23/03/2020 1:01 PM IST | Updated 23/03/2020 3:34 PM IST

Coronavirus: Deaths Among 700 Indians Stranded in Iran Deepen Fears

Indians stranded in Iran fear that more of their group may die — and not just of coronavirus.

Courtesy Asgar Ali
More than 700 Indian pilgrims have been stuck in Iran for over two weeks. 

NEW DELHI —  On 19 March, Syed Mohammed, a tour guide from Ladakh, spent the day organising the last rites of an elderly Indian man who had died at a government hospital in Qom, Iran earlier that day. 

The Indian government had announced that the deceased — retired Arabic teacher from Ladakh, and one of more than 700 Indian pilgrims stranded after Indian authorities barred all flights from Iran on Feb 26 — was the first coronavirus-related death of an Indian citizen stuck abroad. 

The deceased, also named Syed Mohammed, was the second Indian to die in Iran after the pilgrims had to hunker down in Qom and await evacuation. On 10 March, Mohammed Ibrahim, another member of the Ladakh group, died after his medicines for hypertension and tuberculosis ran out, his relatives told HuffPost India. Patients with preexisting respiratory conditions are known to be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

As India prepares for its own domestic outbreak by putting over 75 districts including all of the national capital New Delhi under lock-down, the Indians stranded in Iran fear that more of their group may die — and not just of coronavirus.

The elderly and ailing are crammed into cheap hotels that are functioning as de facto quarantine centres. At least 252 Indian pilgrims in Iran have already tested positive for the deadly virus, even as Indian and Iranian authorities have seemingly offered contradictory information to them about the scale of infection. 

The patient who on March 19, for instance, was declared coronavirus positive by Indian authorities on the basis of tests by Indian doctors flown to Iran; but Iranian authorities at the Kamkar Arabnia hospital in Qom treated him as an ordinary patient rather than one infected by COVID-19, the deadly new virus at the heart of the current global pandemic.

“The Indian government is saying this person is positive, but the Iran doctors are saying the same person does not have coronavirus,” said Mohammed, the tour guide, who noted that the deceased was admitted in an ordinary emergency ward rather than the special isolation ward meant for coronavirus cases. 

The Indian government is saying this person is positive, but the Iran doctors are saying the same person does not have coronavirus.

The body was handed back to the rest of the Indian tour group for burial — potentially exposing them to the virus when they performed the last rites. The Indians in Iran, Mohammed said, had even held a communal prayer for the deceased.

The Iran government, in the meantime, is trying to contain the virus by burying COVID-19 casualties in a network of special graves so vast that they are visible from space. 

“We are dying from worry. You are playing with our lives,” Mohammed said.

We are dying from worry. You are playing with our lives.

With over 21,000 coronavirus infections and at least 1685 confirmed deaths, Iran is one of the countries worst hit by the new illness. Sanctions imposed by the United States have hurt the country’s health infrastructure and left it ill-equipped to cope with a crisis of this magnitude. 

Yet, bringing home coronavirus-positive patients could further stretch India’s own public health system that has been hollowed by decades of neglect. India, as The Wall Street Journal noted last week, has over 17 million citizens working, studying and living abroad — deciding whom to evacuate home is one more difficult decision for Indian authorities.

“If the Indian government is not being able to evacuate them then they need to ensure the elderly have proper care,” said Akhtar, a relative of Ibrahim who died of hypertension and tuberculosis on March 10. “But the Iranian government is not being able to take care of their own citizens at this time, how will they take care of our people?”

In a conversation with HuffPost India, Mohammed, the tour guide, was audibly straining under the stress of caring for the pilgrims under his charge. 

“What is the point of all these questions about how they died.The dead are dead. What about the living?” Mohammed said. “We have been stuck here for weeks. The media has said nothing about it.”

The dead are dead. What about the living?”

An ode to India

Syed Ali Razwi, a student of Kashmir University, who hails from Kargil, left Ladakh for a two month long pilgrimage to Iraq and Iran on 3 January, a few days before Chinese officials announced they had identified a novel virus that was named 2019-nCoV or COVID-19, which was spreading in China’s port city of Wuhan.

Razwi was supposed to leave Iran on 3 March but is now amongst the hundreds stranded in the middle-eastern nation.  On Whatsapp, Razwi told HuffPost India he was consumed with thoughts of returning home. Over the weekend, he wrote a poem about missing India and recited it to a moving background score.

“Hindustan is always in my heartbeat… without you, I’m incomplete,” Razwi recites. “Today, in a foreign land, I remember you and my eyes fill with tears… let there be no crisis that befalls, oh country.”

Hindustan is always in my heartbeat… without you, I’m incomplete.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus is making its way to their homes in Ladakh, with at least 13 positive cases detected in the region thus far.  One of the cases is of an Indian Army soldier who was living and stationed in Leh and whose father had gone for the pilgrimage in Iran and tested positive a few days after he returned. Their village of Chuchot has also been placed under lockdown. 

Asgar Ali, a tour guide who also spoke with HuffPost India for a previous report on Indians in Iran, said it isn’t just the case that their families in Ladakh are worrying about them, but they too are fretting about their kin back home. 

“Everyone is so worried about everyone,” said Ali. “We will lose our minds soon.” 

Everyone is so worried about everyone. We will lose our minds soon.

Repatriation Delays

On 11 March, the External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar told Parliament that there are 2,400 Indians, including 1,100 pilgrims, 1,000 fishermen and 300 students, who have to be evacuated from Iran. 

On 17 March, HuffPost India reported that at least 800 pilgrims had been stuck in Qom for two weeks, but neither the Indian nor the Iranian authorities had separated the 252 pilgrims who had tested positive for COVID-19 from the rest of the pilgrims, spread across 15 hotels in Qom, which may have exacerbated the spread of the virus. 

Later that day, the Ministry of External Affairs told reporters in India that it could not verify whether more than 250 COVID-19 positive Indians were stuck in Iran, but on 18 March, they told Parliament that 255 infected Indians were stuck in Iran, 12 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), five in Italy, and one each in Hong Kong, Kuwait, Rwanda and Sri Lanka. 

As of 18 March, the Indian government says 590 Indians have been evacuated from Iran on special flights of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and a private Iranian airline. 

So far, the Indian government has said that only those Indians who have tested negative abroad will be brought back to India. 

On 16 March, local leaders from Ladakh met with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to discuss the segregation of the pilgrims who had tested positive and a plan of action to quickly evacuate the rest. 

Feroz Khan, a National Conference leader and former minister from Kargil, who had attended the meeting, told HuffPost India the government assured them that pilgrims who had tested negative would be evacuated in three flights over the next few days, and those who had tested positive would follow. 

Following a conversation with their local leaders after their meeting with Jaishankar, the pilgrims in Qom were convinced they would be evacuated by the end of the week (20 March). Those who had earlier refused to leave behind their relatives who had tested positive agreed to leave Iran on the understanding that the others would follow. 

The tour guides told HuffPost India that pilgrims had divided themselves into three groups of approximately 270 and waited to be evacuated, but only people from one tour group were evacuated on 18 March. 

Mohammed Askar, the tour guide of the group from which the pilgrims were evacuated, said that 63 people who were under his charge had gone and 45 remain. 

The three tour guides said they had now heard that Mahan Air, the private Iranian airline the Indian government is using for their evacuation, will not operate till Tuesday because of Nowruz, which means “new day” and marks the first day of the new year in Iran. 

“We were told that we would be evacuated on three flights last week. Another week has passed,” said Mohammed, the tour guide. “I just want to ask the officials what they would do and how long would take if it was their families who were stranded.” 

I just want to ask the officials what they would do and how long would take if it was their families who were stranded.

Positives still in hotels  

While the Indian embassy officials in Iran with the Iranian government had started moving pilgrims who had tested positive to a secluded facility in Qom, Mohammed and Askari said many were still staying at the hotels but they were isolated in separate rooms. 

Mohammed said that he had isolated six pilgrims who tested positive in the hotel. Askari said that he was in-charge of 31 patients that tested positive and he placed three of them in one room each.

Askari said, “I have heard that facility that the Iran government has provided is very congested. I won’t let people under my charge go there unless I know they are taken care of properly.” 

Mohammed said, “The hotel managers did not close and throw us out on the streets at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak here , but now they too want to close. They say that they will lock the doors to hotels soon.”

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