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Business News/ News / India/  An inside look at functioning of the Indian foreign ministry’s Covid-19 Cell

An inside look at functioning of the Indian foreign ministry’s Covid-19 Cell

The officials in-charge have helped stranded Indians abroad desperate to get back home, foreigners stuck in India
  • The emphasis has been to give a more humane face to the government and MEA has been key to the changeover
  • Photo: HTPremium
    Photo: HT

    NEW DELHI: “Hello … I am calling from xxx. I have stomach pain. Is that a symptom of covid-19? What should I do?"

    This is a sample of a call – one of more than 3,300 fielded by the control room established by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), as part of its “COVID Cell." The call from an Indian national abroad was received by a 26-year-old probationer of the 2019 Indian Foreign Service (IFS) batch with an engineering background and the advice was not to worry, given that stomach pain is not a symptom of covid-19 that has sickened almost a million people and claimed more than 53,000 lives since it surfaced in China in December.

    In many ways since it was set up on 16 March, the MEA control room has been the human interface between the MEA and stranded Indians abroad desperate to get back home, foreigners stuck in India besides worried parents. Operating out of the “Situation Room" in South Block, the control room is equipped with computers and phone lines. With India prioritizing evacuations from covid-19 hotspots and that too of those free from infection while advising others to stay put where they are, the control room was inundated by calls. From a peak of about 800 a day, they have now tapered down to 400-500 calls a day.

    Requests and complaints are immediately routed to Indian missions abroad or concerned ministries or state governments in India as the case may be. Callers are updated with information from the latest advisories, whether on travel or health.

    Foreigners stuck in India are put in touch with their embassies in New Delhi. At times counseling and handholding the distressed too have been done, said one senior official manning the control room. Coincidentally, there are five officers with a medical background among the 75 manning the “COVID Cell." So spot emergency medical advice is also given," the official cited above said.

    This is a far cry from the days Indian diplomats were seen as distant, dealing mainly with matters of state in the corridors of power. Since the Modi government took office in 2014, the emphasis has been to give a more humane face to the government and one of the ministries to effect the changeover has been the MEA.

    With covid-19 spreading across the world, and recognising the need for inter-ministerial coordination, the MEA appointed a senior officer of the 1989 batch Dammu Ravi as the coordinator of the ministry’s “COVID Cell" on 11 March. Helping him are seven officers of the rank of director and deputy secretary whose tasks include coordinating evacuations of Indians abroad, helping foreign tourists stranded in India and even giving inputs to the additional solicitor general of India on public interest litigation matters in court. So far, more than 2,500 Indians including about 100 foreigners have been evacuated by India from various covid-19 hotspots while almost 10,000 foreign nationals have been sent home.

    The structure of the control room, which is also under Ravi, has eight joint secretaries at the top. These include those heading European divisions, the Americas, Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Gulf besides Africa. They are supported by IFS probationers who answer calls, emails and requests that come via Twitter. Though their average age is 25-30 years, “they are the pillar of the control room. They are doing a very good job," the official cited above said.

    “There was a case of a foreign tourist from Columbia last week, who was with a small child," recalled one of the officials Mint spoke to. “The tourist told us that they had run out of money and food. This person was in Rajasthan so we contacted the district authorities there and food and essentials were sent over within half an hour," this official said. “We also get requests from foreign nationals who say they are stuck due to states not allowing movement of people. So we coordinate with state governments to facilitate their movement," this official added.

    “Some of the queries that I have attended to have been from students in Kazakhstan," said one IFS probationer Mint spoke to. “We connected them to the Indian embassy in Almaty who in turn helped get them accommodation in local hostels. One of the queries from parents was: what if my son or daughter falls sick? We were able to convey this to the Indian embassy which got an assurance from the local government that if any Indian student falls ill, he or she will be treated at par with locals in hospitals," the trainee officer said. “This calmed the parents," he said.

    A second trainee officer recalled that he had recently received a call from an Indian national whose father had died. “There was nothing I could do since there are no incoming flights. I had to convey the message gently but firmly. We have clear instructions not to give false hopes," he said. “This has been ‘a learning on the job’ experience for us – to understand the contents of advisories, convey the information correctly to people, coordinate with state and central ministries," he added.

    Drawing up a daily situation report on covid-19 around the world, providing analyses on global trends and giving inputs on “best practices" from various countries tackling the epidemic, besides managing a list of key points of contacts in missions abroad, foreign missions in New Delhi, nodal points of contact in state governments and other ministries is part of the cell’s mandate.

    Procuring medical supplies and essential equipment from personal protection equipment to ventilators is also the remit of the “COVID Cell." India is currently in touch with Belgium, China, South Korea and Japan and Singapore to get these, the second person cited above said. Possible collaboration with countries on vaccines and diagnostics is also being explored by the cell.

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    Published: 03 Apr 2020, 08:10 AM IST
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