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State governments are arranging for special facilities to treat coronavirus patients in view of the rising number of positive cases. Photo: PTI

Amid COVID-19, panic grips pilgrims, sailors stranded in Iran

With the death toll rising over 1,400 in Iran due to novel coronavirus outbreak, panic grips among sailors, fishers and pilgrims from India stranded in the country.

With the death toll rising over 1,400 in Iran due to novel coronavirus outbreak, panic grips among sailors, fishers and pilgrims from India stranded in the country.

Some of the pilgrims and sailors claim they have little money to continue to stay in Tehran and Qom city where they are currently stationed, which are also among the worst affected cities. As of March 20, Iran had 19,644 total COVID-19 cases with nearly 1,433 dead.

While several groups expressed they have been making frantic calls, writing emails and knocking on the doors of Indian Embassy in Iran with a hope to get some help on food and shelter at least, the unresponsiveness from the authorities is making them worry more. The officials claimed that they too are under pressure and hence things are delayed.

Interactive: Know the coronavirus stats here

The Ministry of External Affairs on March 18 confirmed in the Lok Sabha that 255 Indians were infected with coronavirus in Iran, much higher than the numbers in India (173 as of March 18 and 206 as of March 20), which is also the highest number of Indians infected outside the country.

As for the stranded pilgrims, of the 42 members in the group in Qom, 16 are said to have “tested positive” and continue to live in the same hotel together. The list of positive patients that The Federal accessed, the one given to the group, do not bear any seal/signature.

While the group of people (on a telephonic conversation) claimed that they show no symptoms of coronavirus and feel they could be asymptomatic hence testing positive. Since it’s not an official letter, they doubt if they are really tested positive.

Meanwhile, the officials claimed that some of the members who tested negative were not willing to leave their kith and kin who have the COVID-19 infection and could not be brought back to India. However, the Ministry of External affairs said that the necessary arrangement they’ve made to quarantine people was refused by the pilgrims.

Related news: Over 450 Indians evacuated from COVID-19 hit Iran, Italy, quarantined at Delhi, Jaisalmer

According to a report in the Kashmir Observer, Additional Secretary Dammu Ravi, Government of India, said, “The Indian government expected foreign countries to take care of the affected people (foreigners) as India does. However, with a flow blown epidemic in Iran, the crisis went out of hand. If Indians tested positive elsewhere, we would expect the country they are in to take care of them, like we are doing with the foreign nationals here,” Ravi had said.

While having a telephonic conversation with The Federal, some of the sailors, people from the fishers community, and the pilgrims stranded in different parts of Iran, claimed that the gates of the Indian Embassy in the country are closed all day and they aren’t allowed to step in and air their concerns. They also claimed that some of them were sent back informing there weren’t enough medical kits for testing.

Pilgrims’ speak

A 46-year-old woman, who is stranded in Hotel Firozeh, Imam Street, Qom and is tested positive for COVID-19 said that the administration is in total chaos. The woman from Srinagar, part of a 42-member group, reached February 19 on a 10-day tour. However, as the situation worsened, they got stuck in Qom and could not venture out. They sought help with the government since the last week of February. However, the India government sent doctors only the third week of March and tested them for COVID-19.

“The first report on March 16 (an official call from the Indian Embassy in Iran) said we all tested negative. We were glad and about to leave to airport to catch a return flight to India. But we got a call again and they said 16 of us tested negative,” the woman said.

“Should we believe the authorities at all? If we were tested positive, why are we not being quarantined or sent back for treatment? The Iranian doctors who come to check us based on the Indian government’s list, do not have the names of those of us tested positive,” she said.

She expressed that many of her fellow pilgrims were running out of money to stay in hotel.

Meanwhile, the authorities claimed that some of the family members refused to separate and did not wish to leave the country and that all efforts were done to isolate and quarantine people. However, the woman refuted the government’s claim.

Sailors’ talk

In a conversation with a group pf sailors, it was noted that some of the sailors want to get their tests done, either due to the fear that they might have come in contact with suspected patients, or to get a medical ceritificate to return to India, since as per the guidelines only those who are tested negative are allowed to be brought back.

While many are staying in their respective ships stationed at different ports such as Bushehr and Bandar Abbas, some of the sailors have taken a sign-off from the ship and moved to Tehran, the capital city where the Indian Embassy is located.

Related news: 234 Indians stranded in Iran have arrived in India, says EAM Jaishankar

Prathamesh More, a sailor who reached Iran on November 2, and is currently in Bandar Abbas feared that he might have come in contact with one of their agents who tested positive and wants to get the test done. But the officials are asking him not to venture out as he’s safe in Bandar Abbas.

“Besides phone calls, I wrote mails to the Embassy thrice in past week. We had had no response. We are worried and the government should update us on the status,” Prathamesh said.

Him and his fellow sailor Abhishek Mhatre feared that they would run out food supplies soon and want to return before the worse happens.

“We are seeing videos of Indian citizens struggling to get help outside the Indian Embassy in Teharan. It makes us worry more,” he added.

Chirag Rajesh Chanaliya, 20, another sailor from Pune is hassled and shuttles between the Indian Embassy and hotel each day. He was one among those who came out of the ship and moved to Tehran on March 15 to get the test done so as to fly out of the country. However, he said the officials sent him back saying they do not have enough kits to test.

“I cannot afford to stay in hotel and I do not have money. If I cannot be sent back to India, all I request the government to do is to provide me with food and safe shelter at least in times like this,” Chanaliya said.

Related news: Coronavirus: IAF evacuates 58 Indians from Iran, all test negative

Speaking to The Federal, the Ministry of External affairs official in New Delhi, on condition of anonymity, said they too are battling with challenges and doing as much as they can to help the stranded but he did not comment on the shortage of test kits.

A 20-year-old Mumbai-based sailor, Hashmi, who is stationed at Bandar Abbas in Iran claimed that he is fleeced by local agents who are asking $400 to get a sign-off from the ship (break the work contract and let them out of the ship).

With the death of an Indian on March 19 who tested positive in Iran, the fears rose even more.

“The medical team sent from India can do the tests in Tehran and not in other places. Hence we cannot take care of patients at far-off places,” the official said.

According to a Lok Sabha report answering an unstarred question, about 1,400 India pilgrims and students in Qom and Tehran, and about 700 fishers and sailors (whose count is not known) are currently stranded in Iran.

Jayasundaram T, a fisher activist from Tamil Nadu said, there are about 700 fishers stranded across Iran and some of them are not having enough food supplies.

“We reached out the state and central authorities on Thursday seeking help as some of the fishers were struggling for food as they were running out of stock or had no money. Thankfully, we heard from them this morning (on Friday) that the government stepped in to assist them with food supplies,” Jayaraman said.

After The Federal spoke to the stranded sailors and informed the authorities, at least two people mentioned in this story confirmed that they have been contacted by the Indian Embassy in Tehran as of Friday night. However, they claimed that the Embassy did not assure of any help, but just took their personal and stay details.

After almost three weeks since people started to seek help in Iran, the Indian Embassy finally on March 19 set up an isolation facility to treat those who are infected in Qom.

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