Updated: February 5, 2020 8:57:17 am
The evacuation over the weekend of 654 individuals — 647 Indians and seven Maldivians — on two Air India flights from Wuhan, ground zero of the novel coronavirus outbreak, marked the culmination of a complex 96-hour operation mounted by New Delhi that involved engaging with Beijing at multiple levels. Besides the obvious health risks, there were logistic challenges to be overcome and diplomatic sensitivities to be negotiated.
The embassy in Beijing took note of the first reports of the infection around January 2-3. But it was only around January 20, when it became national news in the Chinese media, that the scale of the outbreak became apparent.
On January 22, with 571 cases and 17 deaths confirmed, Vikram Misri, India’s ambassador to China, told his team that Indians in Hubei province may be affected, and “Let’s start preparing”. The following day, an embassy reception to celebrate Republic Day was attended by Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui, a former ambassador to New Delhi, among other Chinese dignitaries. There was some concerned chatter at the gathering, said sources who were present.
Locating the Indians
The big challenge before a possible evacuation attempt was to establish how many Indians there were in Hubei — and where. Some 50 million people live in the province, and Indians in China are not required to register with the embassy.
Over the next few days, the Indian mission announced helpline numbers on social media. Its reach, however, was likely to be restricted because both Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China. Some younger diplomats used WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging and social media app, to try to connect to Indians in Hubei. In a WeChat group, the embassy assured that “help was on the way”.
Since many Indians were young, excited, and sometimes angry, “the idea was to give them some psychological support, apart from asking about their welfare, in terms of food, water, and medicines,” an Indian diplomat said.
By January 26, confirmed cases had crossed 2,000 globally and the prognosis was grim. After several rounds of consultations in the embassy and in New Delhi, a decision was taken to evacuate.
By then, the control room in the embassy had collected enough data to be able to plot the location of Indians in Hubei on a map. They knew there were 750-odd Indians in Hubei — a half of them lived in Wuhan and its outskirts; the rest were deeper inside the province, some 450-500 km from Wuhan airport.
Getting to the airport
The affected area was under lockdown, with severe restrictions on the movement of people and vehicles. The big question before the officials was: how to get people to the airport? Not being allowed to move freely meant they could not be expected to assemble at a particular point in Wuhan city, or to reach the airport on their own. The embassy tapped contacts in private transportation companies, who said they needed special permission to ferry these Indians to the airport from various places in the province.
Working with China
Obtaining the required permissions and approvals presented a major challenge; Chinese authorities were initially not inclined to allow evacuation. Even as Misri and Deputy Chief of Mission Acquino Vimal worked to obtain the clearances, the Chinese signalled on January 28 that the situation was under control and there was no need to panic, and therefore, to evacuate. Chinese ambassador to India Sun Weidong posted on Twitter that the “WHO does not recommend the evacuation of nationals”, and asked the international community “to remain calm and not overreact”.
Back home, outgoing Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and his successor Harsh Vardhan Shringla were working with the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Air India, agencies like the Bureau of Immigration, and the Army on the logistics. Air India was asked to stand by with two aircraft, with crew and a team of doctors ready to fly at short notice.
In the morning of January 29, the same day Shringla took charge, the Chinese government gave “in-principle” approval to the evacuation. But it was still important that the approvals were conveyed to all concerned authorities.
“The Chinese Foreign Ministry had to convey to the provincial authorities, who would then ask the city authorities, and also separately to the universities and the private transport companies. This complex, hierarchical, but extremely crucial, flow of information held the key to the success of the entire exercise,” said and Indian diplomat, explaining the “chain of approvals”.
An airlift in two batches was agreed upon, but the Chinese said that anyone who showed symptoms of fever would not be allowed to leave. The first batch of evacuees were to be those who lived and worked in and around Wuhan city. Some 18-20 vehicles were pressed into service to pick up people from 40 locations and bring them to Wuhan airport.
In the final hours of planning, local Chinese staff who were off work for the Lunar New Year were asked to pitch in from home to help their Indian colleagues in the control room at the embassy. An Indian diplomat and a Chinese staffer was assigned to each vehicle — “It was important to keep Chinese-speaking staffers on the phone line with the drivers of the vehicles as they moved”, said a diplomat who was involved in the exercise.
These 40-odd Indian diplomats and Chinese staffers worked non-stop for 96 hours. One young woman diplomat celebrated her 30th birthday at the control room — with a cake and impromptu celebrations.
Leaving for home
The formal approval for the first airlift came at 3.30 pm on January 31, and the Air India aircraft landed in Wuhan at 8 pm. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar spoke to Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi to formally thank him for the approvals. The flight with 324 Indian passengers left Wuhan at 4 am on February 1.
The second batch was picked up by 12 vehicles from 15 locations in the province, including from several far-flung places. Again, teams of two remained in constant touch with the vehicles as they moved towards the airport.
“At some places in the countryside, local people had dug up roads and put up roadblocks to prevent the movement of people and vehicles. We were tracking the buses on a map in the control room, and helped the drivers find alternative routes to the airport,” a diplomat said. Two members of the team — Second Secretary Deepak Padmakumar and embassy official M Balakrishnan — flew from Beijing to Wuhan to ensure there were no last-minute glitches at the airport.
The second flight was formally approved at noon on February 1. The plane landed at 8 pm, and took off with 323 Indians and seven Maldives nationals at 6 am on February 2.
While every evacuation situation is different with different sets of challenges, the Indian embassy in Beijing is now preparing a lessons learnt report for South Block.
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