Indian nationals visiting the UAE have rushed to book tickets home before a mandatory 14-day quarantine comes into force this week as part of efforts to curb the global spread of coronavirus.
All travellers from the Emirates as well as Oman, Kuwait and Qatar will be stamped with a home quarantine tag when they enter the international airport in Mumbai and other cities of western Maharashtra state from noon on Wednesday.
Officials at Mumbai’s airport began imprinting the stamp on the hands of passengers arriving from nations including China, Italy, South Korea, Iran, Europe and Japan on Tuesday.
The blue indelible ink stamp reads: ‘Proud To Protect Mumbaikars Home Quarantined’
Authorities said the mark would be placed on the left hand of Indian nationals and foreign travellers to ensure compliance with safety measures.
The move has prompted some Indian tourists to cut short stays in the UAE because they were unsure if health officials stationed at airports would place them in government facilities or allow home quarantine.
“I don’t mind home quarantine but I don’t want to be placed in a government hospital so I’m going back home immediately,” said Sunita Hariharan, who will fly back to Mumbai on Tuesday instead of later this week.
“My husband was frantic that I should come back as soon as the news came out about compulsory quarantine. There will be thousands of people wanting to go back before March 18 so I just got the first flight back home.”
The ink stamp got a thumbs-up from one Indian tourist, who said extraordinary measures were required.
“It’s a good thing because everyone lives cheek by jowl in India so the whole population is at risk when people run out and break quarantine,” said Ms Hariharan, an Indian tourist in Dubai.
“The common man does not know who is a potential patient. This will identify them and make everyone aware you come from a suspect country and should not be outdoors. People will think twice about going out and mingling with the public.”
The Indian government has announced a ban on travel from the Philippines, Malaysia and Afghanistan to India from Tuesday.
This was in addition to a directive issued to prohibit entry of passengers from the European Union, Turkey and the UK.
The measures will be in place until March 31 and reviewed subsequently.
In Mumbai, the city's municipal chief said the decision to stamp travellers was taken due to several cases of overseas visitors who tested positive for Covid-19 but flouted seclusion guidelines and left hotels and homes.
"We need this sort of social activism so the community can guard itself," Praveen Pardeshi, commissioner of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation told The National.
“People are not sticking to self-quarantine. They think they can go out and shop and then they may infect others so we thought this (stamp) is a better way so the public can impose it. The moment they go out in public they will be noticed.”
The state government has designated rooms in Mumbai hotels including Miraj, ITC Maratha, Niranta Airport Transit Hotel at a reduced room rate for travellers during their confinement.
“If people don’t want to be stamped they can avoid it if they stay in municipal quarantine facilities,” Mr Pardeshi said about the Seven Hills hospital in Mumbai.
“Home quarantine is for passengers who don’t show any symptoms of coronavirus but come from high risk countries. We take those who show symptoms into institutional care immediately.”
The indelible ink remains intact for 14 days and is similar to that used to mark voters who cast their ballot in Indian elections.
He said the decision was taken to make sure citizens who did not want to stay in government facilities abide by the rules.
“People who are well-off and are used to comfortable living get mentally stressed if they are put in a government facility. Many of them will get ill just because of that so we thought it’s better if they are kept at home,” he said.
At least 40 cases of the coronavirus have been recorded in Maharashtra state, out of national numbers that have crossed 130 with three deaths reported in India.
“We have seen the statistics that show local people in Italy who died had not travelled abroad but got infected by travellers coming into the country,” Mr Pardeshi said.
“The whole world is locking down and it’s not as if one country is safer than the other. We want to prevent community infections. The message we want to send out is that everybody should stay put wherever they are unless there is a compelling reason.”