With Gulf countries unwilling to play ball, Kerala may have to drop demand for COVID -ve certificates

'Indignation is piling up': An Indian expat in Germany narrates 'Vande Bharat' ordeal
Indians step out of the terminal at Kempegowda Airport in Bengaluru after arriving by a special Air India flight from Frankfurt (Germany) on Saturday. PTI

It is now almost obvious that Kerala government, if it is truly committed to bringing back stranded non-residents, will have to climb down from its insistence on a 'COVID negative' certificate for returnees from June 25.

Kerala's proposal to provide TrueNat machines at West Asian airports was shot down by the Centre saying it was impractical. Kerala's solution was brushed aside after the External Affairs Ministry held discussions with various Indian Embassies in the Gulf.

Countries like Oman, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have also said it was not possible to conduct any kind of tests, at least during June. Over 40 flights, with over 35,000 expatriates, are expected to land in the last week of June alone as part of the third phase of the Vande Bharat Mission.

There are only Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) tests in Oman, done in private hospitals. The Indian Embassy in Oman got in touch with some of these hospitals but it was said it was not possible to arrange the tests before June 25.

There are rapid antibody tests in Saudi Arabia, which too are done in private hospitals. But it does not have the approval of the Saudi government and, therefore, could not be employed by airline companies.

Bahrain has flatly told the Indian Embassy that such tests were not practical.

There is uncertainty about Kuwait, too. Tests are conducted at two of the five terminals in Kuwait International Airport.

The External Affairs Ministry has informed Kerala that the tests could be extended to other terminals if the airline companies ask for it.

Also, travellers will have to bear the expense. The test will be moderately charged at Rs 1,000.

Even if Air India Express puts up such a request, it is unclear how promptly the Kuwait airport authorities would accede to it. The deadline ends on June 24 midnight.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said discussions were on with the Centre on ways to resolve the issue without causing any problems for non-residents. "We hope a decision could be arrived at soon," the Chief Minister said.

Passengers arrive from Dubai by an Air India flight at Kochi International Airport, as part of an evacuation operation due to closure of commercial air services amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, in Kochi, Wednesday, May 27, 2020. (PTI Photo)

For the moment, the Chief Minister refused to drop the demand for a COVID negative certificate. "Earlier, it was said nothing would happen in Kuwait. Now, they are open to extend testing to all terminals. his shows that there has been progress," he said.

He said his government still stood by its decision. "Transmission should not be allowed to take place during travel," he said.

The United Arab Emirates and Qatar are the only Gulf regions where tests are done on returnees, either at the port of departure or otherwise.

At the UAE, rapid antibody tests are being done at the airport. As for Qatar, it has a unique mobile app called Ehteraz, which is mandatory for all who venture outside their homes.

Those with green status in the app will be COVID-19 negative and only they will be allowed entry into public places like airports. So Malayalis in Qatar need not bother about tests. They only have to show their green status in their Ehteraz app to secure a ticket to Kerala.

Irony is, despite the precaution, 10 to 15 returnees each from the UAE and Qatar test positive daily in Kerala. This, critics say, demonstrates that a COVID negative certificate is highly unreliable and undependable.

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