By means of lockdowns and shutdowns, countries all over are exercising measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. These restrictions may help limit the pandemic but in the process, it has taken a huge toll on those living abroad, especially students.
The Philippines is a favoured destination for many Indian medical aspirants, with hundreds of students pursuing MBBS in universities there. As the coronavirus cases rose in the island nation (187 cases and 14 deaths till the time of writing), President Rodrigo Duterte declared a state of calamity, placing Luzon (country’s most populous island and home to capital Manila) under effective lockdown. Moreover, the Filipino government has announced an overseas travel ban after March 19.
This has put Indian students there in a quandary. “On March 16, we were informed that we have 72 hours to leave the Philippines, post that we will be at our own risk,” said Leelasai Kotireddy, a first-year AB Psychology student in University of Perpetual Help, Las Piñas, over the phone.
“Things happened suddenly. Markets were closing. Even our canteen was shut down. We were unsure if we will get any food. So we right away booked our flight to India for the next day,” he added.
But on March 17, India suddenly banned the entry of passengers from Afghanistan, Philippines and Malaysia. “We cleared the immigration but the airline unexpectedly apprised us of the Indian government’s direction. One student was even deboarded from the flight,” Leelasai said.
To come to India, the students have to transit in Kuala Lumpur. “As the travelling was only banned to India, we asked the airline to fly us to Kuala Lumpur at least. But they refused,” he added. Malaysia has also escalated its travel restrictions.
Locked in transit
Over 200 students, who managed to leave Manila before India’s travel ban, are as of now stranded at Kuala Lumpur airport. After running a vigorous social media campaign, the students have managed to secure a rescue assurance.
Appreciate the difficult situation of Indian students and other passengers waiting in transit at Kuala Lumpur airport. We have now approved @AirAsia flights for you to Delhi and Vizag.
These are tough times and you should understand the precautions. Please contact the airline.
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) March 17, 2020
The assurance was, however, several hours ago and the students remain stuck there. “Last night, we were told that our flight will depart at 10 a.m. Then it was postponed to 6 p.m. We still haven’t got any confirmation,” said Tharuni, a student from Khammam, Telangana.
Response from the embassy
The students have been constantly trying to reach the Indian embassy in Manila but they have failed to get a satisfactory response. “They haven’t replied to our emails, and on call, they say we are trying to resolve the issue,” said Garima Kalra, a Delhi student in the Philippines, in a WhatsApp conversation.
“We can’t go to the embassy because it’s far and transportation is unavailable due to the lockdown. If we step out, there is a risk of contracting the virus as well as Philippines has also detected a bird flu outbreak recently,” she said as she remained stuck at her home there.
— IndiainPhilippines (@indembmanila) March 18, 2020
Meanwhile, parents of the students are trying to approach the authorities in India. “My father has reached out to the local MP to get things worked out,” said Leelasai, who hails from Bengaluru.
About 140 students are still stranded at the Manila airport. “The embassy has asked us to return to our dorms, but how can we leave the airport when everything is shut in the city. Where will we eat? The airline has already refused any refund for our tickets,” added Leelasai.
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