‘We lost golden hours’: Kerala activists rue delay in Covid-19 evacuation of expats
According to the latest information, 296 people from the state died due to the coronavirus disease in the Gulf but activists working among expatriates say their number is more.Updated: Jun 25, 2020 16:16 IST
Mohammad Hussein (47) was working in Qatar for the last 20 years and was planning to return to India in May. In April, his family got a call from an organisation working among the expatriate community saying he contracted Covid-19 and his condition was serious. There was no news after this - a week later, his family in Kozhikode (north Kerala) got the photos of his burial.
A substantial number of people from Kerala are working in the Gulf. According to the latest information, 296 people from the state died due to the coronavirus disease in the Gulf but activists working among expatriates say their number is more. Hussein’s family members at least got photos but others were not so lucky. And some families, who can afford, are keeping bodies of their dear ones in mortuary in the hope they can be brought back once the virus situation improves. “My father’s body is in a morgue in Bahrain. And we are paying through our nose. We hope the body can be brought back once the situation improves,” said the daughter of another deceased.
The number of Kerala Gulf diaspora is estimated to be 18 lakh (2018 figure). And the remittances they sent that year was around 19 per cent of the total remittances sent by Indians abroad. In 2019, the figure jumped to Rs 1 lakh crore, the highest in the country, according to the state level bankers’ committee.
The diaspora community has always helped the state government. They have loosened their purse strings in the times of disasters, but the community now feels it has been let down by both Centre and state governments during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Union minister V Muraleedharan said that when the government started the flight services in May, the Centre was ready to fly at least 36 flights per day to Kerala. He said that the Kerala government restricted the number of flights to less than 12 saying they won’t be able to handle so many flights.
The state government has, however, denied this.
The expatriates, meanwhile, say that many lives could have been saved if the members of the community were evacuated in early days of the pandemic. “Even countries like Pakistan and the Philippines took their citizens in March-April and the country waited till the situation deteriorated. We lost golden hours. Many lives could have been saved if we’d evacuated them in early months. Now the state government itself says expatriates can be super spreaders,” said Reji Kuttappan, a writer and migrant rights activist.
Their desperation was quite visible when the government-run non-Keralite resident association (Norka) opened a website in April for those who want to return and more than four lakh (4,56,431 to be exact) got themselves registered in two weeks. The state government said that 90,000 people have returned to the state but the Norka website puts the number at 55,905 till June 22.
The expatriates say what really pained them is the fact that they were being stamped as super spreaders in many areas. Hate campaigns against those coming back to the state have been reported in north Kerala where 60 per cent of expatriates hail from. “Even CM Pinarayi Vijayan said the state put restrictions on returnees to check super spreaders. His words sent a wrong message,” said Mansoor Paloor, convenor of the Indian Overseas Congress.
But Vijayan denied any laxity on the part of the state government and said there was a concerted move to array expatriates against the government. “We never blocked any flights. We took some decisions to check super spreaders and community spreading. More than 90 per cent of the cases in the state are imported, people came from abroad or other states,” he said. But Congress-led Opposition criticised the state government saying it was more interested in its records, not welfare of stranded people and that led to many deaths. “The government could have brought them home and treated them here instead of leaving them to death abroad,” said former chief minister Oommen Chandy.
As the Centre and state spar over evacuation, the death rate in the expat community is steadily going up. There was a big outrage after the state made Covid-free certificates mandatory for returnees but the government stood its ground till the Centre rejected it saying tests were not feasible in embassies. At one point, the state said it was ready to send kits to test people before boarding flights but many expatriates feel the tussle and confusion cost them dearly.