India had to work with China officials, map out all Indians in province and arrange transport till airport
India evacuated 654 individuals – 647 Indians and 7 Maldivians on 2 Air India flights from Wuhan, ground zero of coronavirus outbreak. The operation marked the culmination of a complex 96-hour action by India that involved engaging with Beijing at multiple levels. Apart from the health risks, logistics challenges and diplomatic sensitivity were also there for India. Know the whole story of how India evacuated 647 Indians from Wuhan, China due to coronavirus outbreak.
The Indian embassy in Beijing took the first note of the coronavirus outbreak around January 2-3. However, it became the national news in Chinese Media on January 20. With 571 cases and 17 deaths by January 22 and concerns of Indians getting affected in Hubei province, Vikram Misri, India’s ambassador to China, told his team “Let’s start preparing”.
Locating the Indians in Hubei province
The biggest challenge for India was to establish how many Indians are there in Hubei – and where are they located. About 50 million people live in the province, and Indians in China are not required to register with the embassy.
To locate all the Indians, helpline numbers were announced on that day on Socia media. Wechat is a popular Chinese messaging software that people commonly use in china. The embassy ensured in a WeChat group that the “help was on the way”.
By January 26, confirmed cases had crossed 2,000 across the world and the situation was going out of control. After several rounds of consultations in the embassy and in New Delhi, the decision to evacuate was taken.
By this time, the control room in the embassy had gathered enough data to plot the location of Indians in Hubei on a map. It was found that about 750 Indians live in that area. Half of them lived in Wuhan and its outskirts and rest deeper inside the Hubei province, around 450-500 km from the Wuhan airport.
Getting to airport was a challenge
The coronavirus affected area was under lockdown, with severe restrictions on the movement of vehicles and people. Not free to move, evacuees could not assemble at a particular point in Wuhan city, or reach the airport on their own. The Indian embassy tapped contacts in private transportations companies, who said they needed special permission to transport these Indians to the airport from various parts of the province.
Working with China to evacuate Indians from Wuhan
Chinese authorities initially were not inclined to allow the evacuation of Indians. On January 28, Chinese authorities signalled that the situation was under control and there is no need to evacuate. Back in India, Vijay Gokhale, outgoing Foreign Secretary and his successor Harsh Vardhan Shringla were working with the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Air India along with agencies like the Army on the logistics and the Bureau of Immigration. Air India was informed to stand by with two aircraft, with the crew and a team of doctors ready to fly anytime.
On the morning of January 29, the same day Shringla took charge, the Chinese government gave “in-principle” approval for the evacuation. But, it was important that the approvals were conveyed to all concerned authorities.
An airlift in two batches was agreed by both the Chinese and Indian government but China said that anyone who showed symptoms of fever would not be allowed to leave. Indians who lived and worked in Wuhan city were to be picked first. Around 18-20 vehicles were sent to pick up people from 40 locations and bring them to Wuhan airport.
Local Chinese staff were asked to help Indian colleagues in the control room at the embassy. Around 40 Indian diplomats and Chinese staffers worked non-stop for 96 hours.
Final call to evacuate
The formal approval for the first airlift came on January 31 at 3:30 pm. The Air India flight landed in Wuhan at 8 pm. S Jaishankar, India’s External Affairs Minister, thanked the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for the approvals. The first flight with 324 Indian passengers left Wuhan on February 1 at 4 am.
12 vehicles picked up the second batch from 15 locations from the province, including several far-flung places. The second flight was formally approved at noon on February 1. The plane landed at 8 in the evening and took off with 323 Indians and 7 Maldivians at 6 am on February 2.
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