9 Apr 2021

India travel suspension: 'Suddenly you're left to fend for yourself'

8:47 am on 9 April 2021

New Zealanders in India are devastated the government has taken the unprecedented step of suspending all travel from the Covid-19 hot spot leaving them stranded.

Auckland International Airport

Travel into New Zealand from India - including for New Zealand citizens and residents - is being temporarily suspended because of high numbers of Covid-19 cases Photo: RNZ

From Sunday, no one can arrive here from India for 14 days - giving officials a chance to investigate ways to reduce the risk from a country where the coronavirus is rampant.

India is experiencing a major surge in Covid-19 cases, with nearly 100,000 new infections reported every day.

That's reflected in the cases picked up in managed isolation here, with 80 percent in the past two weeks from the subcontinent. Seventeen of the 23 Covid-19 cases reported in managed isolation yesterday arrived from India.

Workers of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) distribute face masks during an awareness campaign against the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, in Mumbai on April 8, 2021.

Workers give out face masks during an awareness campaign in Mumbai. India is experiencing a major surge in Covid-19 cases. Photo: AFP

Desperate times, desperate measures

Never before have New Zealand citizens and residents overseas been stopped from coming home.

The prime minister wants to know if and how those numbers of infectious cases from India can drop.

"It may be that there are simply no other practical ways to reduce the risk but we want to exhaust every option because it not only keeps those who are travelling safer, but of course, reducing the risk in our managed isolation facilities."

National's Chris Bishop said while the ban was regrettable, it's the right move.

"Extraordinary circumstances justify extraordinary measures. It's not something we would want to have happen in the long-term obviously, but for a short period of time a temporary suspension, I think just in light of the large number of cases coming from India, it's the right thing to do".

But for Manish, the temporary travel ban feels like a punishment.

"You play by the book, you play by the rules, you do everything right... and suddenly, something is thrown at you and you're left to fend for yourself."

He travelled to Dehli in February to care for his sick father, leaving his wife and young daughter in Auckland.

Manish was due to board his flight home on Monday morning.

"We don't have any family support back in New Zealand so my partner was hoping that I'm back and I can support her as well back to our normal days, back to our normal family life."

Manish wasn't certain when his normal family life would resume.

"It says on the 28th of April, but we are not sure... what the government is going to do next."

The temporary travel ban - at this stage - will be in place for 14 days, but the government hasn't ruled out extending it.

Human Rights lawyer Michael Bott said the government's ban doesn't breach the Bill of Rights Act as long as it's only temporary.

"This may be an example of where in a time of emergency, we must basically have limits to the general rule of acceptance of all people back into New Zealand's borders and this situation here, the risk of outbreak is great."

Accusation of discrimination

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Mandeep Bela Photo: Supplied

While this ban only affects India, the government is also keeping an eye on other countries with high Covid-19 case rates - like the United States and Brazil.

That's something that's exercising an angry Mandeep Bela from the Indian Workers Association.

"Why only people from India?

"On the face of it, it does look really discriminatory and I don't think this is the right thing to do.

"If you look at active cases per capita, India is behind as compared to other countries, and even if you look at total amount of cases, US has more cases there compared to India so this decision does not make sense."

The government has always been keen to point out that the virus doesn't discriminate - but Mandeep Bela said it now appeared ministers were doing just that.

Indian leader seeks govt help

President of the Auckland Indian Association, Dhansukh Lal, told Morning Report he was surprised and disappointed by yesterday's announcement and that his organisation would be approaching government to see if those affected could be given help.

"We are concerned we have been singled out, but at the same time we need to be looking after our borders as well ... but it does cause inconvenience to travellers, Kiwis already in India," he said.

Lal said the suspension was necessary to protect New Zealand's border, but hoped it would not be extended beyond 28 April.

"We would like our citizens to come back and start booking their flights after the 28th and the government has been given two weeks to sort out the necessary changes we need to make to allow the New Zealand citizens in India to come back...

"We we be pursuing some information from government as to what sort of help they can offer our stranded passengers."

Pre-departure process

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said more work was needed on firming up the pre-departure process from India.

He said suspending travel was the right thing to do, but as a last resort, and effort should be going into working out why people are getting infected before travel and on flights.

"Most of the people are going through a hub airport there ... before they take their international flights, so can we have a set up there where people have a set up there where they have to stay in an airport hotel for a week, have a pre-departure rapid test before they go the flight.

"That approach could have greatly turned down this tap."

He said experts had been raising the idea of travel suspensions for some months, initially because of large numbers of positive cases from the UK.

'Very serious outbreak'

Covid-19 modeller Rodney Jones said case numbers in India have been building exponentially from late February - and the outbreak is still in its relatively early stages.

India reported reported 126,789 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, and Jones expected the number could reach 300,000 a day.

He said New Zealand had built close links with India over a generation, and two-way travel between the countries continued through the pandemic, making this country much more sensitive to an outbreak in India than we have been to the UK or the US.

"This is not permanent, we get these waves ... the problem is the Indian government has been behind the curve on this."

"For instance we've got a big outbreak starting in Uttar Pradesh, there's festivals coming up they're not cancelling."

Within a month or two case numbers should start to fall, he said, as the Indian government moved against the outbreak and restricted people's mobility.

Jones, who is part of the newly established scientific group to advise the government, said New Zealand did not want any more than 10 cases a day coming over the border.

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