Breakthrough on evacuation flight for stranded Indian community

Dispute over PPE requirement scuppered original plan

An Air India Express flight crew demonstrates the PPE requirements of the Indian government. British Airways was among a number of airlines unwilling to comply. - Photo: Air India Express

The Governor’s Office believes it has made a breakthrough that could allow hundreds of stranded Indian nationals to return to their home country in early July.

Plans for an evacuation flight were put on hold amid an impasse between British Airways and the Indian government over stringent requirements for personal protective equipment for all flight crews coming into the country.

The operating procedures required by Indian authorities go beyond masks and gloves and include full hazmat suits and face shields.

British Airways is among a number of airlines which have said they are not willing to comply with those conditions and it had seemed a repatriation flight for Cayman’s out-of-work Indian community would not be possible.

But Matthew Forbes, head of the Governor’s Office, told the Cayman Compass this morning (Tuesday) that they are now hopeful that the group could travel to London on the next airbridge and link up with a different airline for the second leg of the journey.

He said switching airlines in London was not a simple process because of visa requirements, but a provisional agreement is now in place with one of BA’s partner airlines to make that happen.

“We have an agreement in place and we believe we can put a flight on the first week of July,” Forbes said.

Stranded without pay

Indian nationals make up the fourth-largest group of foreign workers in the Cayman Islands, after Jamaican, Filipino and British residents.

The number of Indians on work permits was 1,301 at the end of 2018, the most recent statistic available.

While many work in the healthcare industry and continue to have steady employment, several hundred have lost jobs in the hospitality sector.

Melvin Thomas, who worked in retail before the COVID-19 lockdown, has been without income for several months and is desperate to return home.

He shares an apartment with three other friends.

Thomas has a little savings to cover his share of the rent and money stored up for his flight.

Melvin Thomas is hoping to return home to India.

But he relies on his flatmates to help with food and is concerned that if he stays in Cayman for too much longer, his funds will run out.

“I don’t want to ask for help,” he said. “I was always the one who helped my family and sent money home. This situation is very sad.”

One of his flatmates, Sumit Kumar Roy, also lost his job in hospitality because of the crisis.

Roy is concerned about returning to his home city of Delhi where the coronavirus is rampant, but says he needs to get back to his family, including his 4-year-old daughter.

“For three months I am jobless,” he said. “We are waiting on the Indian government to do something to get us home. I had some savings but it is almost finished.”

Roy said he believes Cayman is quite safe from a COVID-19 point of view and he hopes an agreement can be reached to get him and other members of the Indian community home.

Life has changed dramatically over the past months for the two friends.

“We used to have a beautiful life. We were so happy – beautiful island, beautiful people,” said Thomas, “but on this island we cannot live without money. Everyone knows this.”

The friends live off porridge, lentils and rice. They are used to heavy work schedules so the downtime feels unnatural.

They don’t have a television but follow the government press briefings on their cellphones, hoping for an update on repatriation flights.

Indian flight protocols

Prahit Misra, of the High Commission of India in Jamaica, was quoted in the Indian media over the weekend highlighting BA’s unwillingness to comply with protocols over personal protective equipment as the reason for the original repatriation flight plan being put on hold.

“We were on board but the Cayman government was very categorical that the cabin crew of British Airways would not wear PPE kits, a safety protocol of the Indian government that is compulsory for all private flights to follow,” he said.

“We tried to convince them that all repatriation flights from different countries are following this protocol and it cannot be exempted in view of passenger safety and [the] order of [the] Indian court to follow all safety protocols.”

While British Airways has also come under fire in the British media over PPE and social distancing on board its flights, it is understood that the airline was willing to put safety measures in place.

But the Indian protocols go far beyond what most countries are requiring.

Some of the PPE requirements of the Indian government go beyond what some airlines are willing to accept. – Photo: Air India Express

In response to questions from the Compass on Sunday, Governor Martyn Roper issued a statement indicating that his office had been working with the airline and the Indian High Commission in Jamaica to facilitate flights for Cayman’s Indian nationals.

“We are extremely grateful for all the assistance and flexibility that has been shown by British Airways with planning for the India flights and for the other repatriation flights that they have already operated for the Cayman Islands Government to the UK and the Philippines,” he said.

Cayman Islands Governor Martyn Roper

Roper indicated that there were multiple airlines currently unable to fly into India because of the protocols required.

The Indian Standard Operating Procedures include a requirement for all cabin crew to wear surgical masks, goggles, face shields and protective gowns for the duration of the flight.

On their arrival in India, passengers are required to quarantine for 14 days.

Indian community face tough future

Indians living in Cayman say they are aware that life in India will be just as difficult from a job perspective, and more dangerous from a health perspective, than Cayman.

“When we get to India, there is going to be no jobs, no insurance, and I am going to have to take care of my parents, my family,” said Thomas.

If they could have returned two months ago, they might have had enough savings to help them manage for a year without work in India.

“In India, we can survive for a month on 10,000 rupees (CI$107), but here we need 80,000 or 90,000 (CI$860 to CI$965),” said Roy.

As time has passed, the savings have dwindled and most now have just enough money for a few basic necessities and a flight home – so long as it comes soon.

“We would rather go and be with our family than stay here and be starving,” said Thomas.

Hundreds of other Indians are in the same position.

Rahul Manoharan, who has acted as an unofficial spokesperson for some of the Indian community, said many were dismayed to learn that the original flight plan had to be postponed.

But he is hopeful that something can be done.

“There is a lot of people really suffering because they have not been paid for two or three months,” he said.

“There are lots of people with kids that they provide for and they need to get home.”

Jijesh Ponhanalil, who works at The Ritz-Carlton hotel, considers himself one of the lucky ones. The hotel is giving relief pay to its employees, provides two meals a day, and has offered to cover the cost of a flight home.

“It is enough for me to live, but I don’t know how long it is going to be,” he said.

Like many in the Indian community, he is eagerly awaiting confirmation that a repatriation flight can be organised.

“I am watching the press conference every day looking for information on the flight home,” he said.

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