By Aleksandra Bliszczyk
The Federal Government’s ban on passenger flights from India due to its devasting second COVID-19 wave has affected thousands of Mitchell Shire and City of Whittlesea residents.
More than 9000 Australian citizens in India have registered their need to come home with the Department of Foreign Affairs, with more than 900 considered to be in a vulnerable condition, while the country of 1.3 billion people faces the outbreak.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Friday the two-week ban, due to end on Saturday, would not be extended, and six repatriation flights will bring the ‘most urgent of cases’ home from India by the end of the month.
Member for McEwen Rob Mitchell’s office has been inundated with ‘hundreds’ of calls and emails from residents asking for help since the border closed, effective immediately, on April 27.
“We’ve been getting heaps and the absolutely 100 per cent consensus is that this is discriminatory, and it’s concerning,” Mr Mitchell said.
“Sadly, what the perception is that people are just going on holiday, and they’re not.
“There’s people we’ve dealt with who’ve had their parent die in India, and they get over there but they can’t get back and they’ve got families at home, they’ve got kids, a mortgage, they’re not working, they’re not getting paid, so they’re getting the extra stress of, ‘am I going to be able to keep my house?’”
City of Whittlesea chair administrator Lydia Wilson said council were liaising with agencies to determine what assistance it could provide to the 11,000 Indian-born residents of the municipality and their families abroad.
“Our thoughts go out to the people of India and, of course to their many relatives and friends in other countries of the world including here in Whittlesea where we have a very significant Indian population,” she said.
As of Monday May 10, India had recorded 409,300 new cases in the previous 24-hour period, and a pandemic total of 246,000 deaths.
But with low testing rates, experts suggest the real numbers could be 10 times higher.
Indian hospitals are overwhelmed and turning sick people away, with the country’s oxygen supplies low.
Wallan resident Tanveer Bedi has lived in Australia for 16 years, but most of his and his wife’s families live in Punjab in India’s north-west.
They were planning his wife’s first trip to India in five years in early 2020 when the pandemic forced a cancellation.
Now they don’t know how long it will be before they can see their families, which he said was ‘really, really hard’ for his wife.
While Mr Bedi said his relatives were mostly safe because they were able to stay home, unlike the millions of Indians who don’t have a home or a safe place to isolate, many of his friends in the Mitchell and Whittlesea municipalities were in more difficult positions.
“I know a lot of families who have been affected,” he said.
“I know a person whose whole family, mother, father and brother, have died from COVID. He can’t even go to look after the properties that are there.”
“Given the circumstances they can’t even travel to say goodbye to their parents, which is really disappointing.”
The government made global headlines when it announced Australians attempting to return home during the ban would face a maximum penalty of $66,000 and five years jail time, a threat Mr Morrison later walked back, saying such penalties were ‘highly unlikely’.
The UN Human Rights Commission said last week it had ‘serious concerns’ about whether the consequences were in line with Australia’s human rights obligations.
Mr Bedi said the ban made him feel abandoned by his own country.
“Already it’s pretty devastating and you feel like you’re getting singled out,” he said.
“Even if we have citizenship we’re still treated as second class.”
Mr Morrison has denied accusations the government was driven by racism, saying the ban was motivated only by health and safety concerns.
But Mr Mitchell questioned why India had been targeted.
“We’ve allowed people to come in from the States, we’ve allowed people to come in from England, but India they’ve said no,” Mr Mitchell said.
As a Sikh man, Mr Bedi said he worried the discrimination already levelled at men who wear turbans would escalate.
“Turbans have been a major issue,” he said, recounting stories of discrimination towards Indian taxi drivers during the pandemic.
“Something like this coming from the leader of the country, obviously I think in my opinion people are going to treat us more badly.”
A list of local support services and charities accepting donations for relief in India can be found here: https://bit.ly/3eXvHq6