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Travelling hasn't been easy since the Coronavirus pandemic began in 2020 — both domestic and international. The travel guidelines keep changing, and it turns out, airports across the country haven't quite been able to adhere to those guidelines.
With the spike of Omicron cases, the new variant of Covid-19 — India revised its guidelines for international travellers on November 26.
The government announced that travellers from 'countries at-risk' will need to take Covid-19 test post-arrival and wait for results at airport. If the test is negative, they'll follow home quarantine for 7 days, re-test on the 8th day and if negative again, further self-monitor for the next 7 days. The list of 'at-risk' countries includes UK, Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, Israel, Singapore and European countries.
The guidelines also said that travellers from countries excluding those 'countries at risk' will be allowed to leave the airport and shall self-monitor health for 14 days.
But are the guidelines being actually followed at the airports?
BOOM spoke to international travellers, all of them fully vaccinated, who flew into India to get an insight on how these regulations are playing out at Indian airports.
What Happens To Travellers From At-Risk Countries?
Pawan Joshi, an IT professional based in London, travelled to India on December 19 this year for the first time since the pandemic began. While he kept himself updated about all the new travel guidelines, he knew that changes in travel regulations could disrupt his plans at any moment. Besides, he was travelling with a toddler.
"We were to land in Mumbai. A few days ahead of our travel, Maharashtra imposed a week-long institutional quarantine for travellers from at-risk countries. Ours was a 15-day holiday and we nearly cancelled our trip," he said adding that he went ahead with his trip to India after the Centre's move to scrap institutional quarantine.
Joshi also made sure to book flexible tickets if there were more last-minute changes. He tried to pre-book on-arrival RT-PCR tests but failed to do so.
"The portal that the Air Suvidha website directed me to didn't accept international cards. I could pay (Rs 1,975 per test) with my UK credit card at the airport though," he said. Joshi, with his wife and four-year-old, eventually landed at Mumbai airport, only to discover that those who had pre-booked tests and those who hadn't were all huddled in the same queue.
He said that the five dedicated counters by private testing labs at the airport are placed 'inconveniently', resulting in a single long snaking queue of people where norms like social distancing go for a toss.
Joshi along with his family gave their samples for testing, cleared immigration, waited another half an hour before collecting their test reports. "The entire process took about 1.5 hours. We left the airport at 6 am and were advised to go under home quarantine for seven days," he said. However, none of them was stamped.
Almost a week before Joshi's arrival in India, a Dublin-based sales professional landed at Bengaluru international airport on December 12. Joanna (name changed) faced a similar ordeal of chaotic queues and no compliance to norms like social distancing and masking.
"I was disappointed when I reached India. I had been under isolation in Dublin to ensure safe travel and it all went down the drain when I landed in Bangalore," she said.
She had pre-booked an RT-PCR test, but everyone was queued up in the same line irrespective of the fact if they had pre-booked a test or not. "There was a long queue with no social distancing. People from at-risk countries and others were put in the same place. It felt very unsafe."
What Happens To Travellers From Other Countries?
Manikandan Saravanan, who arrived at Chennai International Airport from Seattle (USA), on December 7, was harrowed by the lack of social distancing. "Only half the immigration counters were manned. There was no social distancing whatsoever and some of the airport employees and customs officers didn't even wear masks," he said.
"After I cleared customs, someone who looked like an airport employee asked if I came on the British Airways flight. I answered yes and they directed me to the on-arrival testing area. But people who answered no were simply allowed to leave without any verification," he added.
Most travellers who arrived from countries that do not fall in the at-risk list, who BOOM spoke to, reported quicker and smoother exits.
Aditya Ramji, a PhD student at UC Davis, flew from San Francisco to New Delhi on December 9. "I was out of the airport in about an hour. The process on-arrival was fairly simple and seamless," he said. However, Ramji added that social distancing norms were mostly flouted at the airport.
Passengers from low-risk countries and those with reciprocal arrangements with India are exempted from an on-arrival RT-PCR test and mandatory quarantine. They are required to fill in a form on the Air Suvidha website declaring their travel history and upload a pre-departure RT-PCR report and vaccination certificate.
Gayathri Shyam, a special educator, who travelled from Sharjah to Mumbai on December 9, claims she was out of the airport in no more than 35 minutes.
"They only asked us where we were travelling from and looked at our Air Suvidha forms which had all the details. The documents were checked both at the exit and right after immigration," she said. She and her two children, aged seven and 11 were carrying pre-departure RT-PCR test reports.
To RT-PCR Test Or Not? Confusion Over Changing Rules
For most travellers, especially Indians returning home amid the threat of a rapidly spreading new variant, keeping up with changing national and state regulations has been daunting.
"A couple of hours prior to my flight, the UK made it mandatory for travellers, including transit passengers, to carry an RT-PCR test report even if they are vaccinated. Previously, vaccinated travellers were exempted. However, this didn't affect me since I anyway needed the test to travel to India and the rule was only supposed to go into effect three days later," Saravanan said adding that this was in stark contrast to how India announced its mandatory testing on December 1.
"It went into effect the same day when multiple India-bound planes were already in the skies."
While Joshi's trip remained uncertain till the very last minute, he also received contradictory information from staff on board the flight. "I was travelling by Air India and before landing the staff announced that those who had received their second vaccination dose in the last 15 days didn't need to carry a negative RT-PCR report. Most people, including me, had received booster doses too and yet, as per the DGCA website, had to carry an RT-PCR report," he said.
If uncertainties about international guidelines weren't enough, airlines keep making modifications to their flights, sometimes even cancelling them. "I tried booking my ticket thrice to India. One got cancelled and the other didn't accommodate me citing India's rule of 50 per cent occupancy. And each time, the flights got more expensive," Joana said.
She and most other passengers were advised to download the Arogya Setu app, by the crew on board. Except, Arogya Setu requires one to have an Indian number for registration.
When Aditya Ramji brought this up with the staff at Delhi airport, he was told that exceptions are made in such cases. The travellers however reported that despite the in-flight advice their phones were not checked for the app upon landing at the airport.
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