Low enforcement, compliance at airport despite soaring surge
Flyers at the Delhi airport continue to report violations of face mask and social distancing norms by fellow passengers, even as footfall at the terminals has recovered to about 60% of the pre-pandemic level, officials familiar with the matter said on Friday.
At a time when the Capital is witnessing 17,000-19,000 new infections a day, experts said that if Covid-appropriate behaviour was not strictly enforced, a closed space like an airport could become a hub of virus transmission.
Neha Sharma, a 30-year-old blogger who travels frequently, said violations are spotted at every step.
“People are seen occupying seats that are to be left vacant. Instead of four, as directed, 6-7 people are taking the elevators. At the baggage collection belt, people do not follow social distancing and in the bus, while going to the aircraft for boarding, there are too many passengers. Authorities need to station officials at these points who can ensure there are no such violations,” Sharma said.
The Indira Gandhi International airport, which resumed flight operations on May 25 last year after two months of closure due to the pandemic, is now witnessing a daily footfall of 90,000 to 100,000 passengers, said the officials cited above. The average daily flight operations have reached 800, 75-80% of the level that the airport handled before.
But flyers believe that with the increased footfall, social distancing and enforcement of other Covid-related norms are the lowest priority for airport officials.
Ravi Dutt, 26, who recently visited Delhi from Ranchi, said people could be seen taking selfies (photographs of themselves) without masks. “Waiting rooms were crowded. I spent more than eight hours from 8pm Saturday to 4am Sunday at T3 but I could not spot any official or enforcement teams to ensure Covid-safe behaviour,” he said.
Even international travellers narrate similar experiences.
Sanchit Sawhney, who travelled to Delhi from Abu Dhabi on Friday morning, said: “At many points the arriving passengers need to stand in a queue, like for registering for the mandatory RT-PCR test, at immigration, baggage collection, etc. At these points, social distancing becomes a problem as the number of passengers remains high. But I did not spot any officials enforcing social distancing or telling people to mask up.”
Several passengers have taken to social media to post pictures of crowded areas at the airport and question authorities.
Delhi on Friday added 19,486 fresh Covid-19 infections, the sixth consecutive day that the daily infection tally hit a record high. On Friday, 141 more people died of the viral infection in the Capital, the most in a single day in the city ever.
Dr Jugal Kishore, head of the department of community medicine at Delhi’s Safdarjung hospital, said for a disease that is spreading globally, there is an urgent need to put restrictions at the “port of entry”.
“Despite all the lockdown and night curfew, unless enforcement is ensured at the airports, it will be difficult to contain the spread of the virus. People coming in from other countries and and cities gauge the seriousness of the restrictions outside from how strictly the rules are being imposed at the airports. Airports and air travel could be one of the transmission hubs of the virus. This is the reason why air travel was banned last year to contain the spread of the virus,” Kishore said.
Dr Lalit Kant, former head of the department of epidemiology at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), said an airport terminal is a closed space with high chances of transmission of the virus.
“It also depends on how well ventilated the building is. Even though most of the passengers are taking flights with a negative Covid report, there is risk if there is a lack of enforcement. The arriving passengers are more at risk as they have to wait in queues for immigration, baggage collection and for the mandatory RT-PCR test. At these places social distancing may become a problem and the authorities must ensure passengers do not flout norms because then it will become difficult to contain the spread of the virus,” Kant said.
Another expert, Dr T Jacob John, senior virologist and a former professor at Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu, said airports have a huge amount of space, which is not as bad as small air-conditioned offices.
“Spread of the virus in such a big space will not be as bad. But people tend to follow norms only when they are being watched. At the airport there are spaces like waiting rooms and baby rooms, which are closed spaces, where the chances of spread are high. Authorities must make sure that minimum two-feet distance is maintained between the flyers with their mask on at all times. Without strict enforcement, we will make air travel unsafe,” he said.
Dr Gauri Aggarwal, founder of Genestrings Diagnostics, which is conducting tests of both arriving and departing passengers at the Delhi airport, said they are collecting 4,000 to 6,000 samples daily. “We have deployed our staff to make sure that when flyers queue up for registration, payment for samples, etc, they follow the rules. We also have online registration and online payment facility for those who want to avoid queueing up,” she said.
To contain the spread of the virus inside the airport, the Delhi government on April 2 started fining people in terminals for violating Covid safety rules by not wearing masks properly, sitting on seats marked as to be left vacant, not maintaining social distancing, spitting or violating hygiene norms.
In the past 13 days till Thursday, Delhi government officials fined close to 800 passengers inside the terminal buildings of the airport.
Government data showed that 798 passengers were fined at Terminal 2 and Terminal 3. The enforcement teams comprise officials from the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) and are assisted by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which secures the airport.
Many officials, privy to the situation at the airport, said it is clear that enforcement is not adequate. The officials also said many flyers were callous and negligent in following Covid-appropriate behaviour.
Additional district magistrate (ADM) of New Delhi district, D Karthikeyan, said it was observed that people were not following the Covid safety norms as laid by the government. The ADM said many flyers turn unruly and do not cooperate. “In such cases the Delhi police are informed and a case is registered under IPC section 188 against the passenger,” he said.
CISF DIF Sachin Badshah said: “We are assisting the Delhi government as and when required in enforcing the safety norms.”
Deputy commissioner of police (Delhi airport) Rajeev Ranjan said such passengers would be booked for violating public order under IPC section 188 and under the Pandemic Act. More sections are added in each case as per the specifics of the offence, Ranjan said.
The DCP said Delhi police are ensuring that safety norms are followed in the forecourt area of the airport outside the terminal.
The airport operator, Delhi International Airport Ltd (DIAL), said it has made markings on the floor to ensure social distancing is maintained inside the terminals. “Regular announcements are made asking passengers to follow Covid-19 protocols including wearing masks, frequently sanitising hands and maintaining social distance. DIAL has also installed artificial intelligence-based passenger tracking system, which alerts terminal staff about any breach of social distancing norms at the entry gates, in check-in area, at security checks and in security hold area. Apart from these, staff is also deployed to encourage passengers to abide by Covid-19 protocols,” the airport operator said.