Indians Run for the Exits, Taking COVID Risks With Them to Nepal, Dubai From a Dying Nation

·4 min read
Navesh Chitrakar via Reuters
Navesh Chitrakar via Reuters

As India logs another 400,000 new infections in a 24-hour period, efforts to contain the worsening crisis have failed and now everyone from middle-class Indians to migrant workers are getting out as fast as they can.

Private jets, often used primarily by Bollywood glitterati and business moguls who left weeks ago, are now being booked by the middle class who are spending their life savings to save their lives.

JetSetGo CEO Kanika Tekriwal told CNBC’s Street Signs Asia that her company has seen a 900 percent increase in bookings, but it is not her usual clientele. “To say that only wealthy Indians are leaving India on private jets would be wrong,” Tekriwal said Thursday from her own safe haven in the Maldives. “In the last 10 days, what we have really seen is anyone who can put together the resources and the means to pool in money for a private jet, or to pool in money just to get out of the country, getting out.”

The most popular destinations are the Maldives, which fetches around $20,000 for an eight-seat jet with a pilot, and Dubai, which runs a whopping $31,ooo for a six-seater with a pilot to the United Arab Emirates. Both countries are among the last to allow Indian passengers to enter as long as they test negative for COVID-19 before departure—which, with odds at 2-1 they have the virus based on spiking contagion rates, is not a guarantee they will get to leave.

But it is those without life savings to spend who are spreading the deadly virus to neighboring countries. Thousands of migrant workers escaping the country have now turned neighboring Nepal into the next hell. Some experts predict that the situation could be even worse than in India and the country’s prime minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, much like India’s Narendra Modi, has been widely criticized for mishandling the pandemic response.

The capital city of Kathmandu is now under strict lockdown, but fears are growing that the border city of Nepalgunj, where thousands of migrant workers from India have returned, could explode with cases. That city has just a dozen intensive-care beds and because most of its medical supplies come from India, it could face shortages soon.

Nepal’s positivity rate is inching closer to 50 percent of all those tested, in what is starting to feel like déjà vu as the country tracks almost exactly the same trajectory India did two weeks ago. But because of an even more unprepared healthcare system—with 0.7 doctors per 100,000 people, fewer than almost anywhere in the world—many experts worry that Nepal’s crisis could be even deadlier than India’s. Nepal—one of the world’s poorest countries— has just 1,595 ICU beds and 480 ventilators for the entire population of 30 million, according to CNN.

“What is happening in India right now is a horrifying preview of Nepal’s future if we cannot contain this latest COVID surge that is now claiming more lives by the minute,” Netra Prasad Timsina, head of Nepal’s Red Cross, told CNN in a statement.

Also like India, the Nepalese government had allowed mass gatherings and resisted lockdowns, and was criticized for opening its side of Mount Everest to bring in tourists. Now there are reports of an outbreak at its base camp with several climbers posting on social media that they have tested positive despite the government’s denials. Pawel Michalski, a Polish climber, said in a Facebook post that 30 people had been evacuated from base camp after falling ill with the virus.

Many Nepali citizens, including its former king and queen, contracted the virus when they attended the Kumbh Mela religious festival, taking a dip in the Ganges alongside thousands of others. Nepal’s own religious festival was allowed to go forward in early April, despite an uptick in cases and the crisis in next-door India. Many blame the prime minister for appeasing voters’ wishes instead of protecting them.

Oli, as former U.S. President Donald Trump did when he suggested ingesting bleach, has offered a number of crackpot remedies, including gargling with guava leaves, which have led many citizens astray.

Meanwhile, back in India, the situation worsens with more new cases and grifters exploiting the situation. On Friday, police found another 100 oxygen concentrators in a raid on a restaurant and bar tied to black-market kingpin Navneet Kalra, who is on the lam. Police were tipped off after reports that people were seen lined up waiting outside the establishments and walking away with bags that did not seem to be filled with food.

Inside, police found boxes of other supplies in high demand, including N-95 masks that had been imported from China and sold at jacked-up prices in Delhi. Police have so far recovered more than 500 of the medical devices. The racket was being run through social media.

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