NEW DELHI — The Indian government working with the authorities in Iran has moved half of the 252 pilgrims from Ladakh who tested positive for coronavirus while they were stranded in Iran and isolated them in a facility with more than 200 beds in the holy city of Qom, HuffPost India has learnt.
In an interview, Asgar Ali, a tour guide who is heading an informal committee to speak with Indian and Iranian officials in Iran, said the rest of the pilgrims that tested positive would be moved today.
On Tuesday, HuffPost India reported on the more than 800 pilgrims who have been stranded in Qom following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The Government of India had cancelled all commercial flights after 26 February from Iran, the worst-hit country after China and Italy. In the days that followed, the Ladakhi pilgrims were tested for COVID-19 by Indian doctors dispatched to Iran. But even as the results from a laboratory in Pune started coming in, neither the Indian officials in Iran nor the Iranian authorities separated those who were testing positive from the rest of the pilgrims.
What this means is that even those who did not have the coronavirus at the time their samples were taken for testing, could have become infected at any point in the past two weeks.
Asgar said that only the 252 pilgrims and two Indian students in Qom, who tested positive from the testing in the first week of March, were being isolated in a facility in Qom.
Local leaders from Ladakh have communicated to the Indians in Iran that the Indian government is moving to evacuate those pilgrims who had tested negative in the first round of testing over the next two or three days (close to 650 people) and those who had tested positives will follow soon after, Ali said.
It is with the understanding that those who tested positive will follow soon, Indians who had previously refused to leave their infected family members in a foreign country, have now agreed to cooperate with the authorities, he said.
Most of the Indian pilgrims in Qom, Asgar said, were over the age of 50, and did not speak Hindi, Urdu or English, let alone Farsi. They speak mostly the local languages of Ladakh like Purgi, Sheena and Balti.
On Monday, a delegation of lawmakers and religious leaders from Ladakh headed by Ladakh Member of Parliament Jaymat Tsering Namgyal met with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to discuss the evacuation of hundreds of Ladakhi pilgrims.
Feroz Khan, a National Conference leader and former minister from Kargil, who is the Chief Executive Councillor of The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Kargil, said the Indian government did not confirm when the positives would be evacuated.
“They said they will bring back the positive people also, but when is not clear. But they assured us that they will also be brought back,” he said.
As to the question that at least some of those who had tested negative may now be positive since there was no segregation in the first place, Khan said, “You will have to ask that question to the Indian embassy (in Iran). “I’m assuming they will be brought here, put in quarantine and tested again.”
Khan said the delegation also met Iran’s ambassador to India Ali Chegeni on Tuesday and asked the Indians who were being isolated in Qom to be looked after properly.
“We were told that they would be taken care of by the Indian doctors, but the overall control would be that of the Iran government,” he said.
In response to a question regarding the evacuation of the pilgrims who had tested positive, Raveesh Kumar, the official spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs said, “If there is any decision taken by the Government of India, it will be communicated.”