Coronavirus: Indians tell of grief and cling to hope as they board flights home

Pregnant women, people who have lost jobs and some suffering personal tragedy are among those returning to India

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Indian citizens stranded in the UAE due to the coronavirus pandemic have shared stories of heartbreak and hope as they boarded flights home.

More than 200,000 people, including those on tourist visas and others seeking to go home after losing jobs, have registered for the humanitarian operation as calls are made for Indian authorities to increase flights.

Dozens of pregnant women are among more than 2,000 passengers carried on 11 flights from Dubai since the mission began on May 7.

There are 19 flights scheduled from the UAE to India until May 23.

Grieving husband Lokesh Kulal grasped for words to convey his feelings as he spoke of his wife’s death two days ago, before flying from Dubai to Mangalore.

Lokesh Kulan with his wife Tejaswani and son Likhil in happier times. Mr Kulan was on board a flight to Mangalore on Monday as part of a repatriation drive to take home citizens stranded overseas amid the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy: Lokesh Kulan

“Tejaswani kept telling me she was too ill and I told her she would get better but I lost her,” said Mr Kulal, 37, who works for a furnishing company.

“She had breast cancer and developed very low blood pressure so they admitted her to the ICU. I’m trying to manage myself but I can’t think clearly.”

Mr Kulal will not be able to make it to the funeral because of the 14-day quarantine when he reaches Mangalore in southern India to be with his family and son, 6.

He worries about contracting Covid-19 during the journey.

“I have to think about the safety of everyone because my parents are old,” he said.

“I worry about my job because now there is no work for me. But my company has been paying my salary so I want to come back.”

A special flight from Abu Dhabi to Kochi on Monday departed with 173 passengers and two infants on board.

The passengers included 21 people with medical emergencies, 41 pregnant women, 79 people who had lost their jobs and 19 stranded tourists.

Almost 15,000 people have returned to India on 64 flights from around the world over the past 10 days.

There are plans to fly home 30,000 citizens this week from 31 countries.

Officials have said limited services were due to lockdown measures extended across India until the end of the month.

Expectant mum Sangitha Shetty wore protective overalls hoping to ward off the deadly disease.

“It’s my first pregnancy and so I really want to go back home,” said the Ajman housewife, 23.

“I have mixed feelings. I’m hoping my husband can come to see the baby in August but we don’t know because he works in a hospital.”

Another passenger decided to go home because of his  heart condition.

“I live alone and in case of an emergency who will come and help me, that’s what I worry about,” said the finance manager, who has worked in Abu Dhabi for 27 years.

India has been under lockdown since March 24 when the government shut down international and domestic flights and train services between states.

This has left hundreds of thousands of Indian citizens stranded in countries overseas.

The Indian government recently extended restrictions until May 31 to slow the spread of the disease in the world’s second most populous country.

When limited international flights began this month, travellers were taken to airports and placed in 14-day quarantine in nearby hotels.

Domestic air travel remains shut, passenger train services are suspended and road travel eased between some states.

Elderly couple Amal and Tripti Mandal, who left the UAE last week after 53 days in Dubai airport, are in quarantine in India's capital New Delhi.

They hope to reach their home in western India’s Vadodara city when domestic flights resume in June.

“By the time internal flights begin and the lockdown ends, our quarantine will be over,” Mr Mandal, 75, said from Delhi.

"We have no choice but to keep waiting.”

UAE residents have appealed to Indian authorities for more flights, particularly to take home people who have lost jobs.

“I get 200 calls a day from people who want to go home and I can only tell them to wait for some months for everything to settle down,” said Sarvottam Shetty, an Abu Dhabi businessman.

“Nobody has any answers when I ask why there are not more flights from Abu Dhabi.

"But at the same time who can you blame? People from each state want more flights.

“If passengers have to cross states they can’t get home anyway, so it will be easier after India’s lockdown ends.”

Indian consular officials have asked people to remain patient.

Due to coronavirus regulations, cabin crew must be quarantined and the number of passengers inside airports must be controlled.

“These are not normal times and we have registrations from every quarter of the country,” said Vipul, India’s consul general in Dubai.

“The number of people who want to return home is very large and we have tried to prioritise based on medical, pregnancy cases, the elderly and workers who have lost jobs."