Stranded students in Phillipines. (Photo: Simran Gupte)
When India suddenly banned the entry of passengers from Afghanistan, Philippines and Malaysia, many Indian students were at the Manila international airport waiting to fly home. After spending two nights at the airport, the students were forced to return to their respective accommodations there.
But as the coronavirus cases in the island nation spiked exponentially in the next few days (380 cases and 25 deaths till the time of writing), the students are getting desperate to return home.
“Asking the public to remain in home quarantine, the local government imposed a lockdown last week. But the cases have only increased after the lockdown. Recently, a positive Covid-19 case was discovered across the street from my apartment,” said Divyesh Kekane, a student at the University of Perpetual Help, Las Piñas, Metro Manila.
The students are afraid that with this escalating rate, things are only going to get worse. “Currently, the curfew time is from 8 pm to 5 am. But during the relief hours also, only one person can go out,” said Sachin Patil, a student in AMA School of Medicine, Macati, Metro Manila.
“We have to wait in 3-4 hour long queues to get in the supermarket, which is risky considering the virus spread here,” adds Divyesh.
Saying away from family in the time of crisis is what is traumatising students more. “We don’t have to queue up outside the supermarkets as we have our canteens. But we don’t know how long they will serve us,” said Sandeep Nagar, a student in Our Lady of Fatima University, Valenzuela, Metro Manila. “We are away from our family so who will look after us?”
The expensive healthcare in that country is also compounding their fears. “A mere check-up for fever cost us 3000 Pesos. A blood test cost 2500 Pesos,” adds Divyesh.
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Sandeep said, “It is implied that if the situation escalates, their hospitals will prioritise locals, not us. The healthcare infrastructure here is also not as good as India’s.”
Students assure quarantine
The embassy said that the travel restrictions to India are temporary but the students remain worried. “We, as medical students, understand the government’s concern about not accepting us, but we guarantee our self-quarantine upon reaching India. We just want to reach home,” said Simran Gupte, a student at the University of Perpetual Help, Las Piñas, Metro Manila.
“The government here has no problem with our departure. We know it’s not possible for so many students to return, but the Indian government should at least allow those who feel vulnerable here,” said Sachin. “We are well aware of the risk of travelling at this time, that’s why we can assure our quarantine.”
“It’s okay if the government screens us and allows only the healthier ones. At least we will be home,” added Sandeep.
Indian students wait for news on their flights back to India outside the departure area of Manila's International Airport, Philippines on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (AP/PTI Photo)
According to the Indian embassy in Manila, “There are about 16,000 Indian students in the Philippines, almost all of them studying medicine. We have received requests from several hundred students expressing a desire to fly back home.”
The embassy, however, has a different view of the situation. “The situation in the Philippines is calm and we are advising all local Indians (about 140,000 of them) that there is no reason for panic. Government of the Philippines has assured that all essential services such as supermarkets, grocery stores, pharmacies and drug stores and banks and food delivery services will remain open and there will be no shortage of essential goods. Temporary shortages are being quickly addressed,” they replied to an email query.
“The embassy says no need to panic but they don’t see the growing figures of coronavirus here. How can we not panic? We are away from home,” said Simran. “Most of the cases are being discovered from Metro Manila only.”
Back in India, parents are understandably worried about their children. “Given the unfolding problem in India, we understand the risk of bringing them here. But this is a matter of our children,” said Sujeet Gupte, Simran’s father. Both of Sujeet’s daughters study in the Philippines. “If things are genuinely going to get worse, then, we would like to face it together as family.”
Around 11 am, on March 17, India abruptly announced the ban of flights from Afghanistan, Philippines and Malaysia. “Within a matter of a few hours, India closed its gates for them. Had they given a window of 1-2 days, the children would have made it here,” added Sujeet.
Earlier, the Filipino government gave a 72-hour window to foreigners who wished to leave before a lockdown (This was later revoked). This led to a wave of panic among students. Many bought tickets at steep prices and some failed to buy tickets as airlines’ server had crashed due to sudden traffic.
Passengers wait for their flight at the departure area of Manila's International Airport, Philippines on Tuesday Mar. 17, 2020. (MIAA Media Affairs via AP)
This was followed by India’s sudden travel ban announcement. Because of which, hundreds of students were stranded at the airports in Kuala Lumpur and Manila. Those stuck at the Kuala Lumpur Airport were eventually brought to India, but students at Manila Airport had to return to their universities disappointedly. Many had reached the airport after a journey of 6-7 hours.
Prasanna Laxmi, a student in Lyceum-Northwestern University, Dagupan, said, “Despite the lockdown on transportation, we managed to make it to the airport, but the airline refused to board us to comply with Indian government’s restrictions. We spent two nights at the airport. Though the Indian embassy had arranged food and sent us to a gurdwara in Manila, we had to arrange our transportation back to Dagupan, which was expensive.”
Since they had returned from Manila, Prasanna, along with 25-30 students, are now kept in quarantine at their university. “We share two beds among five students at the quarantine facility,” she added.
India has now announced a blanket ban on international arrivals from March 22 to March 31. This has raised the concerns of the students, many of whom have approached politicians and MPs. Navneet Rana, Amravati MP, asked the government in Parliament about their rescue plans for the students in the Philippines.
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