Even as expatriate Malayalis from Gulf countries and those in southeast Asia return home through repatriation flights of India’s Vande Bharat mission, a group of nearly 200 people from the state in Nigeria have been waiting for days for a nod from the government.
Indian expatriates in Nigeria, of whom Keralites account for a major proportion, are living cautiously as coronavirus cases in the west African country rise swiftly and unchecked by a broken healthcare system. Rising unemployment, scarcity in medical supplies and reports of armed robbery especially in the country’s north are spurring a lot of expatriates to think about returning home.
The group of 200 Keralites, who wish to return home urgently, comprise of pregnant women, children, elderly people with comorbidity, those who have lost their jobs and those whose visas have expired in the last three months.
“The general situation in Nigeria is very bad. About 61 per cent of the cases being reported here have no epidemiological links which points to community transmission. Soon the cases will peak. The government’s isolation facilities are not satisfactory and the health system is not equipped to handle the pandemic,” said Dr Arun Gangadhar, the managing director of a small hospital in Lagos who’s exchanging correspondence with authorities on behalf of the 200-member group for repatriation, over a call from Abuja.
Since many among the group are vulnerable to the spread of the infection due to their age and underlying health conditions, getting tested and treated there is not a risk they are willing to take. Add to that, around 40 per cent of the group are those who have lost their jobs in the economic downturn and therefore cannot afford to continue living in Nigeria or pay for medical treatment.
“Every day, the threshold for sustainability is reducing,” said Dr Gangadhar, a native of Palakkad district in Kerala.
While Nigeria is included in the second tranche of destinations as part of Vande Bharat, there has been no official communication regarding the operation of flight services. However, the group of Keralites say they have a golden opportunity to fly back home if the Indian government allows a chartered flight they arranged.
Dr Gangadhar said they have been able to strike a deal with the Air Peace airline which is scheduled to rescue stranded Nigerians from Bengaluru and Delhi later this month. Upon a request, the group received a communication from the airline on May 15 stating its readiness to fly them to Kochi if it gets a landing permit from the Indian authorities. That way, instead of flying an empty aircraft to India, Air Peace can transport the stranded Keralites to Cochin and fly onward to Bengaluru and Delhi to pick up the Nigerian nationals.
Dr Gangadhar said, “We have handed over the letter of the airline to the Indian high commission for approval. They acknowledged the letter and said they will get back to us. We have also sent copies to the Kerala health department which has forwarded it to the Covid war-room at the Centre. Till date, we haven’t got a response.”
Though the aircraft has a seating capacity of 319, around 220 passengers can travel with social distancing protocols in place. The airline, having carried out evacuation efforts from other countries, is well-versed with the screening protocols before departure, said Dr Gangadhar. All passengers will be screened using antibody-antigen testing kits and only those without symptoms be allowed to board. Despite financial constraints, the group of expatriates are ready to shoulder the cost of flight tickets and follow all necessary institutional quarantine guidelines upon landing in Kerala.
“This is the easiest way for us to reach home. All the government has to do is give landing permit to the airline at Cochin airport,” said 54-year-old Shaji Jacob, who works with a trading firm in Lagos and is desperate to return home.
Jacob’s family, back in Alappuzha in Kerala, are anxious about his continued stay in Nigeria. “I have underlying health conditions like cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. Naturally, they are worried. The health system here is not as efficient as it is back home. There are no adequate ventilators, testing kits or PPE kits for doctors. People are scared to go to hospitals even if they suffer from Covid symptoms,” he said.
Sebastian Linu, who has been employed with a power firm for the last 12 years in Nigeria’s Lagos, is working from home these days. While business was good pre-Covid, the economic situation has deteriorated drastically. Thousands have lost their jobs and a recession has begun to set in.
“Only food-related industries are active right now and it’s not practical for companies of other sectors to maintain their usual staff. We closed our offices even before the lockdown was enforced. For those who have lost their jobs, the mental stress as you know is very high,” he said.
The consequences of rising unemployment and unrest among the lowest strata of society is leading to armed robberies and looting. Linu said he himself was a victim of a serious mugging attempt back in 2014 when he, along with three friends, had to give up his official Honda City car at gunpoint.
“That night, my wife and kids got really scared. They were here with me for nine years and they know the country well. When my son reached high school, I sent them back to Kerala,” he said.
With the improvement of law and order in recent years, such incidents had taken a backseat. But now, with the unrest over Covid, such episodes are being reported again.
“Staying here is extremely risky. That’s why we want to come home.”
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