Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that 35,327 people have returned to the state from other countries — mainly the Persian Gulf — in the last month-and-a-half after losing their jobs.
They accounted for 50% of the total 71,958 people who have come back to the state in the first 46 days since flights were restarted on May 4, according to Government of Kerala figures.
A little more than 10% of the returnees were children, while close to 6% (4,198) were pregnant women, while 2.2% were senior citizens.
90% of those who came back from other countries to Kerala during this period were from the Middle East.
The countries worst affected by Coronavirus 2019 — the UAE and Kuwait — also accounted for the largest chunk of returnees.
The UAE accounted for 39% (28,114) of the total overseas returnees, while Kuwait accounted for 14.5% (10,439).
Oman accounted for 8,470 people, followed by Saudi Arabia with 7,184 people, Qatar with 6,005 and Bahrain with 4,309.
All other countries, including the US, the UK and Canada, accounted for around 10% of the total overseas returnees.
At 225 so far, the number of chartered flights ferrying passengers from the Gulf outnumbered the flights operated by the government of India under the Vande Bharat mission (176).
In total, 401 flights have operated so far since flights resumed, out of the 1,048 flights for which permission has been issued.
HIGH INFECTION RATE
Out of the nearly 72,000 people who have touched down in Kerala so far from overseas, around 1,400 (2%) have already tested positive for Coronavirus 2019.
Most are still in quarantine and will be tested in coming days.
Despite accounting for only around 25% of the total 2.8 lakh people or so who have returned to Kerala since the lockdown was lifted in early May, overseas returnees accounted for 60% of the total Coronavirus cases detected in the state since the lock-down was lifted.
People from other states accounted for only 30%, while the Kerala-based relatives of these people and health workers made up the remaining 10%.
In other words, the 2% infection rate seen in overseas returnees — liable to increase as more samples are tested — is six times that seen (0.33%) among those returning from other states. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of those returning from other states are from hotspots like Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and Gujarat.
Kerala health authorities suspect that the mode of transportation — air travel vs surface transportation — may be contributing to the high rate of infections detected among overseas returnees.
So far, numbers suggest that each flight of around 180 passengers is reporting 3 or 4 COVID-19 positive patients on average. The number is likely to increase as testing progresses and more cases are brought to light.
This has led the Kerala government to ask the central government to arrange for COVID-19 testing at embassies or airports in source countries.
Pinarayi Vijayan said the Indian embassy in Saudi Arabia has put up such a proposal with Saudi authorities, and called it a step in the right direction.
Traditional COVID-19 testing, considered more precise, takes about 7 hours to yield results, while a quick test — considered less reliable — yields results in a few minutes.
“We are not opposed to bringing back COVID positive cases to Kerala, but what we are asking for is that they should not be brought in the same aircraft as the uninfected people. This increases the chances of transmission. Therefore, the center should make arrangements to screen for COVID-19 patients and bring them in a separate aircraft,” he said.
The suggestion has not gone down well with the Congress and Muslim League parties, who form the main constituents of the opposition United Democratic Front.
They have called the suggestion anti-people and said that Kerala government is trying to bring down the number of people who are coming back to the state by placing more obstacles and formalities in front of those who want to return.
They also claim that COVID-19 will not spread inside an aircraft if all passengers have protection equipment such as masks and face covers.
The Muslim League has now threatened to hold statewide protests and demonstrations by mobilizing the families of migrant workers in the Gulf if the government doesn’t withdraw its demand.
A large number of Muslim League voters in Kerala have one or more of their family members in the Gulf.
However, state authorities continue to be worried about the high number of positive cases among those returning by air.
On Saturday, overseas returnees accounted for 87 (69%) of the 127 new COVID-19 cases detected in Kerala, while people returning from other states of India accounted for 36 (28%), despite being far higher in number. Together, the two categories accounted for 97% of all cases.