Izhar Nazir Ali
Srinagar – With one unidentified Indian pilgrim succumbing to dreaded coronavirus infection in Iran, hundreds of stranded Kashmiri pilgrims are fearing the worst, as their repeated requests for evacuation are met with silence.
The government on Thursday said one Indian who tested positive for coronavirus has died in Iran while the other citizens infected with the disease are being provided treatment and taken care of by the Iranian government.
Noting that the virus tends to be more fatal for those whose immunity levels are low, a senior MEA official said the deceased, an elderly person, belonged to the vulnerable age group and had health-related complications. The death was not because of lack of medical attention or care, he said.
“Death is staring at us. We don’t know if we could return alive to our homeland or not,” Sami Bano, a resident of Srinagar told Kashmir Observer over phone.
On February 19, Bano took a group of 42 people, mostly from Kashmir Valley on pilgrimage to religious sites in Iraq and Iran. The group reached the holy city of Qom on March 1, when the country was slipping in the grip of deadly coronavirus. Since then, Bano and her group members are holed-up at a hotel there.
“If thousands of Indians stranded in China were evacuated in days, why have we been left here to die?” says Bano, a tour operator by profession.
However Indian authorities say as of March 18, 590 Indians have been repatriated onboard special flights of the Indian Air Force and Iranian airlines.
“We have evacuated 590 people from Iran where the situation is very severe. The Indians infected with coronavirus in Iran have been segregated and taken care of very well by the government there. We believe they will recover and we will bring them back,” a senior MEA official said, adding that 201 Indians were evacuated from Iran on Wednesday.
Refering to delay in evacuation the official said closely knit families required some persuasion and counselling during the process of segregation to prevent the spread of the contagion.
Bano however is not convinced and her concern is shared by other members of the group as well. They allege that the ‘step-motherly’ treatment by the Indian government has endangered lives of hundreds of pilgrims stranded in Iran.
“The medical team sent by India is insufficient and ill equipped. A team of five to six doctors can’t handle hundreds of stranded pilgrims. It requires at least 30 specialists to deal with the crisis situation we are faced with here,” said another group member.
“Pilgrims did not get infected because they wanted to. They got infected because of deliberate delay in evacuation by the Indian authorities,” he added.
Last month, hundreds of pilgrims, mostly from Ladakh flew to Iran to undertake pilgrimage. Besides, 18 groups of pilgrims from Leh, three groups from different parts of Valley also embarked on the pilgrimage.
According to Syed Ibrahim Rizvi a resident of Bagwanpora, Srinagar, sixteen of their 42 member group were declared positive of Covid-19 infection three days after their swab samples were taken by officials from the Indian embassy in Tehran on Friday last.
“During this period we were all living togther and same sitaution is now after tests have come. So far no one has turned up to see or enquire about the condition of the infected people. We all have been left at God’s mercy. No doctor visited us nor were we given any medicine,” Rizvi said.
“We will die here if we’re not evacuated soon. Even those who tested negative early this week, don’t know if they are safe from the infection because we all live together,” Rizvi, who is putting up with his wife at a hotel in Qom, said.
Asgar Ali, a businessman from Leh told Kashmir Observer that the Indian government was responsible for the miserable condition of the stranded pilgrims. He said the timely action by the government would have saved hundreds of pilgrims from being infected by Covid-19.
“The government should have airlifted pilgrims irrespective of them being positive or negative to coronavirus. They could have treated positive cases at any other quarantine facility in India. But by not doing so, the government has shown its communal mindset,” he alleged.
Ali, who is among the stranded pilgrims, also alleged politicization in the evacuation process. He said that scores of people were evacuated overnight after a BJP leader from Ladakh stepped in.
“The relatives of BJP leaders were airlifted overnight. Many of them were taken away despite being positive to coronavirus. But we were left here to die,” Ali said, adding “Many pilgrims have started developing serious ailments. We fear many pilgrims will die if the government doesn’t act.”
“The Iran government is providing us free food and shelter. It is because of them we are alive,” he said.
An insider at the Indian Embassy in Iran told this newspaper that a group of seventy people from Ladakh UT were airlifted despite most of them being positive to Covid-19. He said they were evacuated because of political intervention.
“We may get news of pilgrim deaths soon. The government does not realize the gravity of situation. It is high time the pilgrims are evacuated from Iran,” he added.
The Indian embassy in Tehran did not respond to the repeated phone calls by Kashmir Observer.