Ostracised: Air crew, returnees face flak, rumours but no empathy

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Air India - Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

New Delhi/Mumbai:  As fears of coronavirus spread grows, air crews are often faced with stigma and not salute for their contribution in rescuing Indians, mainly pilgrims or students, who were stranded abroad. It’s a phenomenon that often repeats across metros, when air crews, doctors and even journalists and their families face the ordeal of being ostracised on a daily basis. Lately, Air India and IndiGo’s air crew faced such situations, as many of them were asked by neighbours to vacate their homes, just out of fear that they might be asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus. This, even while many of them were on a self-imposed quarantine or are currently working as essential services providers.

The problem, says a senior Air India commander, who faced such a situation recently in one of the posh localities of South Delhi is “the lack of understanding and rumour mongering that is going on, especially on certain mobile-app based chat groups”.

“I was under a self-imposed quarantine, after completing a tour from Europe. Understandably, local administration placed a poster outside my house which mentions that the flat is under quarantine. Within a few hours pictures of that poster were all over many chat groups.”

“What’s worse is the fact that my family members weren’t even allowed to take our dog out for walks or the fact that daily supplies which are meant to be delivered at our door steps under the provisions of the quarantine rule was not facilitated by my neighbourhood association.”

This experience is of a senior commander who was instrumental in operating some of the last few flights to major European capitals to bring stranded Indians back home.

However, without holding any animosity, the Commander added: “At the end of the day, they are just people who are scared. After all this is over, I really wish they collectively realise that empathy is the real motivation that drives air crews to go for such rescue ops.”

Similarly, in Mumbai, a female air crew, who works for a foreign airline was not even allowed to use her residential building’s lift.

“People are just paranoid. My last tour was in February, I don’t have any symptoms and I have been medically checked. Yet they feel that somehow they will get the virus from me, if I use the lift or touch the staircase railings,” she told IANS.

At present, the air crew lives in a south Mumbai colony on the 12th floor.

Not just air crews, but even doctors and paramedics have also faced similar dilemmas, which they choose not to aggravate, as by law they are protected for providing essential services.

“A group compromising of my neighbours recently came to my house to know whether I have seen COVID-19 patients or not,” a general physician working for a private hospital in New Delhi told IANS.

“I see every patients who come to me, without discrimination of the disease, was my reply. When I informed that these patients are treated at government-run predesignated hospitals or facilities, they asked me to even take leave from work.”

“How can they expect us to be selfish and hide behind a veil. Coronavirus can spread, but we are experts in this field and we take the maximum number of precautions.”

Apart from these professionals, even foreign returns are looked at with suspicion. Interestingly, even domestic travellers face similar challenges.

A Central government employee based in Manipur, who had come to Delhi for a conference in early March said that after his return some colleagues and even neighbours shied away from him for more than a week, as the news of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 had surfaced in Delhi at that time.

Additionally, the Senior AI Commander said: “Our household help cannot work at another house. She cannot even venture out to the common areas of the locality. Now, that everyone is confined to their houses, I just hope they realise that there is a vast difference between self-imposed quarantine and a lockdown. I just hope they develop empathy.”

On the flip side, the plight of these professionals has not gone unnoticed, as even the Prime Minister has lauded their efforts.

Besides, their companies have stood solidly behind them.

Last week, Air India said that its crew who have been successfully evacuating stranded Indians in several coronavirus-hit countries are being ostracised by vigilante groups, including their neighbours and Resident Welfare Associations (RWA).

Further, national carrier appealed to the law enforcement agencies that its crew members were treated with respect as every other citizen.

It said that the airline has taken every precaution to ensure the safety of its crew and protect their well being for each and every flight.

A senior AI executive looking after operations said: “All precautionary procedures under the supervision of doctors were taken even before the first flight even took-off to rescue people from Wuhan or Europe.”

On its part, budget airline IndiGo said that there have been cases of its employees facing the same situation due to their duty and travel history.

The airline sought support of the public towards its operating staff during such a difficult time.

It noted that IndiGo employees are supporting passengers who have to travel during these days and the airline has taken every possible precaution for their crew members’ protection from infection during their duties.

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