The roughly 25 lakh Indians in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — and around 20 lakh working under sponsorships of Indian owners or are managed by other Indian nationals — are reportedly stranded in a no-longer friendly territory, as the government of the country has given them the option of closing their businesses and other work for the time being and leave or stay in their labour camps. Some of these Indians and those in other countries in the Middle East (West Asia), mostly Muslims, called Sirf News to narrate their stories of woe.
While the Indian companies are not at all willing to get into a lockdown, India has closed its airports until 31 March too and, so, these workers cannot return. Before the lockdown, the maximum number of coronavirus disease (COVID) patients have travelled via Dubai or from Dubai to India.
If the COVID-19 spreads among Indian workers or the Indian community, the existing medical facilities in the Gulf region will prove inadequate to serve the patients. There are, on an average, 5,000 Indian inmates in every labour camp. They cannot travel back to India as there are no flights back home.
Besides, a lot of industries in the Middle East are of the nature that they cannot offer the workforce the choice of working from home.
‘Neither these foreign countries nor India can save this Indian labour force’
Dubai is turning out to be a transit point for COVID as the airport here is also a favoured halt in the break-journey of travellers in the region. Among these travellers, Iranians are the most potent carriers of the disease as COVID has turned into a pandemic in their country.
In the unfortunate case of an outbreak in Indian labour camps, the inmates do not even have masks and other protective gears.
This month, the UAE administration turned an Indian billionaire-established hospital wholly into an isolation camp. There are other health facilities in the country, but they do not admit Indian labourers.
“Can you imagine what will happen if 1,000 odd Indian labourers contract coronavirus?” a dismayed caller said, adding, “The Dubai airport is closed and the Indian airports are closed for 15 days too. You cannot keep them here, and you cannot send them back to India to put other Indian people at risk.”
Indian labour force in ME makes Kerala in India vulnerable
The situation also makes Kerala the most vulnerable part of India as a large part of the local workforce is employed in the Middle East in general and the UAE in particular.
Recently, a patient, who is allegedly a smuggler, travelled to Dubai 28 times in two months. He is not disclosing his itinerary in India and now he is playing tantrums in hospitals too, alleged a caller. The News Minute reports: “The man reached the airport from Dubai on the Air India Express flight IX 344 on March 11. Since he is a person in the list of suspected gold carriers, his passport was confiscated by the Customs Department officials at the airport’s first checking counter where hand luggage is checked.”
Manorama reported that about 3,000 people are likely to have come in contact with this COVID-19 patient in Kasaragod. He travelled also to Kannur — where he attended a funeral in Thaliparambu — and Kozhikode.
The alleged smuggler had donated blood in Mangaluru. He is currently housed at the isolation ward of the Kozhikode General Hospital.
The Kerala health department has been able to identify just 20 of all the contacts of the alleged smuggler.
A community that is a ticking timebomb
Some of these workers, stuck like bonded labourers and treated like slaves even by Indian owners, called up and said that the Muslims in the workforce themselves face a graver threat and also pose a greater degree of risk to others. This is because the mosques are guarded but the guards mingle with the visitors, they explained.
Every mosque has a guard since the Sunni-Shi’ah strife in the UAE some years ago.
Further, the callers said, the carpets used in the mosques in the UAE and Saudi Arabia can transmit the virus if those offering salah (namāz) may include carriers of COVID-19. The situation is aggravated by the fact that Muslims live with other members of the community where peer pressure forces them to a show of religiosity. “A Muslim who hardly attends namāz at home makes it a point to religiously participate in all the five prayers at a local mosque on any given day,” a caller said.
Seeing the possibility of an unstoppable pandemic, the rulers of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have ordered a shutdown of all mosques in these countries for four weeks. A lesson for India?