Coronavirus Outbreak: Australian tourists face hostile locals, forcible quarantine in Kerala, scramble to get home

Australian national Alison Gibberd sat in the back of an ambulance outside the Community Health Centre in Kerala’s Chithirapuram on Thursday, waiting to be tested for coronavirus. This, three days after being taken into quarantine by local health officials on 16 March.

The 46-year-old arrived at the Kochi international airport on 12 March from Australia. She travelled from Melbourne to Singapore aboard the Singapore Airlines' flight SQ238  and then by the SilkAir MI468 flight from Singapore to Kochi. After arriving in Kochi, she said enquires about her travel history were made and she was released upon being found to exhibit no symptoms of the coronavirus.

On the day of her arrival in Kochi, the Ministry of Health’s travel advisory did not include arrivals from Australia and Singapore in the mandatory quarantine list. Neither did the advisory on the day she was taken into quarantine.

 Coronavirus Outbreak: Australian tourists face hostile locals, forcible quarantine in Kerala, scramble to get home

The facility in Chithirapuram where Alison and Nicola were tested on Thursday. Image Courtesy: Alison Gibberd

Alison and her friend Nicola Aldridge (43) were stopped on 16 March, the same day that Idukki district blocked the entry of foreign and domestic tourists, by angry villagers at a village in Muttom. “It was made clear we could not leave. Soon after, health officials arrived, told us we would be able to continue on our way to the airport soon, but later we were driven to Munnar. On the way, we were asked to leave a restaurant we had stopped at for a meal,” Alison said, recounting the hostility of locals.

Incidents of foreign nationals attempting to escape from coronavirus quarantine facilities to fly home has only increased fears among locals, adding to the hostility faced by travellers.

The Australian nationals were confronted by locals at Muttom, from where they were taken to an isolation facility in Munnar. Image: Alison Gibberd

The Australian nationals were confronted by locals at Muttom, from where they were taken to an isolation facility in Munnar. Image: Alison Gibberd

Nicola arrived in India on 2 March and travelled to Kanyakumari and Kochi. Although a Kerala government order issued only on 13 March said that arrivals from abroad “can be quarantined for a minimum of 14 days”, she is also lodged at the isolation facility.

Nicola and Alison were kept at an isolation facility set up at a hotel called Meridian Meadows in Munnar. "The facility had no soap, toilet paper or utensils at their disposal," Alison said. A day after their arrival at the isolation facility, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Tuesday announced fresh guidelines allowing foreign nationals in the state to fly out of the state if they test negative.

After the foreigners cited this order a day after its release, health officials promised them that they will be tested, Alison said on Twitter, also telling Firstpost that district officials were not aware of the order till the day she showed it to them.

Idukki DMO Dr Priya N confirmed that the two women were tested only on Thursday after they became aware of the chief minister's order on Wednesday, pointing towards the lack of communication of directives to district officials.

She said that they were not tested on Monday as they were asymptomatic, adding that they were taken into quarantine as instruction to isolate those from affected countries for 14 days was issued since the “earlier stages of the outbreak”.  She also mentioned that there was “some deficiency in making certain arrangements” regarding Alison and Nicola’s cases.

Six days after Alison and Nicola were taken to the Meridian Meadows quarantine facility, the results of their swab tests came in. Since the visit by health officials at Muttom till Saturday, when they were tested negative, Alison alleged that she got no answers from health officials on why her testing and return were being delayed and the absence of documentation throughout the quarantine.

Nor were they provided any documents relevant to the process, even as the High Commission’s office sprung into action only after an announcement came stating that Australia will close its borders on 20 March for both citizens and non-residents, with the order likely to remain for at least six months.

Lack of communication from the health department left Alison and Nicola’s return to Melbourne in jeopardy. Earlier, it was the state government-mandated 28-day isolation for air passengers that would have extended her stay in India till 12 April, amid airlines fast suspending services and the Australian government advising nationals travelling abroad to return home at the earliest.

While Alison said she and Nicola had been promised their reports would be handed over at the earliest, the delays and lack of answers they received set them on edge. Even though Dr Priya told Firstpost they'd be released by Friday if they tested negative, the Melbourne residents were only able to check out of the hotel after receiving their reports on Saturday.

Then came the scramble to reach Kochi airport, almost four hours away, to board one of the last few available flights as Australia began shutting down its borders.

Updated Date: Mar 23, 2020 16:58:34 IST



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