Covaxin turns bane for expats as Gulf nations stress on Covishield

Either a repeat of vaccine or a change in the policy of GCC Countries would facilitate their return

Neither WHO nor researchers has come up with an answer whether there is a risk in going for repeat jabs of vaccines. File Photo

Kannur resident Girikumar has urged the High Court to allow him a third dose of anti-COVID vaccine Covishield. He doesn’t know if it would adversely affect his health. The scientific community is largely quiet on whether a third dose is OK. There are hundreds of people in Kerala who are ready to go for a vaccine repetition if it is allowed.

Those who have taken two shots of Covaxin want to get either a third doze of Covishield or get their certificate of vaccination changed to one for Covishield. Both the demands appear unreasonable, but the desperate expats of Kerala who have taken two doses of Covaxin have requested the authorities to get it done.

None of them knows whether it is safe, but they know they’d lose their livelihood if they don’t have a certificate of Covishield vaccine as early as possible as most of the countries have not yet cleared the indigenous Covaxin.

Girikumar is among thousands of Malayali migrants who have spent their youthful years working hard in the Gulf. He has been working as a welder in a construction firm in Saudi Arabia. Now 50, Girikumar had migrated in 1996. He cannot imagine being jobless at this age. His elder daughter is an undergraduate and the younger one is in the tenth standard. “Many people advised me that there would be health risks in taking a third dose of the vaccine, but I have no choice,” Girikumar told The Federal.

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Shibu Rajan and his wife Kalpana from Kollam have been living in Muscat for 18 years. Like many Gulf migrants who wanted to return to Kerala following the first COVID wave, Shibu and Kalpana took a flight back to Kerala in April 2020 along with their two sons. Both of them had two doses of Covaxin with an expectation they could return to their workplace at the earliest. However, they could not go back due to the travel ban imposed by Muscat for Indians.

“We left our home there and I can’t imagine a situation in which we are stuck here forever,” Kalpana told The Federal. She said their future would become uncertain if they were unable to go back in a month.

“The visa would expire in December. A special permission letter is required from the company where my husband works if his leave exceeds six months”. However, Kalpana is very skeptical about going for a third dose of Covishield. “No studies support three or four doses of vaccine. We have no idea what the impact would be. The only option is that India should exert pressure on World Health Organisation to get Covaxin recognised”.

The problems will not be resolved even if Muscat lifts the travel ban. “Only those who are vaccinated are allowed to move out there. We will not be able to go to any public place if Muscat does not change the policy and accept Covaxin,” Kalpana said.

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As of June 7, 2021, 10,21,503 expats have returned to Kerala due the pandemic distress. However, a majority of them went back according to the NORKA Roots (it is the single agency authorized by the government of India to undertake attestation of educational certificates as per the guidelines of the Central government).

Around one lakh people have lost their jobs and are left with no opportunity to go back. NORKA authorities do not have the data of people who are stuck in Kerala due to the travel ban imposed by various countries.

Krishnan Namboothiri, CEO of NORKA, told The Federal that they have been collecting the number of returnees who took Covaxin and are not able to travel back. “Thousands of people have been stranded here because of the differences in vaccine policies adopted by various countries. We have requested the Centre to look into the matter and take action,” he told The Federal.

The case of Jose Antony, 48, is worse. He has been working in Muscat for 18 years and took a flight to Kerala in April 2020 to avail of medical care for post-COVID ailments. He was tested positive when he was in Muscat and had recurring body pains and other ailments. However, he could not return as he planned due to the death of his father.

With an expectation to go back in a hurry, Jose Antony chose Covaxin. “During that time, I preferred Covaxin because the interval between two shots was only 28 days. For Covishield, the gap between two shots was 40-45 days. So, people like me who were in a hurry to go back preferred Covaxin,” says Antony.

According to the letter sent by the Chief Secretary of Kerala dated July 1, 2021, to the Ministry of External Affairs, there are two groups of expats stranded in Kerala. The first are those who have taken two doses of Covaxin which is yet to be recognised by the GCC countries. There is a large number of non-resident Keralites who have taken the first dose of vaccination in their workplaces. They have taken either Sinopharm (Chinese vaccine) or Pfizer bioNTech (US Vaccine). As these vaccines are not available in India, they are not able to get the second dose.

“We have requested the Central government to negotiate with the governments of the Middle East countries to impress upon them to allow the return of the stranded Malayalees on the condition that they are asymptomatic and that they tested negative by an RT-PCR test conducted within 72 hours prior to their departure,” says Harikrishnan, the CEO of NORKA Roots.

However, the authorities have no idea what the people would do even if they go back because those countries have not approved Covaxin.

As the Gulf returnees are worried, they will not be allowed to socialise without an immunity passport as recognised by the respective countries. In that case, they will have to go for a repeat of vaccination – that of Covishield. Neither WHO nor the research community has come up with an answer whether there is a risk involved in going for repeat jabs of vaccines.

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