While announcing the extension of a lockdown due to the coronavirus on Saturday, Maharashtra’s chief minister Uddhav Thackeray slipped in the hint of a lapse at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport that could have added to the number of people infected by COVID-19 in the state. He said, “When we started screening passengers at the airport, we tested people coming from the list of countries given by the Centre. But some of the countries were not included in this list and certain incoming passengers slipped through.”
He was referring to travellers from the UAE and the USA.
Airports started screening passengers for coronavirus since 18 January. On 23 February, authorities at Mumbai’s international airport tightened the screening process, according to the guidelines of the Central government. Passengers coming in from China, where the virus first broke out, along with Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Japan were on the radar.
On 3 March, the Bureau of Immigration issued another travel advisory. Its sixth and last point read, “Passengers (foreign and Indian) other than those restricted, arriving directly or indirectly from China, South Korea, Japan, Iran, Italy, Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, Singapore and Taiwan must undergo medical screening at port of entry.”
The list did not include the UAE or the USA.
Between the time the first set of restrictions were put in place (23 February) and when the immigration bureau sent out its advisory (3 March), a group of tourists landed in Mumbai (on 1 March) from Dubai, one of the busiest cities in The UAE. On 17 March, when Maharashtra had clocked 40 positive cases of coronavirus, 40 percent of those were traced to this group. The first case of the coronavirus in Maharashtra was a Pune couple, which was part of this group. And the first two cases in Mumbai were traced to that couple. The first three cases in Yavatmal were traced to this group as well, threatening the spread of the virus into vast swathes of rural Maharashtra, for Yavatmal is an agrarian district.
So far, Maharashtra has seen over 1,700 cases of coronavirus, and Mumbai accounts for more than half of them. The state has also recorded 127 deaths.
Dubai is a transit hub, and one of the busiest airports where most flights from Europe and the US have a layover. With 17 Dubai-Mumbai flights a day, around 8,000 passengers reportedly come into the city on a daily basis.
Mahesh Kumar, Deputy Secretary (PR), Ministry of External Affairs said the advisories were based on the number of infections in the countries. “On 3 March, we did not feel the need to include USA and UAE, for the USA only had 127 cases of coronavirus and the UAE had only 27 cases,” he said, “There is no story behind leaving these two countries out. It was just a low number of cases. You have to respond to data. We were getting our inputs from our embassies.”
Senior journalist, Rohit Chandavarkar, who writes regularly on aviation, said the load at Indian airports was too high to screen passengers coming from all sides. “They had to be selective,” he said.
But Ajay Awtaney, Mumbai-based aviation journalist and editor of livefromalounge.com, said the thinking behind this process was to go about it as less disruptively as possible, and inconvenience as few people as possible. “However, we are in lockdown now,” he said, “It should have been an all-round assessment process, because it is easy to slip up when you are selective. When transit hubs like UAE or Qatar started taking this seriously, they screened everyone.”
As far as the USA is concerned, Awtaney said he was surprised that it was missing from the list. “People had started to talk about cases starting to rise in the US, and there were no precautions being taken in the country either. If the MEA was responding to data, then there were no testing protocols in place in the US at the time. The lawmakers kept saying it is not a problem, and they were not treating it like a pandemic,” he said.
The 3 March advisory also said, “All foreign and Indian nationals entering into India from any port are required to furnish duly-filled self-declaration form (including personal particulars ie phone number and address in India) and travel history, to health officials and immigration officials at all ports.”
In other words, it put the onus on the passengers to be truthful and forthcoming. But there was ample evidence to show the passengers did not do so. The advisory was updated on 6 March, which also emphasised universal screening and self-declaration. On 13 March, the government suspended all visas.
On 26 March, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba wrote to the chief secretaries of all states and Union Territories that 15 lakh international passengers entered India between 18 January and 23 March, and that there is a “gap” between the ones being monitored and the ones who arrived. “As you are aware, we initiated screening of international incoming passengers at the airports with effect from 18 January, 2020. I have been informed that up to 23 March, 2020, cumulatively, the Bureau Of Immigration has shared details of more than 15 lakh incoming international passengers with the states/UTs in order to monitor COVID-19. However, there appears to be a gap between the number of international passengers who need to be monitored by the states/UTs and the actual number of passengers being monitored,” said Gauba in his letter.
Chandavarkar said the Centre originally issued orders to the Bureau of Immigration at Indian airports, to screen passengers coming only from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand. “But by that time, the spread of COVID-19 had already occurred in Europe and even in the United States. The Bureau of Immigration followed orders and started screening the passengers coming from East Asia. However, by that time it had become clear that even the UAE had the pandemic,” he said, adding, “Most cases in India now seem to have come from the west of the country and not the east. The multiplicity of agencies and the communication gap between them may have resulted in many passengers from Europe and the UAE coming into India without being properly screened at the airports.”
Updated Date: Apr 14, 2020 11:19:49 IST
Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport,