NEW DELHI — At least 800 Indian nationals, 252 of whom have tested positive for COVID-19 commonly known as the novel coronavirus, are stranded in Iran with no clear path back home HuffPost India has learnt.
Their plight, they say, is a consequence of the Indian government’s refusal to evacuate its own citizens who have tested positive for the virus. Several of those still in Iran are healthy, but will not leave as they cannot abandon a sick family member in a foreign land. Worse, the absence of any support from the Indian embassy to isolate and quarantine has forced the healthy to share the same hotels as the sick — potentially hastening the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.
If repatriated, these Indian citizens would treble the number of COVID-19 positive cases on Indian soil, casting India’s attempts to contain the virus in a very different light. Thus far, 110 positive cases have been reported on Indian soil.
These 252 individuals are part of an 800-strong group of Indians, most of whom had travelled from Ladakh to the holy city of Qom on a pilgrimage. There are also other Indian students and fishermen stranded in Iran. With nearly 14,000 COVID-19 cases and 724 deaths, Iran is the worst hit nation after China and Italy.
The Government of India barred commercial flights from Iran on 26 February, stranding hundreds of Indians like the group of pilgrims from Ladakh. The Narendra Modi government says they have evacuated 334 Indians from Iran from March 10 to March 15. But in a separate announcement, government officials have made clear that India will initially evacuate only those who have tested negative for the novel coronavirus. “Evacuation does not mean we will bring everybody back,” Additional Secretary Dammu Ravi told reporters in New Delhi, last week. “Negative cases would be brought back.”
HuffPost India spoke to one pilgrim and two tour guides, who said they were part of an informal committee set up to parlay between the pilgrims, the Iranian government and the Indian embassy in Tehran.
Their account reveals the fallout of the Indian government’s policy of only evacuating the healthy, while seemingly abandoning the sick and needy to their fate in a foreign land, and offers a glimpse of the COVID-19 induced chaos swirling through Iran.
“You can’t just say I’m bothered about the negative and bring them home and not care about the positives,” said T Sundararaman, former director of the National Health Systems Resource Centre. “A sensible policy for the government of India would have been to speak with the Iranian authorities to take care of these people and provide a certain degree of comfort.”
“Our Mission is also maintaining close contact with those still left in Iran and taking all possible steps to ensure their safety and well being,” Ravish Kumar, spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, said in response to the questions that HuffPost India had sent to the MEA. “We look forward to continued support from our nationals in Iran for a smooth evacuation process in the days to come,” he said.
Positives and negatives in the same hotels
On 1-2 March, Indian pilgrims in Qom were contacted by the Indian Embassy in Tehran.
Asgar Ali, a 44-year-old tour guide from Leh, who heads the committee that is coordinating with the Indian authorities, said a team of doctors had come from India and began testing the pilgrims in a local hospital in Qom.
When locals in the hospital objected, fearing the spread of the virus, the pilgrims were ferried by bus to the Indian Embassy in Tehran where their mouth-swabs were taken and sent for testing back home in Pune, Ali said.
Thus far, Ali said, the Embassy had informed them that 252 pilgrims had tested positive with a further 20 results still awaited.
Yet, as the test results were awaited, all the pilgrims — both corona-positive and negative — were living in the same hotels.
“The government tested us with the expectation that some would test positive and others negative, but did not separate us. We have been living and eating under the same room for two weeks,” said Ali. “There are no positives and negatives left. We don’t know who is infected and who is not.”
“We don't know who is infected and who is not.”
What this means is even those who did not have the corona at the time their samples were taken for testing, could have caught the virus in the time it took for the results to come back.
Now, tour guides like Ali say they want all pilgrims under their charge to be retested, but they want that testing to be done in India.
Iran is in a far worse condition in India at present, its health system is struggling to cope with the high number of COVID-19 cases, and Indians do not have the language skills to seek treatment in local hospitals.
“We are willing to cooperate with any testing and any time period of quarantine, but please bring us back to India,” Ali said. “We cannot survive here any longer.”
“We cannot survive here any longer.”
Dr. Sundararaman, the public health expert, surmised that the Indian government was quietly aware that India lacked the facilities to cope with a sudden influx of infected Indians.
“Their ability to quarantine them here is limited so they leave the problem there,” said Sundaraman, adding that those who have been tested positive need to be isolated, the rest need to be retested and quarantined, and then retested after quarantine.
“Their ability to quarantine them here is limited so they leave the problem there.”
Not leaving because of families
India’s policy of evacuating only those who have tested negative for coronavirus has meant that several healthy Indians have stayed behind as they cannot bear the thought of abandoning their families.
“We told the Indian Embassy officials, say if you had gone with your family members to a foreign country, and if there was a policy that forced you to leave them behind, would you be able to do it?” said an Indian tour guide.
A second tour guide spoke on the condition of anonymity because he has not told his family that he tested negative, fearing they will ask him to abandon the rest of his group and return to safety.
“I took the responsibility of taking these pilgrims to Iran and then making sure they reach Delhi. How can I leave them?” he said. “It is a matter of common sense?”
Most of the Indian pilgrims in Qom, the tour guide said, were over the age of 50, and did not speak Hindi, Urdu or English, let alone Farsi. They speak mostly the local languages of Ladakh like Purgi, Sheena and Balti.
Trying to leave Iran
Two weeks into their forced exile, the 800 stranded pilgrims from Ladakh are living in 15 hotels in Qom and are struggling to pay for their room and board.
Mohammed Imran, a 36-year-old businessman from Kargil, who was scheduled to leave on 28 February, said that he only budgeted a two-week long visit to Iran.
“The situation is tough. The situation is really tough. The government has to get us out now,” Imran said. “The young will pull through, but what about the elderly? We are slipping into depression. We are seeing young and old slip into depression in front of our eyes.”
“We are seeing young and old slip into depression in front of our eyes.”
Ali, the tour guide, said the pilgrims had run out of money and the tour guides were pooling together their resources to survive. The Indians buy groceries and cook in their hotels, which are now almost completely abandoned, he said.
“We asked the Indian Embassy to give us masks but they did not. We bought a few, paying up to Rs. 500 for one. We are facing a lot of problems. The hotels have also given an ultimatum asking to leave. They know they are (COVID-19) positives here.”
Ali said that on Sunday — almost two weeks since the first round of positive results — Indian officials met them and said those who have tested positive need to be separated and stay in separate hotels. Iranian officials have also spoken to the Indians in Qom about quarantining those who have tested positive to a 220-bed facility.
“My question to them is where were you till now,” said Ali.
“They Indian officials here send WhatsApp messages saying you must separate yourself. But they have made no arrangements to separate us. We have got these hotels with so much difficulty. Where do we go?” he said.
“My question to them is where were you till now.”
Going to the hospital in Iran
The second tour guide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he had never imagined that he would have to ferry pilgrims to a local hospital in Iran.
But on 11 March, this tour operator said that he spoke with embassy officials who told him to take 11 of the Ladakhi pilgrims who had tested positive for COVID-19 to the Kamkar Arbania hospital in Qom.
But the Iranian doctors took their temperature, checked their blood pressure and then sent them back to the hotels, he said.
“The Indian officials say they are positive so take them to the hospital. Then, the Iran doctors say they are fine, just give them warm water, a warm bed. We cannot understand what is happening,” he said.
The language barrier also made it very difficult for them to navigate the hospital, this tour operator said, adding that he had asked the Indian Embassy officials if they could send someone who could help them translate.
“There was a huge communication problem. Only the Head of Department of the hospital knew some English. The doctors and nurses don’t speak English or Hindi or Urdu,” he said. “How can we leave our relatives in a foreign soil for treatment when they can’t even speak the language?”
“How can we leave our relatives in a foreign soil for treatment when they can’t even speak the language.”
(This story has been updated on March 18 2020 to include a response from the Ministry of External Affairs).