The Ranni, Kerala-based family that is being blamed for spreading Coronavirus in the state said they disclosed their Italian connection to immigration officials, but were allowed to walk out without any screening.
“We did tell them,” said the young man in the three-member family in a widely-circulated audio message. “We told them we are coming from Italy. I even told them I haven’t been to Kerala for four years.”
“They didn’t give us any directions or conduct any check-ups. So we thought we’d be okay. We got into our vehicle and made our visits,” he said.
The clarification comes in the wake of the family being vilified on social media, with many angry Keralites calling for harsh punishment against the three.
“We didn’t know about this [Coronavirus issue] and we didn’t get any direction from the airport… All this happened because we didn’t get any directions from the immigration office. If we had got such a direction from the airport, we would certainly have reported directly [to the Coronavirus desk]”
Coronavirus started spreading in Italy on February 20, and by February 29 — when the family left the country for India via Doha — the number of cases in Italy was well over 1,000.
The young man, who is not being named to prevent harassment to the family, also said his family only visited relatives, and did not attend any marriage or church functions as being rumored.
“We only visited our own people, and they’re the [only] ones who have been affected,” he said.
Yesterday, a visibly upset Kerala health minister KK Shailaja minced no words in conveying her displeasure with the family, and said the family failed to report their Italian connection to state health authorities.
In a press conference yesterday, the minister took the family to task for ‘irresponsible behavior’.
She said the infection came to light only because one of the families that got the virus indirectly from this family came to a government hospital complaining of fever and other symptoms.
“It was only then that we came to know about this. We went to their house and found that they [the three from Italy] too were suffering from fever.
“We asked them to immediately shift to the hospital… But I have to say that their response was of a very, very wrong manner. First they hid the fact that they came from Italy. Secondly, when asked to shift to a hospital, they refused. They said they didn’t have any health issues. We had to forcefully shift them to the hospital.”
Kerala government has been on a heightened state of vigilance for nearly six weeks. The first cases of Coronavirus infections were detected in the state in late January among students returning to the state from Wuhan, China.
However, even now, Coronavirus screening is not mandatory for all international passengers, and the effort depends on voluntary cooperation.
“We have created all kinds of amenities right there in the airport. Every day tens of thousands of people touch down in [Kerala] airports from abroad. Therefore, the primary responsibility to come up and declare [if they’re coming from an affected country] is with the passengers,” KK Shailaja said.
She also said that there are lots of people who have returned from affected countries such as Italy, China, Iran and Korea, and gone straight to their homes and repeated the appeal for them to call the state government hotline.
In this case, given that the family came on a flight from Doha, Qatar, they slipped under the radar of state authorities.
However, if the immigration officials had passed on the information about Italy to the state government officials, the family could have been screened using proper procedures.
Many have blamed the central government for not sharing a list of people arriving from sensitive countries with state health authorities, while state authorities are being blamed for not asking for such a list.
This particular family arrived in Kochi airport on February 29.
At that time, there was no direction from the central government to its immigration officials to flag arrivals from sensitive countries.
It was only on March 5 that the central government asked its officials to ensure that such passengers are sent to virus screening facilities within the airport.
Nevertheless, that was not the only avenue or opportunity for the family to get tested for Coronavirus.
Kerala health authorities have been making appeals almost on a daily basis that anyone who has arrived from any affected country — including China and Korea — should get in touch with state health authorities.
The health minister has said repeatedly that since January that many people from affected countries have been found to have slipped through airport checks and were found to be interacting freely with their family members after reaching home.
“Even if they have reached their homes, we have made it clear multiple times that they must inform the nearest medical officer or health department officers. Any failure to share this information will henceforth have to be considered a big crime,” she said, announcing the latest cases yesterday.
She has been warning that such practices threaten to torpedo the elaborate set of monitoring arrangements put in place to detect and prevent the spread of the virus in the state.
It is possible that the family missed the warning, as it has been busy traveling through the state during the last ten days.
Some of the confusion may have arisen due to the multiplicity of authorities at airports.
Most of the airport’s functions are directly under the control of the central government, including the immigration department where this family is reported to have conveyed their Italy connection.
However, the Coronavirus helpdesks, screening and the entire effort to control the spread of the virus is being done by the state government.