “Some expatriates have pointed out the difficulty in doing RT-PCR tests in a short timeframe considering the high cost of these tests. Such people can do the rapid antigen test or the TrueNat rapid test. These can be done at a low cost and the results are available in an hour.”
“The state’s stand is clear and this is what we have asked the Centre: we cannot bring patients who test positive and negative together in the same flight. It will be a great disaster,” stated the Chief Minister.
Pinarayi Vijayan clarified, however, that all passengers who test positive will be allowed to enter the state.
“When coronavirus negative persons travel with infected persons, the former can be exposed to the infection and become high-risk contacts. They could be asymptomatic and potentially infect others in the state, too, through contact. That will lead to a massive spread and we might stare at a community spread in that case,” he explained, asking the Centre to make arrangements for testing such passengers through Indian Embassies abroad.
It must be noted, however, that in March this year, Pinarayi Vijayan had criticised the Union government when the Union Ministry had issued an advisory, asking those travelling from Italy and South Korea to produce a certificate saying that they have tested negative for coronavirus.
Urging the Centre to withdraw the advisory, the Chief Minister had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying, “While there is no difference of opinion that enough safeguards should be taken so that the disease does not spread, undue hardships to Indians abroad wanting to come home in an hour of crisis is totally unwarranted.”
The Chief Minister had raised the issue in the state Assembly and said, “How can we say that an Indian citizen cannot come back to India just because he is infected? Barring our citizens from coming to the country is an uncivilised attitude.”
The Kerala government has reportedly informed Indian Embassies to issue an advisory to this effect.
“Beginning 20 June 2020, all private chartered flights departing to Kerala from Middle East countries shall carry only passengers who have been tested for COVID-19 infection and shows to be negative. A test certificate of this effect should be carried by the passenger,” said the website of the Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia in its guidelines for passengers travelling on chartered flights.
However, the guidelines do not specify what kind of test is expected of passengers.
“The Saudi Arabian government will not test any person who does not have symptoms. Private hospitals require a prior appointment, which could take days. The cost of a COVID-19 test is Saudi Riyal 1,500 (Rs 30,000 approximately). It could take three to five days to get the test results. Besides, we book tickets for a chartered flight in advance, but have to conduct the test 48 hours prior to departure. If one tests positive for coronavirus, the person will not be able to fly and will lose the money. The person may not get a refund,” explained Bency Mohan, a resident and social worker in Saudi Arabia.
Bency noted that if the responsibility of COVID-19 testing falls on the airlines or organisations that charter flights, then those flights are bound to get cancelled. “There are as many as 60,000 Indians who have registered with the Embassy to return to Kerala. There are limited repatriation flights from Saudi to Kerala. Only if there are chartered flights can at least half of these Indians return in the next three months,” he explained.
Incidentally, among the Middle Eastern countries, the Dubai International Airport is conducting rapid antibody testing for passengers flying from the UAE to India. However, a source in one of the Indian Embassies in the UAE told TNM that it is not clear if the certificate required is for rapid antibody test or the comprehensive PCR test.
“If a passenger, who has bought the ticket for the Vande Bharat Mission flight and tests positive for coronavirus, Air India refunds the money. The refund takes time. But, if they don’t want the refund, they can use the amount to purchase the ticket at a later date, once they are no longer positive,” the Embassy source said.
Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are used to detect the presence of an antigen while the rapid antibody test checks for antibodies, indicating that an individual may have had the disease.
Many fear that chartered flights might charge higher fares than the repatriation flights or only a select few might be able to take these chartered flights.
Naseer suggested that if such certificates are made mandatory, the Kerala government can either arrange for chartered flights or conduct the test on arrival. “The state government has said that it is prepared to handle any crisis, even if there is a surge in the number of cases. But it looks like they won’t be able to control it and don’t want people coming from other countries,” he alleged.
(With inputs from PTI)