Coronavirus: Indians stranded abroad look to Modi for flight home decision

Expats hope prime minister will give repatriation flights the go ahead on Tuesday, after India's top judge said to expect border closure for another four weeks

Canadian nationals queue to check-in before boarding a special flight for New Delhi to eventually reach Canada during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, at Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee International Airport in Amritsar on April 9, 2020. / AFP / NARINDER NANU
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Indian expatriates stranded abroad cannot return home for at least another month, India's Supreme Court said on Monday.

Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde deferred the hearing of seven cases challenging the government's decision to close borders for four weeks.

He urged Indians to "stay where you are".

Seven petitions were made to the court from citizens who were abroad when Narendra Modi's government closed the borders last month.

Among them were expat workers in the UAE and students in the United Kingdom.

Once the decision is taken by the central government, Kerala is ready to receive our brothers and sisters. Whatever the number, we are well prepared

Unlike some governments, India's has allowed no repatriation flights.

On Tuesday, Mr Modi will address the nation at 8.30am UAE time. He was expected to extend a 21-day lockdown that began on March 25, but could allow some repatriation flights home.

Expats in the UAE who have lost jobs or closed businesses hope to return home.

“If flights open I can go back to my country. I have stayed in UAE for 10 years, but I cannot stay anymore," said Munawara Zainuddin, a house cleaner in Abu Dhabi.

Her landlord has come calling for two months rent of Dh4,000.

Emirati authorities warned homeowners they cannot evict tenants, but low-income workers are particularly vulnerable, and she has no work on the horizon.

"I must go home, I have no money," she said.

“The landlord said he will throw me out. Without work, I cannot pay rent. Everyone has problems. My friends also want to go back."

The 45-year-old from Kerala is among thousands anxiously awaiting the resumption of flights.

Kerala's state government said it was getting ready to accept more than 200,000 people from abroad, once the lockdown is lifted by New Delhi. It is understood at least 70,000 could be from the UAE.

Senior Kerala cabinet minister KT Jaleel told The National that beds in government and private hospitals were being prepared to handle non-resident Indians, who would be placed in quarantine for 14 days.

“Once the decision is taken by the central government, Kerala is ready to receive our brothers and sisters. Whatever the number, we are well prepared,” said Mr Jaleel.

“We have more than 200,000 beds that we can give for quarantine facilities to those who wish to come back to Kerala from abroad, especially from the UAE. These are in government and private hospitals and government institutions.”

Officials in Indian states such as Kerala and western Maharashtra earlier expressed concern over high number of positive cases detected among passengers returning from the Middle East before the lockdown.

Of Kerala’s 194 cases, at least 119 arrived from overseas, of which 87 were from Dubai, according to state government figures.

Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan last week wrote to Mr Modi urging him to look after citizens in the UAE seeking to return home.

“Each and every family in Kerala has a connection with the Gulf. There are one or two persons from each family working in UAE,” said Mr Jaleel whose brother and sister-in-law have lived in Dubai for the past decade.

“Kerala is their birth land and if anybody wants to return, how can we deny them the opportunity? We have approached the central government because they have the authority for air transport.”

Indian officials said they awaited a decision from federal authorities.

The Indian Consulate in Dubai recently received repatriation requests from 800 residents and one employer in the entertainment sector seeking to send back 1,000 staff.

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The mission has launched a telemedicine facility from 9am to 6pm for its citizens worried about contracting the coronavirus.

Phone lines were jammed as soon as the message went up on Twitter on Monday, with authorities planning to add an additional 20 doctors and counsellors to handle demand.

“We wait for guidance from India,” said Mr Vipul, Indian Consul General in Dubai when asked about permission for flights.

The more pressing issue is handling workers living in small apartments with people who had tested positive.

“For both physical and mental well being, people can call doctors and counsellors if they are jittery because they have flu-like symptoms,” Mr Vipul said.

On Sunday, state news agency Wam said the UAE is considering introducing quotas or employment clauses for workers from countries that have refused to repatriate their citizens.

Emirati officials are understood to be keen to help expats who wish to return home.

They aim to reach arrangements with governments to ensure their citizens can return home. But they need the agreement of other countries to facilitate such flights.

"They [employers] say they will call me to work when the corona stops. But no one is calling me. I will just go back to Kerala to live with my sons

The governments of India and Pakistan, who have more than four million citizens working in the Emirates, are among those to have imposed hard border closures that extends to denying repatriation flights.

As per international safety guidelines, coronavirus patients require at least two, if not three, negative tests to be allowed to board flights.

Emirati officials have offered to test potential passengers for Covid-19 and, if needed, quarantine expats in the Emirates before sending them home once virus-free.

Testing and support conducted in government facilities is open to all nationalities and free to all.

In the past week, the UAE has ramped up testing to as many as 20,000 people per day, including in neighbourhoods placed on strict quarantine.

Social workers and government-backed charitable groups have brought food supplies for a month to help hundreds like Ms Zainuddin.

"They (employers) say they will call me to work when the corona stops," she said.

"But no one is calling me. I will just go back to Kerala to live with my sons."