It was her dream to see penguins. When Samita Rao left Chennai for Antarctica late in February, she was full of anticipation and a sense of adventure. Little did the 59-year-old corporate executive know that several weeks later, she’d be nowhere close to returning home.
The ban on international flights entering India put in place on March 22 to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic prevented her from coming home. Rao, who has since found her way to the United States, is waiting for another plane that shows no signs of arriving – a repatriation flight.
The lockdown across India is scheduled to be eased on May 3. Already, some states have started opening up sectors of the economy. Yet, there is no clarity on when domestic or international flights will resume, nor do there appear to be steps to bring back Indians who remain abroad. Meanwhile, India has been allowing foreign governments to fly home their citizens who were in India when the lockdown went into effect.
On Monday, Union Minister for Civil Aviation Hardeep Singh Puri issued a statement about the resumption of flights that did not give stranded Indians any clarity on when they could head home. “…Flight restrictions that are in place as a result of India’s fight against Covid-19 will be lifted once we are confident that spread of the virus has been controlled & it poses no danger to our country & people,” Puri said in a tweet.
The Centre’s refusal to commit to a timeframe has left travellers like Rao in the lurch. By the time her expedition to the spectacular land of endless ice and emperor penguins had ended on March 15, several countries had announced lockdowns to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic. Rao’s vessel, the MS Roald Amundsen, arrived in Santiago in Chile on March 16. After a series of delays, she managed to get onto a plane to Miami in the US on March 27.
Rao had an American visa, and since she had already missed her flight to India on March 22, she checked into the Hyatt Place hotel near Miami airport. India had suspended international flights but surely, they would resume in April? Rao assumed she would be home within a few weeks, at best.
“I thought I would be able to fly out on April 24, but with the lockdown being extended, even May looks doubtful,” she said in a phone interview. Rao has been emailing the Indian consulate in Atlanta, which caters to Indian tourists in the Florida region, as well as the Prime Minister’s Office.
“I have been told to stay put, since there is nothing that can be done,” Rao said. “Keep waiting, keep waiting, keep waiting – that is the only response. If you are a good government, you should look at all sides.”
A little over 12 kilometres away from Rao’s hotel, at the Miami port, is another stranded Indian who is desperate to go home. Since March 20, Piedade Furtado, an executive sous chef on the Norwegian Sun passenger liner, has been holed up in the Norwegian Epic, another vessel run by the same company. All guests have disembarked, and the Norwegian Epic has been left with around 900 crew members. There are no cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, on the ship.
“Our conditions are okay – we are confined to our cabins, and we get three meals a day and WiFi,” Furtado told Scroll.in. “Our company is waiting for the green signal and is ready to send us back by chartered flights, but for that, the Indian government needs to allow us to land.” Crew members from other countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, have been repatriated by their governments.
Furtado is 51 and has been sailing for 27 years. He has endured inclement weather and delays because of medical emergencies and engine trouble. But there has never been a time when there was no hope of getting off the ship and taking a flight to a safe place, or better still, home.
India initially organised rescue flights for its citizens from such places as Iran and Italy, but in recent weeks, the battle against the pandemic has been concentrated within the country’s borders. Across India, increasingly distraught migrants are struggling to survive from one day to the next and are surviving on handouts. The situation is only marginally better for several Indians marooned in foreign locations, who have been similarly left high and dry and have being forced to burn through their savings to get by.
“Our government should show us some sympathy – we are citizens and professionals, not tourists,” Furtado pointed out. His brother died in Margao in Goa on Tuesday, and he could only mourn from far away. “We went abroad to work for our families, we miss them, and we want to go home,” he said.
In troubled waters
Seafarers, who form an important sub-set of Indians stranded overseas alongside students, traders, academics and executives, have been particularly hit by the pandemic. Thousands of mariners were at sea when the world gradually began shutting down, and they missed the last flights out to India. As they wait for their government to throw them a lifeline, many of them are dealing with no pay or drastically reduced salaries. The fog of uncertainty is thickened by the absence of credible information.
“Every single day, we wake up and ask for updates, but we are constantly being told by our captain that nothing can be done,” said a sailor, who has been on a passenger liner in Tilbury in the United Kingdom since March 10. The seaman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, added that food supplies on the ship are as low as the morale.
“We get three limited meals a day and sandwiches at teatime,” the sailor said. “The contracts of some of the crew members ended in March, and apart from accommodation and meals, they have nothing else. I have a family back home in Goa, including a newborn baby. The government needs to arrange flights for us, or at least open the airports so that our companies can send us back. I am ready to go into quarantine for however long.”
A financial nightmare
There are at least 22,500 Indian sailors grounded on ships around the world, including around 8,000 Goans, estimated Cruz Judas A Baretto, an executive member of the social welfare group Goencho Avaaz. For passengers ships, “the main cargo is the passengers,” explained Baretto, who is a merchant navy chief engineer. “As long as there are passengers, a ship has business. When a ship has no passengers, room boys, casino employees, waiters, all of them are considered surplus and their services are no longer required. They go off the rolls.”
Apart from lobbying the Goa government and local politicians, Goencho Avaaz has been sending appeals to the Ministry of External Affairs. In a letter dated April 10, Goencho Avaaz drew attention to the tragic case of Andrew Fernandes, who contracted Covid-19 on the Costa Favolosa cruise ship and died in a hospital in Miami on April 5.
“The crew on board is extremely fragile and it is only human to pay heed to the cries of help,” stated the letter, which was accompanied by details on Goan seafarers and the names and locations of their ships. “We urge the government to understand the plight of these vulnerable crew and use diplomacy at the highest level in bringing back the hapless crew safely home at the soonest.”
No crew member should be abandoned, Baretto told Scroll.in. “If the Indian airspace can be opened up to let foreigners leave, it can bring back Indians from abroad too,” he pointed out.
Maintaining a routine
The Indians who are unable to return include students. Some of them got lucky, such as Niharika Thakur, an undergraduate at a prestigious East Coast university in the United States. She moved in with family friends to a town in Connecticut after her classes were suspended.
Since the term isn’t complete, Thakur has been taking online classes and examinations. “There is a possibility of the fall semester also going online, so if India does open up, I would definitely like to come back home,” Thakur said. “There is lots of uncertainty, and you have to look at it from the long term.”
Thakur’s online lectures begin at the same time as before – around 11am. This has helped her maintain a sense of routine. Other stranded Indians have been striving to ensure normalcy amidst the new normal. Piedade Furtado prays for an hour every day and regularly counsels other crew members to keep up their spirits. The sailor in Tilbury is a part of the security detail on his vessel and continues to clock regular shifts. After the workday has ended, he checks for news from back home, and talks to his family through Whatsapp.
Strength in the face of adversity
When she left Chennai in February, Samita Rao didn’t pack her laptop since she was, after all, on vacation. As a consequence, she has resumed her duties as senior director for business operations at UDS, a facility management company, with the help of her mobile phone. “My company is very good to let me be here for weeks on end like this,” she said.
Rao’s routine includes talking to her daughters in India and checking for news updates. She steps out for an hour to chat with the skeletal staff that runs the hotel. She has barely met anybody else since she first arrived in the US.
The daily room tariff is close to $90 and includes breakfast. Rao orders lunch and dinner through Uber Eats. “I am spending my life savings on this experience,” she said. Apart from the worrying drain on her resources, there is the struggle to combat the ennui that follows the endless wait.
“Every day is just like every other day, but I am trying to make it work for me – I tell myself, if everybody in India is locked up, so am I,” Rao said. “You need to be strong in such situations. I would be happy to cry if somebody would help me, but crying won’t solve anything. So many countries have taken their citizens back, except India. It’s a shame.”