Fate of J&K Residents Stranded in Iran Uncertain

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Srinagar – Following an unconscionable delay of three weeks the Indian embassy in Iran has finally arranged an isolation facility in Qom for 254 Indian COVID-19 positive patients. The situation, however, continues to be grim for the 1400 pilgrims and students stuck in the country, most of whom are from the Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh regions.

The MEA finally admitted in a Lok Sabha reply on Wednesday that 276 Indians have been infected with coronavirus abroad, including 255 in Iran, something they had been unwilling to confirm until then. Additional Secretary Dammu Ravi had earlier said, “If Indians test positive elsewhere, we would expect the country they are in to take care of them, like we are doing with the foreign nationals [here].” But compared to the 147 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in India (122 Indians and 25 foreign nationals) and three related deaths, Iran is fighting a full blown epidemic with over 17,000 confirmed cases and the death toll at 1,135.

With the Indian government refusing to evacuate those who have tested positive for COVID-19, the virus continues to spread among more of its citizens trapped here, outside of quarantine.

There were at least 800 Indian nationals in the city of Qom alone, and since the start of testing two weeks ago, 254 people have contracted the highly-contagious virus, according to the figures released by the Indian embassy in Tehran.

With pilgrims running out of money and no assistance forthcoming from the embassy, they had been camped in 15 empty hotels across Qom, the sick and healthy living together, waiting for news on when they could return home.

The Indian Embassy in Tehran, which received a contingent of doctors from India a week ago specifically for the purpose running more tests quickly on its stranded citizens, has been accused of bungling the tests, not offering quarantine solutions, and washing its hands off the matter by simply dispatching some of the sick to Iranian hospitals that were unable and unwilling to handle these cases. Patients complained of struggling to deal with the hospital staff who were already under immense pressure and didn’t speak any language they knew and being shuttled between hotels, hospitals and the embassy, where no one seemed to be really sure what to do with them.

Sami Bano, 42, from Srinagar has been holed up in a hotel in Qom along with nearly 40 members of her tour group, some of whom are COVID-19 positive. They are yet to hear anything about the isolation facility that has been prepared. Over the phone, she sounds strong but it’s clear that the last few days have been a haze of confusion and fear. Their group had arrived in Iran on February 19 and travelled to Qom on March 1. By then the situation in Iran had become critical and it was clear they wouldn’t be able to board their return flight on March 14. Those in Qom had started undergoing tests in batches, and Bano and her group were some of the last ones to be tested, last Friday.

When the test results came on Sunday, the name of their hotel didn’t appear in the list the Embassy had received and they were told no one in their hotel had tested positive. On Tuesday, a whole two days later, they were informed that 16 members of their group were indeed COVID-19 positive. They had immediately isolated themselves in individual rooms but by then there was already panic and anger. “We can only look to the embassy for answers but they are not telling us anything,” she says. She is worried that the hotel, which doesn’t yet know that some of the residents have tested positive, will kick them out. She doesn’t know where they would go then.

On March 7, the Modi government said that they will ease the travel ban on Iran to bring back some of the Indian citizens, and till Monday 389 people had been evacuated, but only after their test results came out negative. But in more evidence of the Indian government’s inept handling of the spiralling situation in Iran, around 26 members of Bano’s group were asked to board a return flight back to India on Tuesday and, shockingly, a number of them were COVID-19 positive patients. Ultimately only six of those who tested negative carried on, with others staying back out of their own volition; either they were unwilling to travel with other healthy passengers or didn’t wish to leave behind friends and family who had tested positive.

195 More Arrive in Jaisalmer

As many as 195 Indians from Iran were brought to Jaisalmer by a special plane on Wednesday evening.
The passengers were screened at the Airport and shifted to the Army Wellness Facility at Jaisalmer Military Station.
With the arrival of this third batch of evacuees, the total number of quarantined people housed at the Army Wellness Facility in Jaisalmer Military Station rose to 484.

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