Since the outbreak of coronavirus, Kerala has been a state of many firsts — the first to report COVID-19 case in India, the first state to flatten the curve by effectively containing and treating the virus and now, first to claim the highest recovery rate from the pandemic.
However, the worst is not yet over with the southern state awaiting the return of millions of Malayalees working abroad who are stuck there due to the lockdown in India.
Anyway, the state said it is ready to accept its people and believes it should be done at the earliest.
Kerala has already sent a letter to the Centre urging the government to consider reopening of airports for expats to come back.
But the Centre has put the request aside saying, the reopening of the airports and letting the expats return is out of the question till the lockdown is over.
Kerala Finance Minister and economist Dr. Thomas Isaac said since the state had already prepared itself for Keralites from foreign nations, they should be brought into India before the lockdown ends.
“The State is ready for the return of our people. We have prepared the facilities for isolating and putting them under quarantine” he said.
According to NoRKA (Non-Resident Keralites Affairs) Department, there are 22 million Keralites in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries only.
To make arrangements for all these possible returnees, the Kerala Public Works Department (PWD) has started identifying buildings to be turned into quarantine centres.
As of April 21, PWD has identified and acquired buildings for a capacity of 2, 26,969 beds among which, 140,688 are ready to occupy.
The government is acquiring hostels, private clinics, hospitals, government guest houses, and Houseboats for the same.
Supporting the cause, religious organisations have also expressed willingness to hand over buildings owned by them for quarantine purposes.
Besides the buildings acquired by the PWD, there are 50,000 beds arranged in government hospitals and a few private hospitals under the department of Health already.
So far, the number of people put in isolation wards in hospitals in Kerala is only 332.
Despite so many arrangements to receive people who have built the foundation of Kerala’s economy, the Centre has turned a blind eye to the requests by expats and state government.
It is also becoming tough for the expats, with a number of them living in crowded apartments and labour camps.
Satheesh (name changed), an engineer in Dubai used to stay at a bachelor accommodation — a two-room apartment where eight to ten people occupy a bed space. On March 13, one of his roommates, also an engineer, tested positive for COVID.
The patient informed the company he used to work at, and also the Dubai Health Authorities (DHA).
The Company promised to send an ambulance to shift him to an isolation ward but nothing happened till March 16. Instead, he got a call from the DHA advising him to stay in the room and not to go out.
“Compared to the care being given by the Kerala government, we find it so cruel. How can they ask him (roommate) to stay back in such a tiny space where there is no scope of following social distancing?” Satheesh asked.
Unfortunately, four including Satheesh from the room tested COVID positive and on April 19, all of them were shifted to a building where the Dubai government had an arranged an isolation ward.
Satheesh is one amongst the many at the receiving end during this crisis, but workers from the low-income groups living in labour camps have worse stories to tell.
Hitting out at the Indian government, Anjana Shankar, a UAE-based senior journalist said, for the Modi government, NRIs are Non-Required Indians.
“It is unfortunate that the Indian government is not listening to the pleas of NRIs for speedy repatriation. Thousands of Indians are stranded in Gulf nations without a job or any means of income as commercial activities have come to halt. India has operated flights to evacuate Indians from Iran and Italy, why this negligence when it comes to the NRIs in the Gulf?” she asked.
On her Facebook wall, Anjana has put a note asking the Indian government to start registration process for people who want to return on a priority basis starting with old and sick, people in visit visas and pregnant women.
Dr. K.P. Aravindan, a former professor at Medical College Kozhikode and health expert, said there’s no harm in letting the people come back as long as the 14 days quarantine is followed by them. He suggested that letting people go, and advising home quarantine, however, might prove fatal for the state.
Reiterating the same, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had on April 21 said, his government is ready to accept the NRIs and isolation the facility is ensured to keep them under quarantine for 14 days.
Even so, multiple challenges lay ahead for Kerala in this regard.
The latest trend related to the infectivity of COVID, generally perceived to be 14 days, does not match with foreign returnees still being positive even after 30 days of their arrival.
Begetting the question, is there a need to extend the mandatory quarantine period of 14 days?
Quashing the report, Dr. Aravindan said, there’s isn’t enough evidence to conclude that the infectivity period has increased.
“I understand that nine new cases tested positive in Kannur were the people who had completed 14 days of quarantine but, the test could also be positive when viral RNA sequences tested are still present in the sample. This can happen even after several days. So far, the studies imply that the infectivity does not extend to more than 8 days after onset of symptoms”.
With the studies on coronavirus still being in the early stages, no government can take the risk of deciding to not test people after the required quarantine time.
Kerala being the state having the largest number of expats, it has a long way to go in this battle.