Thiruvananthapuram: Expatriates from Kerala settled in various countries, especially the Gulf, should carry mandatorily a COVID-19 negative certificate if they want to return home once the Centre gives it's nod for bringing them back, the state government has said.
Keen to avoid fresh overseas cases after successfully containing coronavirus spread in the state, the government has issued an order stating that expats who possess certificates showing that they tested negative for coronavirus can register with NORKA (Non-Resident Keralites Affairs) department. "We will allow only those people who carry the COVID negative certificate (to travel to the state). Only after which they can register with NORKA", state Home Secretary Dr Vishwas Mehta told in an interview.
After the Non-Resident Keralites register themselves, the government would draw up a list on how to bring them back as per priority, he said.
The order, issued late on Tuesday, specifically mentions that the registration is for arranging quarantine facilities in the state for the NRKs, if necessary, and not for getting any priority in flight bookings.
As per the guidelines prepared by state government for the return of NRKs, they will have to get themselves tested from the country where they are before emplaning for Kerala and should also be having COVID-19 negative certificates.
Mehta, who is also the Additional Chief Secretary, said the government has drawn up a strategy to accommodate up to 10 lakh symptomatic people, including NRKs, for the purpose of quarantine if there was a huge surge. "Our strategy is NRKs should get themselves tested and come to the state with a COVID-19 negative certificate. Once they reach the state, they will be tested at the airports. If they are found symptomatic, they would be shifted to COVID care centres. Those without any symptoms will be sent home, but they will be under observation for 14 days", he said.
According to official estimates, there are least 33 lakh NRKs who are residing in various countries, including 22 lakh in the Gulf region, and the government is expecting around three to 5.5 lakh of them to come back within 30 days once the flight services are resumed.
There has been a huge demand from the Non Resident Keralites, settled in various parts of the globe, especially the Gulf, where lakhs of people from the state are employed, to return to the state due to the COVID-19 situation.
Those with expired visas, the elderly, pregnant women, children, critically ill patients, students who have completed their courses, and others are among the large number of people who are waiting to come back.
The government is expecting a huge influx of NRKs and also Malayalees from other states in the country to return once the lockdown, in force till May 3 now, is lifted and air services resume.
Kerala was the first state in the country to report COVID-19 cases when three students from Wuhan in China tested positive on their return home early this year.
The state did well in not only ensuring their recovery but also in containing the spread of the virus after more people who returned from affected countries like Italy and Gulf region before the lockdown testing positive for the deadly infection.
The treatment model adopted by Kerala has won global appreciation with some foreigners, who were treated here, saying the state was more safe.
Of the total 426 cumulative cases, there were only 117 active COVID-19 patients now under treatment with as many as 307 people having been discharged as of Tuesday. There were only two deaths due to the disease in the state.
But, the state is now keeping its fingers crossed as there had been a surge in COVID-19 cases in contrast to single digit cases for several days.
Of the 19 positive cases reported on Tuesday, as many as 13 had returned from abroad, three from Tamil Nadu, one from Uttar Pradesh and two had been infected through local transmission.
On quarantine facilities, Mehta said in the event of a surge in the coming months, the government has identified places like schools, hotels and resorts to accommodate at least 10 lakh people. "Around 27,000 institutions, including hotels, resorts, hostels, schools, lodges, stadiums and even auditoriums have been identified where we can accommodate around 10 lakh people, including NRKs. Space has been found. Stadiums and auditoriums will be used as a last resort," he said.
However, what is likely to give the government nightmares is keeping track of everyone reaching the state when inter- state train and bus services are resumed after lockdown. "For such people coming into the state in buses and trains only thermal screening can be done to a certain extent. We will have to draw up a strategy for them," the Home Secretary said.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has already written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to show 'special consideration" and arrange special flights to the Gulf for airlifting NRKs stranded there due to the lockdown.
The Centre has informed the Supreme Court and other high courts that as of now it has no plans to carry out evacuation of Indians stranded in different countries due to lockdown
Talking about hospital capacity, Mehta said about 1.4 lakh beds have been identified in government and private healthcare facilitates in the state. "When the number of patients multiply there are chances that the hospital system might collapse. Even the developed countries lack facilities to accommodate a huge surge in numbers," Mehta said.
The Public Works Department (PWD) has also begun the process of physical examination of the facilities identified to be used as COVID care centres, he said.
Kerala has four international airports at Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Kozhikode and Kannur which used to operate at least 92 flights in a day. Once the lockdown is lifted, the centre will decide on the number of flights to transport NRKs to the state. It is not only the Keralites residing abroad who are wanting to return, but also those in other states, including Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, which have witnessed high number of COVID-19 cases.
"We do not have the exact figures of Keralites in other states as of now. We cannot stop anyone from returning to their state", the official said.