New Delhi: On Tuesday evening, the Delhi airport put in place new regulations to streamline passenger movement during the outbreak. This came after multiple reports details inconvenience, health risks, long wait times and confusion at the airport.
According to the Hindustan Times, the new standard operating procedure (SOP) restricts the movement of passengers to groups of 30 accompanied by a five-member escort team. It also puts in place measures to ensure travellers cannot evade screening and quarantine.”
All passengers will have to undergo thermal screening, the SOP states. Those who are showing symptoms that could be related to coronavirus will be taken to a hospital, while others will be directed to immigration counters. Passports will remain with the escorts after immigration, until baggage has been been picked up and a final health check conducted inside the airport.
External affairs minister S. Jaishankar went to the Delhi airport on Tuesday night to meet immigration, health, security and airport officials who are responding to the challenge posed by the coronavirus outbreak.
Jaishankar thanked them for their exceptional effort in these “difficult times”. “That too, with great courtesy and a warm smile,” he added.
India works because countless Indians do. Night or day, rain or shine. Went tonight to meet our immigration, health, security and airport officials @DelhiAirport who are responding to #COVID challenge. pic.twitter.com/mfMb5wZGcG
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) March 17, 2020
Reports of chaos
Before the new protocol was put in place, over the past few days, passengers flying in to Indira Gandhi International Airport have been taking to social media to narrate horror stories of longs waits at airports for screening, confusion over quarantines and unhygienic conditions of isolation wards in a bid to lay bare the the under-preparedness and unprofessional approach of Indian authorities – at airports as well as the quarantine facilities that have been set-up to check the rise of COVID-19.
The testimonies revealed the chaos at play where passengers have been made to wait for up to 14-16 hours – and most often without any provision of food – as government officials decide what to do with them.
More so, the accounts reveal that during this period of indecisiveness, often little thought is paid to the special needs of children and the elderly – who form around 10% of this travelling group. The isolation wards set up by the government as well have been unhygienic at many locations.
Talking to The Wire, Dipanshu Agarwal, who studies at Hochschule Mainz University of Applied Sciences in Germany, narrated his experience. Upon returning to India on Monday, he said many people were stopped at the airport, but though they were forced to wait for 10 hours, they were not given a anything to eat.
“Not even a biscuit,” he said.
Agarwal wrote on his Facebook post about his “experience of being in quarantine in India (Delhi).” He wrote that he returned from Germany on March 16 to be with his family.
“As soon as I landed in Delhi at 9:30 am, they took my passport and did not tell me when I would get it back and what was going to happen with me. My family was waiting outside for me. I had no idea what was happening. When I asked them, they said as I am coming from Germany, I will be quarantined for 14 days,” he said.
Stating that he had no problem with this, “as I thought it would be good for me, my family, my friends and all the citizens of this country”, Agarwal, who has now put himself in a state of self-quarantine at his home in Delhi, said problem began soon after.
“After that, three hours passed and I was sitting there squished with other people who were as clueless as me, (and remember we were all supposed to be safe and isolated but I don’t really think that it was their priority),” he said about how at the airport passengers who were considered a virus threat were bunched together.
Agarwal also said that “there was no management and planning at the airport. I helped them to call the names of the people and made groups that were to be taken at a police training school in Dwarka”.
He said even after they had completed their immigration check, passengers had to wait for two-three hours as some of them had not got their bags. Thereafter, they had to wait for another 1.5 hours in the bus before it started for the quarantine centre.
All this while, no food or refreshment was served to these passengers. Their hopes for some respite at the centre too vanished on reaching there. “When we reached at the centre, we were again forced to wait in the bus for 2 more hours as they didn’t had any planning there too. We were allowed to step out from the bus only when we literally bashed the doors and windows of the bus.”
On coming out, the passengers realised that “the centre was without medical kits, doctors, proper hygiene and food.”
Agarwal said “before us one more group had checked into this centre. It had arrived by a 2 am flight that day and it were its members who complained that the first piece of food they received on their return was a bread pakora at 4 in the evening.”
“After us, more groups came in and by 8 pm, when we were finally served a thali, there were around 200 people at the centre,” he said, adding that this included around 10-15 children and around five-ten senior citizens. He also complained that all through the day “no special arrangements for food were made either these children or the elderly. They were completely unprepared for this kind of a rush.”
Agarwal also commented in his post that even when food was finally served, one of the staff had said “arre Jisko lena hai le lo warna baad may mat kehna hame nahi mila” (whoever wants to take food, take it, don’t say later that we did not get it”).
Agarwal said, “They (the staff) didn’t treat us as humans thinking we all had coronavirus.”
He said after the passengers protested against the unhygienic facilities at the police facility, the authorities decided to shift them to the Lemon Tree Hotel. Agarwal wrote that everyone was told that they would have to pay Rs 3,100 plus taxes for the night and would have to undergo the test the following day.
Later, on reaching the hotel, he said, the group learnt that the orders for their release had come. In between, he complained that all passengers were asked to pay Rs 50,000 for 14 days stay at the hotel. He said when the passengers protested for over two hours, they were told that doctors would examine them. However, “as there was no doctor and there was no medical kits so finally, they gave us our passports at 12 am.”
Agarwal said the quarantine facilities seemed more like a “concentration camp”. He also noted how none of the officials who spoke to the passengers identified themselves. He said on his return home, he quarantined himself in order to prevent the spread of the virus among his family members.
Dee Bajaj, also narrated a similar incident on Facebook. “Nobody knows what’s happening- zero coordination or experience in dealing with this situation and to be fair to them they don’t really know how,” she wrote.
This can be shared folks!
I’m not one for long posts nor am I politically motivated in any way.
This is me stating…
Another passenger, Taanya Sachdeva, who returned on Tuesday, too spoke about the chaos at the Delhi airport. “I was stuck at the airport for 14 hours after landing and then advised home quarantine as they did not have any proper procedures and arrangements. I have completely isolated myself in my room and am not making any contact with my family members but I wonder how many people would take it seriously and especially after everything they exposed us to, at the airport yesterday!”
Sachdeva complained that she had to wait at the airport for 14 hours during which no proper meal was given to them. “After maybe 8 hours we were given a sandwich… people were crying and literally begging them for food,” she wrote.
Anyone who says #India is coping well with #Covid_19 needs to read this. I was on this flight yesterday and I have never…
She also charged that the airport staff were clueless about the quarantine process. “They were supposed to take us to testing facilities and then to quarantine centres. But finally so many were let go without being examined at all. I hope they at least isolate themselves,” she remarked.
Many others took to Twitter to share harrowing tales.
I land at Delhi airport dated 16th March 1:00 am KLM airlines from Spain. I am subject to the 14 day quarantine at a govt facility in Dwarka police training school. I won’t say anything I just give some videos of our *sanitised* accommodation. @PMOIndia @WHO @CISFHQrs pic.twitter.com/vd4AnLBIkW
— Navya Dua (@NavyaDua) March 16, 2020
Then they loaded them all in a bus with no help for heavy luggage and around 3 they reached The isolation centre in Narela. No lift so she had to carry her suitcases up 3 floor. To reach a room which is horrible. Not fit for humans or animals.
She asked for water …(2) pic.twitter.com/sLWO0E8PTw
— Tinkerbell 11:11 (@tinkerbell9958) March 16, 2020
Indian citizens who returned from Germany and Paris are on the floors of Delhi airport for more than 12 hours without medical & food assistance.
I hope Govt is bothered about reacting fastly for wellness of everyone.@MEAIndia @DelhiAirport @IndiaToday @CoronaVid19 @MoHFW_INDIA pic.twitter.com/1rNwHTC3H5
— Tanjavooru Teja (@TanjavooruT) March 16, 2020
Chaos at Delhi Airport today. Officials hv taken the passport of incoming passengers and neither allowing them to exit not returning their Passport. People screaming ‘Shoot us, Kill us’. This is the level of so called full preparedness by chest thumping Govt.#coronavirusindia pic.twitter.com/lWBXj57VI4
— CA Shahzad Ur Rahmanشہزاد الرحمان (@ca_shaz) March 18, 2020
A Ministry of Home Affairs official spoke to The Print about the long waits at the airport alongside other passengers suspected to be carriers of the virus. According to him, the videos being shared were from Sunday, “when the airport had not streamlined the process of screening”.
“No one is seizing passports of passengers. The team of Airport Health Organisation (APHO) is just taking passports of the passengers till their screening is done. If they get the clearance, their passports and luggage are handed over and they are free to go home with an undertaking that they will quarantine themselves,” he said.
Note: This article was originally published on March 18 and republished on March 19 with details of the new SOP.