New Delhi: Indians are up against a bleak scenario amid an onslaught of the Covid-19 wave, dealing with challenges in accessing oxygen, ICU beds and medicines. But it’s not just citizens who are distressed. The diplomatic community in India is also going through the same ordeal and their situation can “explode” any moment, diplomatic sources told ThePrint.
A peek into the plight of this community came Sunday when the New Zealand and Philippines embassies in the national capital got mired into a political row over oxygen supply from the opposition youth wing, the Indian Youth Congress (IYC).
With Covid cases and deaths continuing to see record highs in the country, sources said the condition of diplomats in India is worsening by the day and there is little support from the Narendra Modi government.
“It is a matter of time before the diplomatic community also starts losing members. It is a challenging situation. For now, it looks manageable but it is a matter of time before things explode,” a senior diplomat from a Southeast Asian country told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.
The first death within the diplomatic community, in fact, has already been reported. According to sources, Col Moses Beatus Mlula, the defence attache of the Tanzanian High Commission in India, died of Covid at the Base Hospital in Delhi Cantonment on 28 April.
Several embassies and missions — the US Embassy, Embassy of Germany, Israel Embassy, Bangladesh High Commission, Afghanistan Embassy, Embassy of Sweden and Nepal Embassy, among others — currently have active Covid cases, according to sources.
The US Embassy is reportedly facing an outbreak, with over 100 active cases, including family members of the staff. Two of its local staff members have died in the last month. The embassy has also been working with a much-reduced staff while some are working from home.
A US Embassy spokesperson told ThePrint, “The health and safety of US government personnel and their dependents is among the department’s highest priorities. We are closely monitoring the situation and we will take all necessary measures to safeguard the health and well-being of our employees, including offering vaccines to employees. Due to privacy concerns, we are unable to share additional information.”
Some embassies that refused to be identified said they are now planning to evacuate some of their staff on planes that are coming here with Covid aid for India. Others highlighted the lack of priority support on vaccines and healthcare.
On Sunday, the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement that it is in touch with all high commissions and embassies to facilitate medical help for them.
“Chief of Protocol and Heads of Divisions are in continuous touch with all High Commissions/Embassies and MEA is responding to their medical demands, especially those related to Covid. This includes facilitating their hospital treatment,” said MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi.
Situation in other embassies
Some, such as the Embassy of Germany, are managing the situation with their own medical staff. The German office currently has over 30 positive cases but none are in a critical condition, and are responding to medication, sources said.
Another embassy of a European country said that while it has reached out to the government for priority treatment and other medical help, it hasn’t received any so far.
“There is no help coming from the government. They are having their hands full and have no time to look after the diplomatic community especially. We understand it is a crisis situation but we need some priority services. After all, this is not our home and we are doing our duties here,” said a diplomat from a European country who didn’t wish to be named.
“It is not possible for diplomats to work from home. There are documents and reports that need to be sent to our headquarters. Then there are confidential files that cannot be simply emailed or discussed over Zoom,” said another diplomat who didn’t wish to be identified.
Official sources, however said, in a crisis situation like this and given the shortage in medical infrastructure, it will not be possible to handle the requests from the diplomatic community “on priority”.
‘Don’t know whom to contact’
The situation is also quite difficult for diplomats from the neighbourhood.
According to sources, diplomats from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan are facing “most difficulties” since they are having to address the issues of the rising number of Covid cases from their own people as well, who are based here as refugees or are working here.
A Bangladeshi diplomat had to be admitted to the Medanta Hospital in April while another had to wait for hours to get admission despite rapidly falling oxygen levels.
“Getting help is a major challenge … We do not know whom to contact in times of emergency. We do not have our own medical staff and places like Primus or Apollo are full,” said a diplomat from the neighbouring country.
Several embassies have instructed their staff suffering from Covid to get treated at home as much as possible. “We do not know what to do, whom to contact if there is a crisis or someone becomes critical. So we are telling them to get themselves treated at home as much as is possible to avoid hospitalisation,” said a diplomat from a neighbouring country.
Philippines Ambassador to India Ramon S. Bagatsing Jr. has reportedly said 73 of their nationals in India tested positive for Covid and hence they have set up a support group for medicine, supplies and food requirements for them.
PH ambassador to India says 73 Filipinos there have tested positive for COVID-19 so far.
Amb. Bagatsing says they have set up a COVID support group for medicine, supplies and food requirements for Filipinos there with the help of the DFA
— CNN Philippines (@cnnphilippines) May 3, 2021
Vaccination another crisis
Diplomats ThePrint spoke to also complain about lack of access to vaccines for their staff, especially those below 45 years of age.
“Our political counsellor got registered with a big hospital in Delhi but when he reached there, he was told to leave as his registration got cancelled,” said one of the diplomats quoted above.
Some are looking homewards. The German Embassy is vaccinating its younger staff with Moderna vaccines imported from Germany.
But not every country is able to do so due to lack of resources.
“There should have been a dedicated vaccination centre for diplomats. Many countries have it. India being such a big country should have done it,” said another diplomat, adding that some of his fellow citizens who are working in India have approached the mission as they could not get a vaccine.
Almost all leading embassies and missions, except Russia and Israel, have also temporarily closed their visa services section in the country.
On the issue of separate vaccination centres for diplomats, official sources said that while the idea was mooted initially it was later decided by the Ministry of Health that diplomats will also get the vaccines the same way as Indians. Initially, there were some technical glitches on getting foreign passports registered on the government vaccination website but that was sorted subsequently.
“Carving out anything special for them will be difficult at this point of time,” an official source said on the condition of anonymity, adding that pressure from foreign journalists for special vaccination centres is also building up.
‘Hoarding is out of question’
On Sunday, the Ministry of External Affairs cautioned all foreign missions and embassies against hoarding of oxygen and other emergency medical supplies.
The statement came as cases of emergency oxygen requirements came up in New Zealand High Commission as well the Philippines Embassy last week for which they had to contact B.V. Srinivas, IYC’s national president.
The move snowballed into a political row with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar calling it an “unsolicited supply” and “cheap publicity”.
MEA checked with the Philippines Embassy. This was an unsolicited supply as they had no Covid cases. Clearly for cheap publicity by you know who. Giving away cylinders like this when there are people in desperate need of oxygen is simply appalling. @Jairam_Ramesh https://t.co/G3jPE3c0nR
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) May 2, 2021
While embassies are tight-lipped about these issues, some have urged the Modi government to let them get help from wherever they can.
“We need to look after our guests. These diplomats are guests in our country. This has been part of our culture and tradition to help others when in need. I am only working to help people in this time of need and will continue to do so no matter who says what,” Srinivas told ThePrint, adding that he did get calls from some embassies.
The New Zealand High Commission reached Srinivas and his team as it faced a critical condition with one of its staff members.
As the issue upset the Modi government, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden reportedly said the New Zealand High Commission in India should have used “normal channels and protocols” to secure oxygen even as their foreign ministry “apologised” to India.
“None of the embassies are hoarding oxygen. We know how the situation is in the country and what the citizens of this country are enduring. This is wrong to say we are hoarding. But if we need oxygen supplies, what do we do? We also take on to Twitter and other social media platforms and request for help,” said the diplomat from a European country quoted above.
‘India can’t be seen as prickly’
Asked about the deepening crisis in the diplomatic circles, former Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao said, “There’s a saying that ‘government’s work is God’s work’ and never have these words been more true than now. We cannot be seen as being insensitive or prickly in these matters when the crisis is so huge.”
Rao, who is a former Indian ambassador to the US and China, added, “This is also about India’s international image. We should be careful how we use each word and each phrase, we really need to re-think our communications strategy. We need to reach out proactively to the foreign missions in India and see how they can be helped.”
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)
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