India Starts Bringing Home Hundreds of Thousands Stranded Amid Coronavirus

NEW DELHI — Sixty-four flights. Two naval ships. A dozen countries. And 15,000 stranded Indians.

The Great Indian Repatriation has begun. And this is just the first wave.

India has initiated an enormous rescue operation, using its national carrier, Air India, its naval ships and countless clerks, health workers, police officers, sailors and diplomats, to bring home overseas citizens whose lives have been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of Indians could be repatriated by the time it is over.

The first of them stepped off a plane from Abu Dhabi on Thursday night, arriving in the southern state of Kerala.

“Jai Hind!” — Hail India! — cheered an Air India pilot wearing full protective gear, in a clip shown on Indian news channels.

On Friday, two naval ships got ready to set sail with around 1,000 Indians from Male, the capital of the Maldives. The crews on the ships and planes wore protective gear, and passengers covered their faces with masks and scarves.

Indian embassies are prioritizing citizens with medical emergencies, pregnant women, people without jobs and students. The first set of flights will take about a week; between those flights and the two warships, around 15,000 people will be brought home.

India realizes how careful it needs to be. So far, perhaps because of weeks of strict lockdown, the country has been spared the waves of death that the United States and other nations have endured. India has reported around 60,000 coronavirus infections and 2,000 deaths, relatively few for a population of 1.3 billion.

It helped that India was quick to close its airspace, in March, to international arrivals, although in recent days the country has suffered a series of deadly accidents as it has moved to ease some restrictions.

So the government is walking a fine line: trying to bring home citizens without bringing home the virus. After arriving, all passengers will be sent to quarantine facilities for 14 days.

Many regional governments are setting up isolation facilities. In Mumbai, the financial capital, the government said it was keeping 3,343 rooms in 88 hotels for quarantine purposes.

But the list is long — really long.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians have registered with embassies around the world for repatriation. Many of them have lost jobs. Others are simply unable to fly back any other way, with the airspace virtually closed.

Some need to come back to earn a living, or to help a sick relative. And as colleges and universities have shut across the globe, hundreds of thousands of young Indians have been left stranded, far from home.

“Our ships are capable of going anywhere,” said Cmdr. Vivek Madhwal, a spokesman for the Indian Navy. “It could be a big operation.”

Flights are scheduled to pluck Indians out of places like Chicago, San Francisco, Dhaka, Manila, London, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. Air India is selling seats on the flights out, mostly from Delhi and Mumbai, for foreigners in India and for Indians who need to leave.

The most requests for repatriation have come from the Persian Gulf, where an estimated 8.5 million Indians work.

Many are desperate. Anbalal Peer Mohammad, a construction worker who has overstayed his visa in Kuwait and is being housed with other Indian workers in a school, was elated when he heard that he might get out.

“I smell like a sewer. I haven’t had a bath since last week,” Mr. Mohammad said. “I just want to return home and never look back.”

Some feel they have run out of luck. Arvind Venkataraman, 34, who lives in Canberra, Australia’s capital, said his mother-in-law was visiting him when she was diagnosed with kidney failure and put on dialysis. The treatment is expensive in Australia, and he is running out of money, but the family was caught behind the lockdown, unable to fly back into India.

When Mr. Venkataraman approached the Indian High Commission in Canberra, he was given some money but told that the first wave of rescue flights would not include Australia.

“The uncertainty is killing us,” said Mr. Venkataraman, who recently lost his full-time job with a multinational company.

Commander Madhwal, the navy spokesman, said the Indian navy was keeping 14 ships on standby to scoop up more people.

He said passengers would be kept a safe distance from one another, in order to avoid the disaster that happened on several cruise ships, where the coronavirus spread aggressively in close quarters.

“We have marked spaces for people to sleep,” he said. “Food is not a problem. It is stored and sometimes on ships it can last for months.”

“Everything is very well coordinated,” he added.


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