Spread of COVID-19 in the Gulf region is Kerala’s newest challenge

Published : April 11, 2020 12:22 IST

Foreign workers wearing scarves as a preventive against the coronavirus, wait to board a bus to their workplace, on April 2. Photo: KARIM SAHIB/AFP

The increasing spread of COVID-19 in the Gulf countries has become a major cause of concern in Kerala, which has a sizeable section of its population working there, a lot of them ordinary workers and labourers.

The likelihood of a large number of them, and those from other regions in India, returning to their home State is the most important test the State will face as and when lockdown restrictions are eased. Kerala has so far managed the COVID-19 trial commendably, with just two deaths from a total of 357 positive cases and with 27.17 per cent of those infected recovering completely from the disease (all India the average is 9.12 per cent). Kerala, which had its first case in late January, has a fatality rate of 0.6 per cent, the lowest, perhaps in any region of the world. Among the 97 people who have now left hospitals after successful completion of their treatment, eight are foreigners, tourists from Italy and the U.K. One fifth of all those who recovered in India after COVID-19 infection were from Kerala.

The State’s creditable record is now also the reason for many of its people working in the UAE and nearby nations, especially those who have tested positive for COVID-19, wanting to come back home.

However, media reports and requests received by the State government every day indicate rising fear and concern about the worsening situation in the Gulf nations, especially in the labour camps and small living quarters there, where hundreds of Keralites are now trapped, forced to live in crowded conditions with no chance for proper quarantining of people who get infected and with inadequate testing, medical and isolation facilities.

Reports indicate that people in labour camps who already lost jobs and those who arrived on visit visas and could not return home are unable to seek medical care or are facing hunger in crowded living spaces. Flights from the region were stopped from March 21 and there has been a clamour for restoring them, even though it is clear that only a section of those wanting help may be able to return home any time soon.

In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had requested him to bring to the attention of the UAE government the need to provide food, medicines, quarantine and emergency services to the Indian diaspora in the UAE and especially in Dubai, where, he said, the situation was worsening.

The letter said that nearly one million of the total 2.8 million Indians in UAE were from Kerala and that the State government has been receiving a number of complaints regarding inadequate isolation and quarantine facilities, especially in Dubai, where there are apprehensions of an imminent community spread.

He also pointed out that a majority of Keralites working in Dubai were blue collar workers living in crowded facilities where the chances of spread of the disease was very high.

He also asked the Centre to formulate a planned travel schedule for the expatriates as, he said, Kerala had to prepare the necessary quarantine facilities for them in the meantime.

“We have been able to contain the outbreak in Kerala. But we are now concerned about its spread in the world, especially the rising number of casualties among the Malayalee expatriate community,” the Chief Minister had said at a press conference.

However, the State government had been requesting Keralites in other parts of the world to stay where they were during the lockdown as suggested by the Prime Minister, and the Chief Minister had been assuring them repeatedly that they need not to be worried about their beloved ones back home as the government had made all arrangements to address their needs on time.

However, the government also believes that the solution will be to bring home safely those who want to return and has been making preparations for a large inflow of expatriates without the threat of a community spread back home. The Chief Minister has been categorical that it is the State’s responsibility to do so.

But the logistical challenges of putting all of those who return into quarantine facilities and looking after them safely are huge. The Health Department considers it an unwise move to allow them to stay in self-isolation in their homes. As such, strict surveillance at airports and other entry points, and facilities for testing the returnees for signs of the disease, quarantining them for 28 days in special facilities or providing good medical care for those who need it may soon have to be in place.

Kerala has been preparing for establishing special quarantine facilities in every panchayat anticipating such an eventuality, with special attention for the most vulnerable groups, including the elderly. All such returnees from abroad and from other States may also be asked to register themselves through an official app before they start their journey and obtain special passes without which they may not be allowed to move out of airports or railway stations. While this may be possible at airports, the job of tracking those who return by train or bus from other States poses special challenges for the authorities.

To reach out to those stranded, the State has also set up five dedicated COVID-19 help desks in countries where there are a substantial number of expatriates from the State. The government announced that the helpdesks started by NORKA-ROOTS, an agency formed for NRK welfare, would be managed locally by voluntary organisations and individuals, possibly with the cooperation of Indian Ambassadors in those countries. Moreover, the government also announced that online medical services in nine specialities were being made available to non-residents from the State through the NORKA-ROOTS website.

On the very first day, according to official sources, 12,000 calls were received by the help desk in Dubai, mainly by people worried about the threat posed by the pandemic, complaining about their plight and lack of medical facilities and wanting to return to Kerala.

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