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A worker fumigates the interior of a bus in Bengaluru, India on March 19.
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NEW DELHI – For months, Mrinal Sabharwal and his wife Shelly Dhingra had only talked about their long planned trip to Europe. They had been saving for four years since they were married and finally had enough vacation time to spend three weeks in Paris, Barcelona and Lisbon.
But four days after their vacation, they realized they had to come home when Western Europe was banned due to the outbreak of the corona virus.
In the early morning hours of March 16, they flew back to New Delhi. At that point, her ordeal began.
"We learned in the news that Barcelona was closed and Portugal had closed its borders," Sabharwal told BuzzFeed News over the phone from the self-quarantine at her home in New Delhi. “We decided to take the first flight home. I downloaded the Indian government form on the flight and we contacted the airport authorities as soon as we landed – we wanted to be tested. There was no way we could go home to our older parents without getting a test. "
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A transit employee checks the body temperature of passengers in the city of Secunderabad.
The global coronavirus pandemic appears to have failed so far: By March 19, the country had registered only 148 confirmed cases despite a large and mobile population of over 1.2 billion. The World Health Organization (WHO) has praised India's response.
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Total number of cases and deaths by country.
The government has launched an aggressive airport screening program – Indian airports have screened nearly 1.4 million people so far, and cities like Mumbai are preparing to screen and quarantine another 26,000 people from the Gulf States. In Maharashtra, a state in western India, the government has developed a novel method to mark patients with symptoms of the novel corona virus. She stamps them with indelible ink to make sure they are sent home if they venture outside. Sabharwal and Dhingra are among the 40,000 Indians currently in quarantine.
However, there is concern that the government’s selective tests may have underestimated the spread of the virus. India had only tested 9,100 people by March 16.
The experiences of Sabharwal and Dhingra at Indira Gandhi International Airport showed that even checking passengers at airports is insufficient if quarantine centers are unwilling to treat travelers as human beings who are concerned with the thought panic about illness and cross-contamination instead of annoying virus carriers.
At the airport, the couple were among a crowd of approximately 40 people waiting to be screened or tested. An exhausted Dhingra asked the airport staff for a sip of water. You should drink from the tap in the bathroom. "My wife was shocked," said Sabharwal. “India is not a First World country – water in our toilets is not drinkable. When she pointed this out to the staff, they told her they didn't want her to infect the drinking water.
It only got worse. A few hours later, the group was driven onto a bus to be taken to a testing facility on the city limits. However, the facility was found to be a former police barracks that had been converted to a quarantine center only 24 hours earlier. Upon arrival, the bus was surrounded by police officers. There was not a single medic there.
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A letter signed by the group of 40 people, including Mrinal Sabharwal and Shelly Dhingra, when they arrived at the quarantine center.
“I tried to open the door and the police rushed to the door to close it and shouted, 'Corona! Corona will come out! & # 39; “, said Dhingra.
Further unpleasant surprises awaited the group when they were finally admitted to the building two hours later. “The toilets were flooded, the bed sheets stained. There were not even separate dormitories for men and women – how should my wife sleep with seven strange men in the same room? It didn't make sense, ”said Sabharwal. While the group was waiting, another bus load of passengers arrived at the facility, then another – all in all, outside police officers told the passengers that more than 200 people should be accommodated in the quarantine facility, which had only three toilets.
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One of the beds in the quarantine center.
The WHO says that although there are no universal standards for the infrastructure of a quarantine facility, quarantine stations should at least not improve the potential transmission. Travelers should be provided with adequate food, water, sleeping and clothing, protection for luggage and other possessions, adequate medical treatment and necessary means of communication. The guidelines encourage the authorities to communicate transparently and clearly with travelers to avoid panic.
“Travelers should be treated with respect for their dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms and should minimize the inconvenience or burden associated with such measures, including by treating all travelers with courtesy and respect; taking into account the gender-specific, socio-cultural, ethnic or religious interests of the traveler, ”says the guidelines.
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People in the quarantine center complained about unsanitary conditions.
There are similarities between India and the United States in how parts of the media and political leaders react to the outbreak of the corona virus. Fox News and Donald Trump have committed themselves to xenophobia to defend themselves against the virus, which the President of the United States now only calls the "Chinese virus".
In India, it is believed that community transmission is still low and most severely affected. It is believed that cases have been "imported" from coronavirus-affected countries. The pandemic has thus become a way of blaming "elite" Indians who can afford to go abroad – and now complaining about quarantine facilities and the unwillingness of the government to "give India a bad name".
On Wednesday an Indian news broadcaster ran with a segment called “FLYERS THROW TANTRUMS! CHAOS AT INTN & # 39; L AIRPORT. “The CNN-IBN broadcaster broadcast tight-cut footage of Sabharwal and Dhingra's tour group standing in front of an immigration service.
"Is this the kind of behavior we expect from Indian citizens? Just take … listen to this! "says the news anchor in the video. The accompanying audio is an incoherent rumble from the crowd until a man clearly shouts:" Shoot us! Then shoot us! "
The edited video was then repeated several times on WhatsApp groups and Twitter shared – until Indira Gandhi International Airport finally tweeted to ensure that the airport is now functioning smoothly.
"I was there when this happened. One of the airport security officers behind the immigration officials told us that we are infected and that we would be shot if we did not behave, "said Sabharwal." Just because we went to Europe, we are not rich brats that trigger tantrums. Some of us had saved up to travel for years. Others were students who received loans or grants. A man had taken his older parents along with his wife and daughter – why are the government and media trying to portray us like this? “
Someone from Sabharwal's group tweeted pictures of the facility, but then they were almost immediately flooded with comments that accused the passengers.
"You have some time, why don't you clean the facility yourself?" said one.
@NavyaDua @PMOIndia @WHO @CISFHQrs At least it's clean, you can't expect a free 5 star facility. Why did you travel during this time and knew the situation very well? I only criticize to give India a bad name.
08:17 – March 16, 2020
@NavyaDua @PMOIndia @WHO @CISFHQrs What's wrong with that?
Did you expect 5-star treatment & infra in this crisis?
Please thank the government for having this facility, otherwise you may infect your family, friends and acquaintances.
04:10 – March 16, 2020
@NavyaDua @PMOIndia @WHO @CISFHQrs Hey Ms. – This is a quarantine facility in Pakistan. Are you still complaining about what the Indian government has arranged?
Pakistan's surge in coronavirus cases raises quarantine concerns https://t.co/lWMtQoG5WK
9:01 p.m. – March 16, 2020
Sabharwal told BuzzFeed News that the criticism was frustrating because it missed the point – passengers brought into the facility were concerned about cross-contamination in an already terrible situation.
"The problem was never that the facility was poorly furnished," said Sabharwal. We grew up in India, my wife and I traveled the country, slept on floors, used Indian toilets – we are fine with basic. We don't need luxury. But we wanted a hygienically adequate isolation station, in which at least we would not all infect each other. “
Not everyone has had the same experience. While the police barracks quarantine was unsanitary and hostile, Sabharwal said his friends had been persuaded A religious hostel in another part of New Delhi found their quarantine to be perfectly clean and safe. In Mumbai, too, passengers complained about quarantine facilities and praised them. In the southern Indian state of Kerala, people were in quarantine Ne, steaming hot banana pieces, tea, boiled eggs and bread were served.
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A sign near the India Gate war memorial in New Delhi.
On Monday afternoon, almost 12 hours after Sabharwal and Dhingra landed on Indian soil, 53 test kits arrived at the quarantine facility, despite the fact that 200 people from countries affected by coronaviruses had just arrived. Dhingra said the quarantine officials had told her that all tests would be available immediately and more would come later. At this point the group was exhausted, hungry and felt defeated.
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A health worker trying to seal a sample taken at the quarantine center before dropping the swab onto the floor.
Travelers who could not be tested and did not want to stay in the police barracks had the option of checking in at three hotels near the airport, with the restriction that they would have to pay isolation in advance for 14 days, regardless of what their tests ultimately said. Sabharwal and Dhingra refused to check in at the hotel.
"We just wanted to get our tests as soon as possible and we knew that this would only happen in the quarantine facility," he said. The claustrophobic Dhingra added that she was concerned about the possibility of being separated from Sabharwal in the hotel quarantine. Sabharwal also has high blood pressure, and the couple hoped that even if they were isolated from the crowd, they could take care of each other.
In the police barracks, several passengers who had their passports taken away from the airport authorities became increasingly angry. They were Indian citizens, but recent news cycles in the cities of Bengaluru had mentioned quarantine patients who had escaped isolation, which the authorities feared could happen again. Others were thirsty and hungry and wanted to know when further tests would come and when they would finally be free to go home. Finally, in the early hours of Tuesday, Sabharwal said, he and his wife were told to go home – they had no fever and their swab results would take time. At that time, travelers had also been given food and water.
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Another picture of the conditions in the quarantine center.
"We were still not fully convinced that these tests were correct, so we sent our parents to other relatives," he said. "I've been trying to track these results since morning and no laboratory in India seems to have them."
Sabharwal said that he had contacted several official agencies, including the airport authorities who originally accompanied them. The quarantine facility, the National Center for Civil Protection, a hospital in New Delhi where the tests are collected, and the National Institute of Virology, which told him that all tests would be broadcast sometime – nobody knew where his or his wife's samples were
"One of the officials I spoke to said said even: 'Are you sure you have been tested? & # 39; I would not be surprised to learn that now that I have seen India report the coronavirus numbers happen to myself, »he said. ●