Operation to bring Indians home starts; flights land in Kerala
The biggest evacuation operation to help Indians stuck abroad kicked-off with the arrival of two flights in Kerala on Thursday. A total of 363 Indians were brought back from Abu Dhabi and Dubai on Air India and Air India Express flights. Among those who were airlifted are nearly 60 pregnant women and nine children. More such planes will fly in the coming days.
With coronavirus linked restrictions putting a halt on traveling, the Indian government launched a mega evacuation drive, titled "Vande Bharat Mission" to help its citizens. Starting May 7, Indians would be brought home in phases, the External Affairs Ministry had announced earlier. In the first phase, 64 flights will evacuate nearly 15,000 Indians. Naval ships were also roped in for this exercise.
At 10:20 pm on Thursday, an Air India Express flight landed in Kerala's Kochi International Airport from Abu Dhabi, carrying 177 passengers and four children. Soon after, another flight with 177 passengers and five children landed at the Kozhikode airport. Rather than families who usually wait at the arrival gates, these passengers were greeted by health officials in PPE kits. Subsequently, they were screened.
As per plans, the symptomatic passengers were to be shifted to COVID-19 hospitals while asymptomatic ones will remain in institutional quarantine centers in their home districts. Pregnant women, the elderly, and children below 10 were allowed to return home but were asked to remain in strict home quarantine. "Thank God, I will be with my parents for my first delivery," a pregnant lady said.
Before the passengers were handed over their luggage, it went through a thorough disinfection procedure. Sodium hypochlorite was sprayed on it, which was followed by exposure to ultraviolet rays. After collecting the luggage, passengers were grouped on the basis of their home districts and sent to respective quarantine centers. Those who lost their jobs and had medical issues were selected for the evacuation process.
The pilot of the Kochi-bound flight said, "Proud and privileged to carry out the first medical mission titled Vande Bharat Mission." Passengers were given two masks, a hand sanitizer, a snack box having two cheese sandwiches, and a slice of fruit cake on the journey. All passengers were asked to download the Aarogya Setu app and submit forms of undertaking on the government's orders.
"Kudos to all the passengers for waiting patiently for their turn for medical screening and many thanks to all the frontline health workers and airport staff for extending full support," the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi tweeted.
Before the marathon exercise started, Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri called it "most comprehensive, complicated and challenging evacuation plan". "The most number of flights from airports worldwide during this phase will be to Kerala. Fifteen such flights in the first week will repatriate 3,150 passengers to this southern state," he reportedly said. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also congratulated on the exercise.
There are more than 3 lakh Indians who have requested to be sent home. The consulate in Dubai alone has received 2 lakh applications and it asked Indians to remain patient. Apart from the Gulf, which is home to cheap labor from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, flights will ferry needy Indians from London, US, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines.