There appears to be no end to the chaos being unleashed due to half-thought measures and contradictory messages emanating at the policy level in the government. Even while the country witnessed the conundrum of domestic migrants' transportation, happening at least 8 weeks late and at the most inopportune time, an ill-conceived plan of action has been rolled out for bringing back the Indians stranded overseas.
Once again, in a sudden notification issued on May 5, flights to evacuate Indians were announced from May 7 onwards with a slew of attendant procedures, costs, and conditions. Once again, the announcement comes without consultation with the affected people, embassies and states which are expected to comply with directions within 2 days. What is being proclaimed as a humanitarian measure is fraught with hardships for the stranded people and contradictions in their treatment as potential COVID-19 carriers.
It is not clear how the priority list of the countries was decided, some of them hotbeds currently (USA, UK), while several others that are still left out are virtually risk-free having almost completely eliminated the virus (Taiwan, Australia, South Korea). There appears to be no distinction in terms of containment measures for the evacuees taking into account the state of the pandemic abroad. It now appears that for those who cannot pay for quarantine in a hotel or hospital, would be sheltered in common facilities.
Now the contradictions:
- While people staying in hotels have to stay on a single occupancy basis, those in common facilities would stay in groups. The entire notion of social distancing and cross-contamination gets defeated in the latter case
- On the contrary, the Union Ministry of Health (MoH) in its two guidelines has significantly relaxed the requirement of institutional quarantine to actual COVID-19 patients who have mild symptoms. They are allowed to stay in self-isolation at home with self-monitoring and a caregiver. In another revision issued by MoH on May 9, mild symptomatic cases can be discharged in 10 days, without a test.
- Compare this to the MHA SOPs for returning Indians, all persons must go through thermal screening on boarding and on arrival, mandatory institutional quarantine for a period of 14 days followed by a test. If found negative, an additional 14 days of self-monitoring at home. The passengers have to pay for the flight cost, to be fixed by the government, and also the cost of the institutional quarantine. For a person returning from the US, this easily adds up to 2 lakhs.
- By no stretch can a potential carrier be riskier than an actual COVID-19 patient, yet the two ministries MoH and MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) continue to issue widely different policies, much to the harassment of the people affected.
- As per the current practice, even those persons who have been found to have come in contact with COVID-19 patients are allowed to self-quarantine themselves at home.
While the repatriation of migrant labourers is being cited as human consideration and their need to be in the comfort of their homes, there is little thought of the trauma that Indians stranded for even longer periods would undergo by an additional separation of 14 days from their families.
Many of these would be elderly, in frail health needing comfort and medical attention (for non-COVID-19 ailments), and emotionally disturbed. They could easily be permitted self-isolation at home on par with mild COVID-19 patients. For many, the quarantine institution itself may become a source of infection, looking at the way the virus has spread in healthcare facilities.
Considering that most of these people are already in a state of lockdown in their destinations, and many of these countries are no longer in the risk category (green zone equivalent), there should be no reason to confine everyone to institutional quarantine for 14 days. Instead, ease both their suffering as well as the substantial costs by permitting them homestay with reasonable monitoring and testing, if considered essential. The government should also release the COVID-19 facilities for housing actual patients or their contacts.
(The author is an expert in international travel and a visiting faculty with Delhi University on travel and tourism.)