'The facilities here are neat and clean; proper hygiene is maintained.'
'This is better than what we had expected in India.'
Pranav Vairale, a student who flew back from Milan on March 15, after being stranded at the airport, staying at a gurdwara, hotel and accommodation provided by the Indian consulate, shares his COVID-19 ordeal with Rediff.com's Prasanna D Zore.
Pranav reveals the reason why he was stranded, how Air India allowed 83 passengers to fly back on March 10 without any COVID-19 certificates, the reason why they were not allowed to fly on March 10, the tests he and 220 others had to undergo at Milan airport and when they landed in Delhi and shares how he is spending his time in quarantine at a BSF camp near Gurugram.
Situation in Milan, Italy, when you left
The Politecnico de Milano (Polytechnic University of Milan), Lecco campus, is about 40 kilometres from Milan Malpensa airport or about 30-40 minutes by train from Milan central station.
When I left, Lecco was not under lockdown. But some towns nearby were under lockdown.
We had booked the flight for March 10 from Milan to New Delhi. So at Lecco station as we were boarding the train for Milan, we were asked to submit a self-declaration form in Italian to the (local) police. Only after that were we allowed to board the train.
After reaching the Milan central station, we had to take a shuttle bus to Malpensa airport. While exiting the station, we had to give another declaration form. But when we showed them the flight ticket and our passports, they didn't ask for any declaration because we were leaving Italy.
Then we took the shuttle bus and went to Milan airport at around 1.30 pm in the afternoon, local time. At the airport, we waited till 5 pm because nobody had any clarity (if we were allowed to board the Air India flight to Delhi).
The Air India staff had not come and nobody told us that we needed certificates that said we had tested negative for Coronavirus.
The reason why we were stranded
The Government of India had issued an advisory on March 5 that we needed (those who were travelling from Italy to India) a COVID-19 negative certificate to fly to India.
Practically speaking, it is not possible to get a COVID-19 negative certificate in five days because the test itself takes minimum of 14 days to come to a conclusion if a person is COVID-19 negative or positive.
One gets a COVID-19 certificate only after failing the test twice.
It was not possible to get that (certificate). When we came to the airport, even the Air India staff were clueless regarding what exactly was the government (of India) asking for.
A few of us went to a few hospitals and laboratories a couple of days before leaving Milan and boarding our flight to get this certificate or at least to test us. But the local health authorities said they were only considering cases which were really severe.
Those showing no symptoms of COVID-19 were not allowed to even enter the hospital. They requested us to stay away from these laboratories and hospitals and did not give any certificate or test us.
This was the story of every Indian, or people of Indian origin, who were at the airport that day.
Strangely, some 83 Indians out of the 300 people of Indian origin who were at the airport were allowed to board the flight on March 10 after normal health check-ups from their family doctors. Those 83 who boarded the flight to Delhi did not have COVID-19 negative certificates.
After that, the rest of us stayed at the airport for the night. We made a few videos and plans regarding whom to call to get out of Milan.
We were like planning regarding whom to call. We talked to the Indian consulate officials and they advised Air India staff to let us fly. But Air India (staff) were not willing to do that.
So they left most of us; out of 300 passengers only 83, who had normal health check-ups, were allowed to board the flight to Delhi.
What happened next?
All of us students planned what to do next; we organised a meeting to decide what to do and what not to do. Whoever was able to go back to their home in Milan left.
Those who came from Lecco and surrounding places knew very well that if they went back they would be locked down in their respective towns because there were talks of locking down those areas.
We were at the airport till 6 pm on March 11.
We were allowed to stay in a gurdwara near Malpensa, which was seven kilometres from the airport, for that night. They were willing to host us, but the local police did not permit the gurdwara to let us stay.
Then the eight of us were without homes. Since we didn't know anybody in Milan we had to keep moving from one place to another.
Luckily, an office bearer of the gurdwara knew of a hotel which would take care of eight of us and he took us there. We stayed there on March 12.
The next day, on March 13, after we gave several interviews to local and Indian news channels, we were accommodated by the Indian consulate at Milan. It was a nice flat meant for consulate staffers, I think.
We stayed there for two days and on March 14 we left that place and came to the airport.
We were allowed to board the flight on March 14.
Precautions while flying back to India
We were all advised to wear masks, wear gloves, and use hand sanitisers regularly.
At the (Malpensa) airport, they checked our temperature using a thermal device that was put near our forehead after which we were allowed to board the flight.
When we landed at Delhi airport, we were deplaned where the flight halted in the bay and all our luggage was also emptied at the same place. The airport officials guided us with our emigration formalities.
Then we were told to get into army buses and all of us were taken to a BSF camp near Chhawla in Gurugram. It is on the border of Delhi and Haryana.
Tests after landing in India
As soon as we came out of the flight, health officials at the airport did our thermal screening. Once completed, we were allowed to do our immigration formalities.
We were thoroughly screened and tested for coronavirus after we had our food on March 15 when we landed in Delhi.
They took saliva samples and swabs from our nasal passage and sent it for testing. We are likely to get our preliminary reports within two or three days.
After that, even if we test negative, we will be quarantined for 14 more days.
After 14 days, we will be tested once again for coronavirus and once we clear that test we will be discharged.
Life inside the BSF quarantine facility
All the 220 people who flew from Milan have been quarantined here and have gone through similar tests. All of us have been quarantined in the same five-six storeyed building.
We are allowed to move around freely and mix with others who were on the same flight. But we have been asked to follow lots of precautions.
We have been asked to maintain a distance of 1.5 metres to two metres; we obviously meet each other during meals or when we freshen up around the bathrooms.
The students, for their personal safety, are following all the precautions. We maintain a distance of at least 1.5 to 2 metres when we meet. All the time we are wearing our masks and gloves and using sanitisers.
The facilities over here are really good. They have given an individual bed for everyone, different towels, soaps, blankets, and medicines, and individual storage places where we keep our belongings.
Most of us are students and as for me I am attending virtual classes. I am studying for a master's in civil engineering from the Politecnico de Milano, Lecco campus, and they have arranged for online classes for students so that they don't miss out on their studies.
The best part is none of us who are at this camp are showing COVID-19 symptoms like fever, dry cough or backaches and body aches.
We are regularly in touch with our parents. My parents were worried about my health when I was in Italy, but after I landed in India they are less worried.
We would not have been able to take these many precautions if we were quarantined at home. The facilities here are neat and clean; proper hygiene is maintained.
This is better than what we had expected in India.