COVID-19: Maldivians stuck in Punjab under immense fear

Neighbouring country India, where several Maldivians reside and frequently travel to, has initiated a strict lockdown to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic. Based on the statistics issued by the Indian government and the forecasts made by health experts, the rate of contagion in India shows no signs of slowing, and is expected to significantly increase in the upcoming days. The Indian government has now extended its lockdown period.

Maldivian nationals in Punjab state of India are distressed and living in fear due to India's current state. Around 35 Maldivians currently reside in the state. This includes 8 students enrolled at Lovely Professional University (LPU) on government scholarships, 11 police officers officers enrolled at the same university on police scholarships and their families. Almost all Maldivian nationals in Punjab reside in the small town of Phagwara in private residences off campus.

The health care facilities available in Punjab state are subpar, and only two hospitals have the capacity to test for COVID-19. However, the services offered at these two hospitals are very poor. The closest health facility providing adequate services is an hour’s ride away, in the neighboring city of Jalandhar. However, due to the current restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, making the trip to Jalandhar has also become a challenge.

A Maldivian national in Punjab told AVAS that the unavailability of adequate health facilities is a fundamental concern. While there are people of different ages among the small Maldivian community in Punjab, this includes a pregnant woman nearing her third trimester, a nursing mother who recently gave birth to twins via c-section, a handful of children and some elderly people. The medicines required for them are hard to obtain due to the closure of pharmacies and hospitals. The supplies needed for the children are unavailable, she said.

She further said although a lockdown is in place in Punjab, the residents of the city do not pay heed to the restrictions and continue to mingle without worry. Before the lockdown was imposed, a person in Phagwara tested positive for COVID-19. Several people who had come in contact with the person were quarantined as he had not practiced social distancing, said the student.

According to statistics, over 170 people in Punjab state have been infected with COVID-19 thus far. Over 5000 people have been quarantined in the city due to developing symptoms, and because of contact with positive cases.

Experts believe the largest number of COVID-19 cases will emerge in Punjab city in the upcoming days. A student at LPU where the Maldivian students are enrolled recently tested positive for the virus. The university is now on lockdown. However, no Maldivian students live at the university's hostel. 

LPU has closed its doors until next July due to the worsening situation in Punjab. Therefore, there is no essential need for Maldivian students to remain in the city at this time. While the issues the Maldivians in Punjab are experiencing are due to the rurality of the town they live in, it is a majorly vegetarian state that thrive on vegetables. Chicken is available only through one vendor supplying Halal chicken. Availability of fish is non-existent. While fish is a major part of the Maldivian diet, and with the Holy month of Ramadan looming closer, food scarcity has also become a concern.

The students in Punjab are also mentally affected due to the situation in India, said another student. While some are worrying about the soaring numbers of positive cases, struggling students on scholarships and loans are at a loss on how to manage their finances. Some are anxious that they will be forced to defer their semesters. While only two supermarkets are delivering goods, the limited amount of items available are sold at heavily inflated prices. With talks of petrol sheds closing down, there is no guarantee that delivery services will be available in the upcoming days. If that is the case, they will starve.

Before the country went into lockdown, the concerns of the Maldivians in Punjab were shared with the Maldivian Embassy in New Delhi. However, the students did not receive any response to their long email, they said. After lockdown was initiated, a focal point was assigned by the Embassy. However, the Embassy has not once checked up on the students on their own initiative, the students said.

The students in Punjab said they requested the Embassy to repatriate them back to Maldives before the situation in India worsened. While Punjab city has now extended the lockdown until May 1 and because their health and safety are compromised, the students are still pleading with the Embassy to make arrangements to either repatriate them or relocate them to a more safe and convenient location. However, no response to the request has been received until now, they said.

The helpless students said no government bodies truly understand their current predicament. Their concerns have now been shared with the Acting Commissioner of the Maldives Embassy, the President's Office as well as the Higher Education Ministry.

"We understand that the embassy is doing everything they can but it is the lack of information and its asymmetry that bother us the most. All we do is worry. College is closed and we are all mentally drained. No one simply can understand our predicament. Not unless they have first-hand experience. All we know is the government is simply not doing enough. As far as we know, there are no restrictions on state crossings. Maldives and India share a close relationship. Why are we still stuck in this situation?", an exasperated student questioned.

The government has arranged repatriation flights to India's Cochin and Trivandrum. No flights have been arranged to New Delhi due to restrictions, the government has said.

The Maldivian students in Punjab are still waiting, still hoping for a favourable response from the government. All they want is an out, or at least the comfort of knowing that the government is looking out for them, and has their welfare in mind.