India will facilitate the return of its nationals in novel coronavirus-affected countries such as Italy and Iran provided they test negative, but citizens in other countries should “stay put” to prevent the spread of infection, officials said on Thursday.
Responding to reports that Indians in certain countries were facing difficulties in obtaining certificates that showed they had tested negative for Covid-19, the officials said a medical team was already in Iran to conduct tests at places with a higher concentration of Indians such as Qom and Tehran, while another team was expected to be sent to Italy for screening in Rome and Milan.
The officials also said there had been a 40% reduction in the number of Indians returning to the country from coronavirus-hit regions in the past 20 days, with the figure falling from 63,200 on February 20 to 43,900 on March 10.
Additional secretary Dammu Ravi, the external affairs ministry’s pointperson for all Covid-19-related matters, responded to a question at a news briefing on the evacuation of Indians by saying that not everyone would be brought back.
“You need to understand that evacuation doesn’t mean we’re trying to bring everybody (back) … we need to understand that people who are not contaminated will be first brought in,” he said.
“Generally, our advise is that wherever Indians are, it is better to stay put because one will never know if you’re carrying symptoms, it might become prominent after a certain number of days,” he said, adding people should travel only if they have compelling reasons to return to India.
The situation across Europe is “alarming”, and an issue of this magnitude will have economic costs but human lives are more important at this juncture, Ravi said. The heads of Indian missions will help decide compelling reasons for travel, he said.
No guidelines have been issued to airlines to stop flights and it is up to them to decide the frequency of flights to affected countries, the officials said.
The additional secretary (Foreigners) of the home ministry, Anil Malik, said only the travel part of Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) cards have been temporarily suspended, and cardholders wishing to travel to India will have to obtain visas.
On mega sports events such as Indian Premier League (IPL), ministry for external affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said a decision would have to be made by organisers. “No specific recommendations have been sought or made by MEA regarding hosting IPL or any other sporting event in India,” he said.
In a statement in the Rajya Sabha, external affairs minister S Jaishankar described the coronavirus outbreak as a national and international challenge. India has increased medical personnel to conduct tests in Iran, and will focus on bringing back students after repatriation of all pilgrims.
The Indian consulate in Bandar Abbas is in touch with Indian fishermen, who are in a region that hasn’t been affected as much by Covid-19, and they don’t have a problem with food or any other materials, he said.
“But people should also understand that this is a very difficult time in Iran. The Iranian system itself is struggling,” he said.
There has been an incidence of coronavirus in about 90 countries, and India has to focus on and prioritise “very extreme situations”, such as those in Iran and Italy, he said. “There are others like Germany, France and Spain where cases have gone up. As of yesterday, we suspended e-visas for those countries,” he added.
Jaishankar acknowledged it was difficult for people to get novel coronavirus-free certificates in the Italian system, which is busy treating patients. “So, we are hoping, by [Friday], to fly in a medical team to Italy, just as we have flown into Iran. We will do the testing of those people and try and put them on very early flights thereafter,” he added.