National policy on ‘COVID-free’ certification for expats returning home needed: Shashi Tharoor

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Published: June 18, 2020 6:08 PM

In a letter to Jaishankar, Tharoor said while the Vande Bharat Mission, currently in its third phase, continues to offer a valuable service, a considerable proportion of Indian citizens have been unable to secure their return back to the country.

Every citizen of India has an absolute unconditional right to come home, whatever his health status, Tharoor asserted.Every citizen of India has an absolute unconditional right to come home, whatever his health status, Tharoor asserted. (File image)

Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor has urged External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to come out with a transparent national policy on ‘COVID-free’ certification, saying if such a document is mandatory for expatriates returning home then the government should facilitate it and not put the onus on the ‘pravasis’.

In a letter to Jaishankar, Tharoor said while the Vande Bharat Mission, currently in its third phase, continues to offer a valuable service, a considerable proportion of Indian citizens have been unable to secure their return back to the country.

Tagging the letter, Tharoor tweeted, “It is Kerala government that has made it mandatory for travellers to board with Covid-free certificates. I told the CM personally that many Gulf countries do not test asymptomatic people. His response was to ask the Central government to arrange such tests for pravasis through Embassies.”

“In short, if it is mandatory (which in my view is unfortunate but is the government’s prerogative) then the government should facilitate it and not put the onus on the pravasis,” the MP from Thiruvananthapuram said.

Every citizen of India has an absolute unconditional right to come home, whatever his health status, Tharoor asserted.

In his letter to Jaishankar dated June 15, Tharoor said to cater to the affected Indian individuals abroad, a number of overseas expatriate welfare groups have started chartering flights via established commercial airline companies and have done a remarkable job in catering to the repatriation needs of citizens in these countries.

There are a number of logistical challenges that such groups face and one recurring concern has to do with the requirements of producing COVID test certification ahead of an expatriate’s return to the country, he said.

“While some states like Kerala have made this a mandatory requirement for those travelling on chartered flights, it appears that the same requirement has not been extended to passengers travelling on Vande Bharat flights,” he said.

Similarly, given their current circumstances, securing a valid certification can often be a challenge for the overseas citizens, with some countries only testing those who show symptoms associated with the virus, Tharoor said.

This, coupled with financial considerations and, in some cases, the challenge of arranging transport to testing centres, has resulted in an added burden for those seeking to organise or travel by charter flights, he said.

“In this context, a national level policy and protocol, formulated in coordination with the Ministry of Home Affairs and concerned state governments, and which factors in existing challenges, would certainly go a long way in helping our citizens, particularly those from the blue-collar working community, who choose the option of charter flights,” the former Minister of State for External Affairs said.

Among other considerations, this new protocol should look into making the process of securing certification easier, he said.

For instance, while an RT-PCR test, the most widely utilised and conclusive COVID test, is both costly and time-consuming, the government could, in the case of returning overseas citizens, allow them the option of pursuing rapid antibody testing, which produces swifter results and at relatively lower cost to those undertaking the test, he said.

While the result is not as conclusive as the RT-PCR option, it nonetheless offers a strong indication of the status of those undertaking these tests, Tharoor said.

“Our Embassies could look into geographically mapping a set of clinics in each of these countries that could then be empanelled to undertake these tests,” he said.

It is clear that a robust national protocol on COVID certification would certainly go a long way in easing the current concerns of fellow citizens, Tharoor said in his letter.

“It would also further streamline the process of chartering flights, an option that the government must support given that such initiatives have demonstrated their utility in significantly expanding the magnitude of our repatriation efforts,” he said.

He urged Jaishankar to look into developing a robust and transparent policy on the issue of COVID certification.

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