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Indian ministry website crashes in repatriation ‘panic’ amid coronavirus pandemic

A member of medical staff wearing a facemask checks the body temperature of travelers arriving from Nepal at the India-Nepal border at Panitanki check point, March 14, 2020. (Photo by AFP)
The Indian civil aviation ministry’s website crashed on Wednesday as panicked citizens abroad rushed to register for a mass repatriation of almost 15,000 nationals from 12 countries on planes and naval ships.

India banned all incoming international flights in late March as it imposed one of the world's strictest virus lockdowns, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers and students stranded abroad.

Two ships were steaming towards the Maldives to evacuate some 1,000 Indian citizens from Friday while another was headed for the Persian Gulf, according to the navy and the defense ministry.

The first of 64 flights over the next week were due to leave the United Arab Emirates -- home to more than three million Indians -- and Qatar on Thursday bound for the southern state of Kerala.

In total 26 flights will bring Indians home from the Persian Gulf region, while others will operate from Southeast Asia, Britain and the United States, including in San Francisco and Washington.

Indian media quoted civil aviation minister Hardeep Puri as saying that 200,000 Indians abroad had registered for repatriation and that the final number could be twice that.

His ministry blamed the crashing of its website on "unprecedented traffic" and urged people to check the website of Air India, which is operating the flights, for details.

Kerala is the biggest source of Indians in the Persian Gulf region.

OV Mustafa, the director of Norka Roots, a government welfare body for non-resident Keralites, told AFP that the people were "desperate" and in a "panic".

"There are about 200,000 people who have registered to go to Kerala from the UAE alone," he said. "People are worried about the lack of clarity on the testing procedure. Especially pregnant women. They're absolutely worried that people, even if they are asymptomatic, might be carriers. It's a real fear."
Pakistan concerned at workers returning from UAE with coronavirus

Pakistan has raised concerns with the United Arab Emirates that many citizens have been returning home from the Persian Gulf state infected with COVID-19 and that crowded living conditions for workers in the UAE may be helping to spread the virus, officials said on Tuesday.

"Both (governments) are working together to find (an) optimal solution to this shared concern," foreign ministry spokeswoman Aisha Farooqi told Reuters in a WhatsApp message.

A UAE foreign ministry official later said the government "completely rejects this version of events".

"Everyone on UAE repatriation flights has been tested before departure and those found to be infected were not allowed to travel," Assistant Undersecretary for Consular Affairs Khalid al-Mazrouei told Reuters.

The official did not address Islamabad's concerns about living conditions.

Moeed Yusuf, Special Assistant to Pakistan's Prime Minister on National Security, said the number of people returning from the UAE and testing positive was "higher than we were hoping".

On most flights, about 12 percent were testing positive but on a couple of flights that number rose to between 40 and 50 percent.

"The hypothesis is that a lot of the labourers live in crowded dormitories and in those, essentially, it's easier to infect each other," he told Reuters.

The UAE is home to approximately 1.5 million Pakistanis, many of whom are low-wage workers living in crowded housing and are now out of work and stranded due to the coronavirus crisis.
Repatriation flights began last month after tens of thousands of Pakistanis in the UAE asked their government to fly them home. The UAE had also warned it could review labour ties with countries refusing to take back its nationals.

About 60,000 Pakistanis have so far registered to return from the UAE, according to Pakistan's consulate in Dubai.

Pakistani media reports said on Wednesday that at least 180 passengers were among 209 nationals who were brought home on an Etihad Airways flight from Abu Dhabi on April 28, tested positive for the virus.

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