THE quick and safe return of expatriates from COVID-affected countries, especially those in the Gulf region, has been a sensitive subject in Kerala ever since the pandemic began to sway the world.
With the local body elections likely to take place in October and the opposition using the issue to turn the opinion of expatriates and their families back home against the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, there are increasing instances of politics trying to triumph over prudence in the State, which has been doing very well in controlling the spread of the virus so far.
One such instance is related to the government’s persistent demand—despite it being a politically inconvenient one—that Keralites stranded in other countries and wanting to return by chartered flights should be made to undergo COVID-19 tests in those countries, and that those testing positive should be brought back in separate flights.
This demand was made to the Centre on the basis of the fact that 90 per cent of the cases reported in Kerala were from among those who had come from abroad or from other States; of these, 69 per cent of the cases were those who had returned from abroad. A large section of the people who have been brought back on a priority basis were pregnant women, children, the aged and people suffering from other serious diseases.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said: “I have talked repeatedly about Keralites who contracted COVID-19 in other countries and died there. None of them died because their travel to Kerala was delayed. They all got whatever treatment was available in those countries. But if we do not do the screening before people start their journey, the disease may spread from passengers who are COVID positive to others during the flight, thus endangering their lives, too. Right now, death rates through primary contacts is high. Another danger is a ‘super spread’ situation, where the disease spreads from one person to a lot many others. Studies have shown that air travel leads to super spreads. It is because of all this that the State decided that pre-flight screening was essential.”
Yet, on June 24, as pressure from the opposition and expatriate organisations mounted, and a Malayalam newspaper popular among non-resident Keralites set apart its front page for pictures of Keralites who had died abroad of COVID-19, the State Cabinet decided not to insist on COVID-negative certificates from expatriate travellers. Instead, the government said, the passengers should wear N95 mask, face shield and gloves or other personal protective equipment and carry sanitisers.
The Chief Minister was scathing in his criticism of the newspaper for its display of obituary pictures with the legend, “How many more should die for the government to bring back its expatriates?” He said: “When the government took the stand that screening should be made mandatory for air travellers, some people had launched misleading campaigns. There were attempts to incite expatriates and to create anger against the government. The government had made it clear from the beginning that all Keralites interested in coming back would be welcomed and that all arrangements would be made for them. The government has not backed out from that stand at any stage or blocked any flight or prevented anybody from coming here.”
But the opposition and leaders of expatriate organisations maintained that pre-flight tests were an impractical and inhuman suggestion, and given the situation of Keralites in many countries, where obtaining COVID negative certificates was a difficult and costly task, it would only push them towards wretchedness, if not death. (According to the newspaper’s report on the same day, there were 296 COVID-related deaths of Keralites in the Gulf region until June 22. In contrast, the number of deaths in Kerala was 22.)
Given its political compulsion to checkmate the initiatives of the government to contain the spread, which was bringing it praise from all over the world, the opposition tried to ignore the grim situation developing in the State and the need for extreme caution and restrictions to prevent an increase in COVID cases.
Although the number of cases in Kerala were fewer compared with many other States, the State recorded its highest one-day figure of 152 cases on June 24. In fact, for six consecutive days from June 19, Kerala reported more than 110 cases on each day. Over 1.5 lakh persons were still under observation as on June 25.
Although the caseload is increasing, cases are still reported only in small clusters. The Chief Minister said there was still no evidence of a community spread in Kerala, even though “we cannot say that the threat of such a spread has gone away. We need to continue our vigil”.
As on June 24, Kerala had 3,451 confirmed cases and 1,620 (47 per cent of the total) active cases and reported 22 deaths (0.64 per cent of the total). It had a recovery rate of 52.36 per cent (1,807 cases).
The increasing number of cases in which the source of infection was unknown was becoming a cause for worry. Seventy-three such cases, with six deaths, were reported in the State until June 23. Health authorities are giving priority to identifying the source quickly as it is the key to controlling the spread.
In many of these cases, the list of primary and secondary contacts numbered between 200 and 300 or more. Some positive cases turned up with implausible travel or contact history, and finding all the links was becoming a herculean task. The government machinery is already stretched to the limits.
Panchayat and corporation wards were regularly declared as containment zones, with rigorous curbs in place. There were growing instances of contact tracing, sample collection and test results getting delayed, the despite district administrations taking a cautious approach to the outbreak. The authorities continue to maintain that there is evidence only of “home clusters”.
Clearly uncomfortable with the increasing caseload, the government has now started urging people to give importance to the use of masks, washing hands with soaps, rubbing sanitisers on hands and observing physical distancing norms inside homes, too.
It is to this milieu that nearly four lakh non-resident Keralites are waiting to return. Only 55,905 of the 4,56,431 expatriates who had registered with NORKA-ROOTS, the State government agency responsible for their welfare, have come back to the State as on June 21.
The Chief Minister said that though the government was of the view that pre-flight screening should be conducted on all those returning to the State, Indian embassies in many countries had informed the Centre of the practical difficulty in ensuring this.
The government has, therefore, said that from June 25, all chartered, private and Vande Bharat flights arriving in Kerala can operate only under a new set of conditions. The government said that those coming from countries that have test facilities should “make sincere efforts to get tested” and travel with the test certificate obtained within 72 hours before departure. All passengers will be required to register on the COVID-19 Jagratha website before their journey.
Returnees from the six Gulf countries will necessarily have to wear protective gear and carry sanitisers for frequent disinfection during their journey.
Those who show signs of the disease upon arrival will be asked to go to hospitals for further tests. All returnees, including asymptomatic persons, who do not have proof of having undergone the necessary tests, will be subjected to rapid antibody (lgG, lgM) test upon their arrival at any airport in the State. All those found positive for lgM antibodies will have to undergo mandatory confirmatory tests such as RT-PCR, Gene X-press test or TruNat test.
The returnees, irrespective of the test results, will have to undergo the mandatory quarantine of 14 days, and give an undertaking that they will adhere to all health and quarantine conditions specified by the government. The Chief Minister said that those found violating these conditions would invite penal action under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, and other relevant Acts and Rules.
There was a heavy rush of passengers into Kerala on June 24, the day before the new regulations came into place. A total of 72 flights landed with 14,058 passengers in the four airports of the State on that day.