Backstory of Indians’ evacuation from ChinaUpdated: Feb 10, 2020 23:46 IST
Beijing: The evacuation of 647 Indians from Hubei, the Chinese province worst hit by the coronavirus outbreak, last week was a complex exercise, which included the listing of hundreds of unregistered Indians, reassuring panicky students about their safety and negotiating hard with Chinese authorities grappling with the most critical medical emergency in decades.
Diplomats in Beijing were discussing reports of new influenza infection in central China soon after the first death related to the outbreak was reported on January 10. By the second week of January, Indian embassy officials in Beijing were dusting off files of registered Indians in Hubei and Wuhan, the capital city of the province.
Hundreds of Indian students, they found out, had by then already left for India for the Chinese New Year holidays.
India issued its first advisory on January 17 for citizens travelling to and from China. Be careful, take precautions, it said.
Alarm bells started ringing in the quiet corridors of the Indian embassy on the evening of January 20 when President Xi Jinping made a public statement on the disease. “The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan and other places must be taken seriously,” Xi said.
It was about to be. The morning of January 23 was the turning point when Wuhan was locked down stranding hundreds of Indians. They had begun to call the embassy, wanting to be rescued, and some were tweeting desperate calls for evacuation
The embassy realised that Indians needed to be evacuated from the city, the province, which had in a matter of days literally turned into a massive quarantine zone and no one could access it without multiple approvals. Over the next few days, embassy officials worked round-the-clock to list the Indians in Hubei.
It was not easy as it is not mandatory for Indians to register with the embassy or consulates in China. “We had to attach a name to the face, and then attached a passport number. We either emailed or called each individual. We assured them,” Indian ambassador Vikram Misri told HT.
Word-of-mouth and community groups helped. At the end of the exercise, the total number of Indians still in Hubei was found to be around 680.
After that it was about negotiating with the Chinese government – starting from the foreign ministry in Beijing, then officials in Hubei and Wuhan.
“We first made a case [to the Chinese foreign ministry] especially about the young students and their parents in India whose natural desire was to see them back in India,” Misri said.
The foreign ministry facilitated the process after it was clear that New Delhi wanted the Indians in Hubei back in India, at least the ones who wanted to. Then the logistics had to be put in place and the next task was to coordinate with university authorities and arranging buses for Indians staying across Hubei to bring them to Wuhan.
Dozens of buses were hired. All the drivers had to be registered with the Wuhan government so that they had the required permission to travel to different cities, many already under lockdown.
The embassy dispatched two diplomats Deepak Padmakumar and M Balakrishnan to Wuhan to coordinate the evacuation on February 1 and 2. Both are now in quarantine in New Delhi.
Compared to the first, the second evacuation process was more complicated as more than 300 Indians had to be brought to Wuhan from different parts of the province. As many as 15 buses were deployed to pick up Indians from 15 locations across Hubei including from cities 300 km to 350 km away; some had to be brought from Enshi, some 520 km away.
At a few places in Hubei, locals forcibly stopped the buses from entering their neighbourhoods, fearing that the infection could spread.
A group of Chinese employees hunched over their phones at the Indian embassy, then did the talking with the locals to persuade them to allow the buses to go through. At least one Indian, however, missed out because a bus could not get through. “Most critical was maintaining the integrity of the approval channels,” Misri added.
At the Wuhan airport, no tickets were issued to the evacuees, only boarding passes. India had sent out messages to south Asian countries if they wanted their citizens from Hubei and Wuhan to be evacuated. The Maldives said yes and seven Maldivians were evacuated from Wuhan along with the Indians.
Misri said the embassy is in contact with the 80 Indian students who remain in Wuhan. “We have assured them of all help and will keep them updated about any further development,” he said.