AN AIR INDIA jumbo jet has been placed on standby in Mumbai, as the government firmed up arrangements Tuesday to evacuate Indian nationals from Wuhan and other parts of China’s Hubei province where a coronavirus outbreak has led to over 4,500 confirmed cases and 106 deaths.
Official sources told The Indian Express that the national carrier has received the go-ahead from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and kept a Boeing 747-400 aircraft, with 423 seats, ready for the evacuation. Officials are awaiting the green signal from China for the flight, which will return from Wuhan to Delhi.
Officials said the government “has made a formal request to China for facilitating” the process and that “on evacuation, these individuals will be kept in quarantine for 14 days”.
Sources said India’s Ambassador in China Vikram Misri and his team are “working overtime” to get Chinese authorities to facilitate local transport for Indian nationals in Hubei to reach the airport. They said that the Embassy’s consular team is also trying to obtain the passports of some Indian nationals who are in the local government’s custody for routine formalities such as visa extension.
Hours after the government announced its evacuation move, China’s Ambassador to India Sun Weidong sought to dispel fears with a tweet linking a report from Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency. “The WHO does not recommend the evacuation of nationals, and called on the international community to remain calm and not overreact. The WHO is confident in China’s epidemic prevention and control ability,” the tweet said.
In India, officials said of the 20 samples sent to the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune, none have tested positive so far. However, more suspected cases have been reported, including five from Haryana, two from Bhopal and a Serbian tourist in Goa.
The government, meanwhile has extended thermal screening to 20 airports from the seven listed earlier for passengers arriving from China. “Till yesterday, 155 flights have been screened (total cumulative passengers 33,552),” the government said in a statement. On Tuesday, 2,461 people from 15 flights were screened.
The Health Ministry, which issued an advisory warning against non-essential travel to China, is moving to procure more scanners. The Ministry of Shipping has also initiated screening at all major ports.
Other than NIV, officials said, four laboratories of the Viral Research and Diagnostics Lab Network in Alappuzha, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Mumbai have been tasked with testing samples.
Speaking to reporters in Vadodara, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, who is a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat, said: “All parents must be assured that the government is planning to send a plane to China to bring back Indian students from the affected province. No Indian student has tested positive and the Indian Embassy is in constant touch with the government in China to ensure speedy evacuation of the students and other citizens. It will take a few days’ time.”
About 700 Indian students are reported to be enrolled in several universities in Wuhan city and surrounding areas. A majority of them, mostly in medical colleges, are said to have left a few weeks ago for the Chinese New Year holidays, leaving 250-300 still in the city.
In Delhi, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said, “We have begun the process to prepare for evacuation of Indian nationals…Our Embassy in Beijing is working out the logistics and is in touch with the Chinese government authorities and our nationals on this matter.”
Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan issued a video appeal asking those with “a travel history or history of contact with anyone with travel history to China” and who “feel symptoms such as runny nose, sore throat, breathing difficulty etc,” to contact the government helpline.
Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba held a meeting to review preparedness across the country. The participants included secretaries in the Ministries of Health, External Affairs, Civil Aviation, Shipping, Defence and I&B, and Member Secretary and head of the National Disaster Management Authority.
Officials said the Health Ministry is reviewing preparedness and screening in all states daily through video-conferencing with Chief Secretaries and Health Secretaries.
PTI adds: Wuhan and 12 other cities in Hubei province have been completely sealed off since January 23 to stop the virus from spreading. Confirmed cases have been reported in Thailand (7), Japan (3), South Korea (3), the US (3), Vietnam (2), Singapore (4), Malaysia (3), Nepal (1), France (3), Australia (4), and Sri Lanka (1). —(With ENS in Vadodara, Chandigarh & Goa)
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