Nepal’s ambassador to Oman Sharmila Parajuli Dhakal, “The workers were desperate to go home, and had been calling us, and we started exploring possible options. It was easy to get the government to approve the lower price because it was significantly cheaper, and would provide relief to returning workers.”
The embassy also arranged for PCR tests despite the short notice for the flights by coordinating with local authorities. Ambassador Dhakal said in the phone interview: “We first discussed the issue with the Oman Government, which recommended private hospitals. Despite the price, the workers were ready to pay because it would save them the hassle of being quarantined in Nepal.”
Embassy staff and local Nepali volunteers pitched in, and were reportedly delivering test results to passengers right before their flight boarded. The ambassador and her staff also went to the airport to see off the Nepalis. Says Dhakal: “The picture of the 169 Nepalis who are now with their families back home warms my heart.”
Ambassadors in the Gulf and Malaysia where most Nepali overseas workers are have been working in close coordination with various agencies of government in Kathmandu to coordinate the logistics of the airlift. The main issue has been the cost of ticket, and embassies like the one in Muscat have been given the leeway to negotiate cheaper fares with local airlines.
The other problem was the requirement for pre-boarding PCR tests which has been easy in some countries, and harder in others, like in the Maldives where the first lot of 720 stranded Nepali flew home on Tuesday.
Oman had the advantage that there are only 17,000 Nepali workers, of whom only around 1,500 have signed up to return. In comparison, there are between 250,000 and 400,000 Nepalis each in Malaysia, UAE and Qatar. In many of those countries laid off workers have to pay for their own tickets, and even have to absorb the cost of PCR tests.
The sheer scale of the problem has meant that many of the flights in the government’s repatriation schedule from Maldives, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, and likely Malaysia, have been put off because of inadequate preparation. The main issues are the ticket cost and tests.
In the Maldives, stranded Nepalis could not get tested in time before their flights and the Nepal Embassy in Colombo which is accredited also to the Maldives is allowing passengers to board with thermal screening and health certification, which has been the practice for the repatriation of Bangladeshi and Indian workers.
Govinda, a Nepali who took the Himalaya Airlines flight back from Malé via Colombo on Tuesday says: “We have all signed an agreement that we will stay in facility-based quarantine in three designated hotels in Kathmandu paying Rs 1,500-3,000 a night for 14 days. It will be expensive, but the flight was quickly booked.”
For other workers in Malaysia, the feasibility of the tests makes no difference given overpriced tickets. One worker, Ram says: “My name was first on the list of 1,000 priority passengers but I cannot afford the high fare so it makes no difference to me whether my name is in the list or not. I have only $70 what will I do with this money: eat, get tested or fly home?”
There are many like Ram who had signed up with embassies to go home, but are in two minds after seeing the fares. They are also worried about the rising numbers of cases in Nepal, media reports of the poor conditions of quarantine centres where they have to spend two weeks.
“My cousin who works as a nurse in Chitwan told me not to come home yet if I did not have to,” says Ramesh in the UAE, who has now decided not to go back to Nepal. “What if I get infrected on the plane or in the quarantine I will also be putting my family in danger.”