SRINAGAR - At least 254 Indian pilgrims, mostly from J&K and Ladakh who are stranded in Iran for last nearly one month, have tested positive for COVID-19. The tests were conducted by a group of Indian doctors dispatched there for the purpose.
Kashmir Observer is in possession of the list of all 254 pilgrims who have tested positive. Almost all of them belong to J&K and Ladakh and are unlikely to be evacuated and will be quarantined in Iran for sometime, sources said.
The document, which says ‘List Of Pilgrims/Students Tested Positive for COVID-19’, includes the names, passport numbers and PNR numbers (for the flights back to India the travellers were originally booked on) of 254 pilgrims and students in Iran.
Many pilgrims reached by phone confirmed to Kashmir Observer the authenticity of the list and said they were in ‘terrible conditions’ alleging that the Indian embassy was “doing nothing to facilitate their return to India”.
Joint Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Dhamu Ravi, during the regular briefings organised by the health ministry on coronavirus, didn't deny the number, saying they were verifying the list.
"With large number of pilgrims in Iran, it is very possible that some have tested positive. We are verifying numbers. Rest assured our mission there is taking good care of them," he said.
The Government of India barred commercial flights from Iran on 26 February, stranding hundreds of Indians like the group of pilgrims from Kashmir and Ladakh.
“We have been left here to die, the Indian authorities have clearly told us that only people with negative reports will be evacuated and those who have tested positive will be treated in Iran,” said one of the pilgrims from Kargil.
A Kashmiri research scholar at Tehran University, Dr NA Sofi who is in regular touch with the pilgrims and Indian officials in Tehran confirmed that the pilgrims have been tested positive to Coronavirus and Indian authorities were not evacuating them any time soon.
New Delhi has reportedly asked Tehran to grant a sanatorium for the Indian pilgrims who tested positive so that they can be put in quarantine.
"But there are some issues with the approvals from the Iran authorities," an official source said adding the Iranian systems are overstretched due to the grave magnitude of the pandemic.
There are over 6,000 Indian nationals in various provinces of Iran. Of them, there are about 1,100 stranded pilgrims mainly from Ladakh and Kashmir and nearly 300 students primarily from Jammu and Kashmir.
Indian government has said it was only evacuating those who have tested negative, while seemingly abandoning the sick and needy to their fate in a country where magnitude of crisis has already-strained its medical system.
“You can’t just say I’m bothered about the negative and bring them home and not care about the positives,” T Sundararaman, former director of the National Health Systems Resource Centre was quoted as saying by HuffPost India.
“I met a group of 40 pilgrims last week when their swabs had been taken for the tests”, Waseem Raza, another Kashmiri student from Qom Islamic Seminary said. “First they were told that your tests are negative but a few days later they were told they have been tested positive for Coronavirus”, Raza said.
This bungling by the Indian embassy forced the healthy ones to share rooms with the sick as during the period positive cases were not isolated putting all pilgrims at risk of contracting the highly contagious disease, he said.
He said doctors from India take swabs and then do tests at the Indian embassy and not in any hospital.
Raza said that those who have been tested positive are running short of money and there is no arrangement by the embassy for their treatment.
India has allowed a limited number of commercial flights to evacuate nationals from Iran but the pilgrims allege that the government has been slow.
Syed Ibrahim, a pilgrim from Srinagar said had it not been their hotel owner who made all arrangements for them, they would not have been able to survive so long.
Mohammad Imran, another Kashmiri stranded in Iran alleged that the authorities were doing little to evacuate them.
“If the authorities do not take any immediate steps, rest of the pilgrims might also get infected,” Imran warned.
There is palpable anger among the stranded pilgrims. A video clip sent by a pilgrim to Kashmir Observer shows an agitated group of pilgrims confronting Indian Embassy officials in the courtyard of a hotel and demanding their early evacuation.
Most of the stranded pilgrims are housed in hotels around the city of Qom, one of the worst hit places in Iran.
However according to Feroz Khan, chief executive councillor, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Kargil the Indian authorities have arranged for accommodation to isolate the COVID-19 patients and begin their treatment in Iran itself. “The doctors there will be Indian but it will be under the overall control of the Iranian government,” Khan was quoted as saying.
According to Asgar Karbalaie, former Kargil MLA, pilgrims who have tested negative will be flown to India in three batches from Wednesday.
In two statements made to the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha last week, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had said that the initial focus of India’s evacuation effort in Iran was on picking up pilgrims. India had closed all flights with Iran from February 26. “Many of them are in Qom, where Coronavirus incidence has been strong. The nature of residency also increases the risks of exposure. Age is also a factor to be taken into account,” he said on March 13.
On February 27, when India canceled all flight operations from Iran, the pilgrims waited for embassy officials to help them out of the country. Doctors started taking samples in the first week of March and on March 10, a batch of 58 pilgrims were evacuated. Those who remained behind started protesting on March 12, when embassy officials told them only those who tested negative would be evacuated.
“They just issued some verbal instructions asking us to isolate the Covid-19 patients from the others,” said one pilgrim, who wished to remain anonymous. “They haven’t even bothered to provide us with a single mask.”
Those who tested positive decided to go into self-quarantine. “Some of them are also going to Iranian hospitals for medical care,” the pilgrim added.
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