COVID-19: India may have erred on pre-lockdown airport screening

Indian government claims that they had adequate screening measures at airports much before the lockdown, testimonies from international and domestic flyers state otherwise.

coronavirus
MHA has notified that passengers will be screened before boarding a flight and only asymptomatic individuals will be allowed to travel (Photo PTI)

On January 30, after India reported its first COVID-19 case, the numbers started to rise. Though the Indian government now claims that they had adequate screening measures at airports much before the lockdown commenced on March 25, testimonies from international and domestic flyers state otherwise.

On March 22, Manik Saluja, an IT engineer, took a flight to New Delhi from Bengaluru. He claimed that he was shocked to see the absence of preparedness at Bengaluru airport, as no checks were being carried out at the departure gates, while the COVID-19 cases had already crossed 400 in India.

“Even the supermarkets that I had visited in the city were checking the temperature before letting people enter the premises, but a place as vulnerable as an airport didn’t have proper facilities. How can the airport authorities be so careless,” Manik questioned.

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The first one-day lockdown was imposed on March 22, before a 21-day nationwide lockdown on March 24. However, even though India had admitted that COVID-19 spreads from people who visited other countries, the ban on flights and trains were imposed on March 25.

Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a public health expert and social activist, says that the 44-day delay by the government in imposing a lockdown is irresponsible and has put the country at risk. An early action and precautions against the novel coronavirus would have prevented so many cases, Dr Karpagam adds.

The government knew that it is a highly communicable disease but still didn’t stop foreigners coming to India, didn’t screen well at the airports, and if they would have done these things earlier, there would have been no lockdown, Dr Karpagam said.

No checking

Even international passengers who flew to India state carelessness and lack of checks by airport authorities.

Erin Little, a Hong Kong-based entrepreneur, mentioned that she travelled from Hong Kong to New Delhi in mid-March, while she also had a layover in Malaysia.

She stated that the staff of Delhi airport wasn’t prepared for any protocol, and mentioned that she had been to seven other Asian countries since the outbreak was reported, so she had a good sense of the measures taken in those countries. “While other countries are taking [steps] to stop the COVID-19 outbreak to protect its citizens, I found nothing like that at Delhi airport,” she highlighted.

She added that there were many other passengers from China and Hong Kong in her flight and the airport authorities were supposed to check everyone, but they didn’t do that so she went all the way through immigration to find out that why there were no checks, but found out that Delhi airport has only one staff member for these checks.

“The one person who was making sure that no [person with] COVID-19 gets into the country was actually asleep. I could have been easily stepped outside of the airport without any checks. In India, I travelled to Hyderabad and Bengaluru as well, while Hyderabad staff took care of the matter well, the same was not the case for Bengaluru,” she mentioned.

Related News: India tests 4.5 lakh samples; states told not to use rapid kits for 2 days

Long wait for nothing

Trina Talukdar, a social worker, stated that she arrived from the United States on March 20 at Delhi airport. She stated that she, along with others, had to wait in a queue over an hour, for the initial temperature check.

She said that they stood in lines in front of closed immigration counters, and that there was no information, no water, no food, and no officials to address emergencies.

After waiting for over 1 hour 30 minutes, the immigration counters finally started letting people through and they took their passports and asked them to wait, thus starting another endless wait without information about what’s next, she added.

After waiting again for an hour, an official started shouting out names of passengers from passports. They had to strain their ears to hear over the noise of 500 other people and other officials shouting out names. They were asked to follow the officials, while in the next three hours, they wandered aimlessly from one queue to another without any information.

She further said that at 6:00 AM they were shown into the luggage area where they had to find their luggage from hundreds of suitcases strewn all over the terminal and she still had no idea why they had just waited. She stated that they had to wait for over six hours, and it continued even after they had received their luggage.

It took 11 hours at the Delhi airport for a health worker to ask her if she had a fever, which was written down on paper, and she was let off after being stamped on her hand with ink, she added.

“If there were proper checks at the airport, I wouldn’t have complained about the 11-hour wait. I would have put it down as my role as a responsible citizen. However, this ordeal for thousands of people is not doing anything for the prevention of the pandemic,” she mentioned.

After that, she said she came home and self quarantined at her parents’ house in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. She registered on the state government’s online portal and immediately got a call to confirm her details, and since then they’ve been calling her twice each day to check if she has developed any symptoms.

Another 60-year-old woman, who wished for anonymity, claimed that she lost her passport due to the carelessness of Delhi airport authorities and had to wait for 16 hours.

She got back her passport after two days and was asked verbally, without conducting any tests, if she had COVID-19.

Poor state of quarantine centres

Rhea Bhalla, an Indian student studying in Spain, stated that foreign nationals were asked to return to their countries. After landing at New Delhi, she was made to wait for several hours without any food or water, for their body temperatures to be checked, and they were taken in buses to quarantine centres which were dirty and unhygienic.

At the centre, they had to fight for water and after begging for hours, they were each given a bottle of water, she said, “I can’t even begin to tell you how dirty the washrooms were. Also, there was no electricity. The most difficult part of the night was not being able to use the washroom. I felt tortured, like a prisoner. When I appealed that we should at least be given water to drink, they asked us to drink directly from toilet taps, which had no water in them.”

Talukdar highlighted that the airport was severely underprepared. “There was no plan and the staff themselves were confused about what was happening, what the protocol was, and what the next steps were because till date I don’t understand why I got held up for 11 hours when the only extra procedure was a two-minute talk with a health worker where they asked me if I had symptoms and let me go,” she added.

About 500 people were stuck for five hours in the small area between the luggage conveyor belts and the entrance to the red/green channels, which usually takes 30 seconds to walk through and this is a fertile ground for infection to spread, she added.

The major damage was done before the lockdown was imposed on March 25, because the people who are coming from China or other parts of the world in India brought the virus to India and there was no proper testing at the airports before the lockdown.

Vinay Sreenivasa, a social activist, asks why people from countries including the US, France, Belgium, Italy, Tunisia, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh and Malaysia were allowed into India in mid-March despite the pandemic.

He said, before the lockdown, there was no proper screening at the airports and after the lockdown, the unpreparedness of the government was witnessed, so the central government and the authorities are fully responsible for the outbreak of the virus in India. The people, doctors, activists were demanding a proper lockdown from the start but the government slept, Vinay added.

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