Coronavirus: MEA pulls out all stops to ensure safety of Indians abroad, sets up special cell

New Delhi, Mar 15 (PTI) With the threat of coronavirus looming large, the Ministry of External Affairs has pulled out all the stops to ensure the safety of Indians abroad and set up a special cell to coordinate the issues related with the response to the pandemic that has claimed more than 5,000 lives worldwide.

Additional Secretary Dammu Ravi has been appointed as the point person for coordinating the response to COVID-19. He has four other officers and staff to support him, officials said.

'Our missions abroad are working round the clock and responding to queries from Indians nationals abroad. Missions have set up their helplines and are proactively responding to queries over phone and emails as well as using social media platforms to reach the Indian community members in these countries,' an official said.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla are personally monitoring the situation, they said.  Jaishankar also travelled to Srinagar on March 9 and met with the families of Indian students in Iran and heard their concerns.  The ministry is also working with Indian missions abroad to bring back Indian nationals from the severely-affected countries, officials said.

Indian missions in Iran and Italy are in regular touch with Indian nationals, including Indian students, community members and are advising them on following all health protocols amidst the outbreak, they said.

Medical teams have reached both the countries to test Indians for the virus.  The Indian Embassy in Tehran successfully facilitated the evacuation of 58 Indian pilgrims from Iran on board an Indian Air Force C17 aircraft on March 10.

A second batch of 44 Indian pilgrims from Iran arrived in India on March 13, while another flight returned with 234 Indians stranded in that country in the wee hours on Sunday.

Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan said 218 Indians, including 211 students, from Milan landed in Delhi on Sunday.

The evacuation missions started with Wuhan when 324 Indians were brought back to Delhi on February 1. The second Air India flight brought back 323 Indian citizens and seven Maldivian citizens arrived in Delhi on February 2.

A consignment of 15 tonnes of Indian medical relief for COVID-19 was sent to Wuhan on February 26.

The IAF flight which took the consignment to China brought back 76 Indians and 36 nationals from seven countries (23 from Bangladesh, two each Myanmar and Maldives, six from China, one each from South Africa, USA and Madagascar) to India on its return journey.

The Indian Embassy in Japan also mounted an evacuation operation on February 26 and 27, with an Air India flight bringing back 119 Indians and 5 nationals from Sri Lanka, Nepal, South Africa and Peru who were quarantined on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the Japanese coast.   'Our mission/posts in the US have been coordinating evacuation of Indian nationals quarantined on board the cruise ship Grand Princess, docked at the Port of Oakland,' the official said.

India briefed the representatives of more than 130 countries and international organisations, including over 100 envoys, on Friday about the proactive steps taken by it to combat /coronavirus.

At the briefing by senior officials from the Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Ministry of Home Affairs, the envoys and representatives of international organisations were also provided clarifications related to government advisories.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday said that the coronavirus outbreak could be characterised as pandemic. The number of infection cases globally stood at 1,33,970, with more than 5,000 deaths across 120 countries and territories. PTI ASK KJ