Indian envoy to Maldives Sunjay Sudhir. Photograph:( WION )
New Delhi has been reaching out to the Maldives during the ongoing COVID crisis with medicines and in coming few days will be gifting 580 tons of essential food items including wheat, flours, eggs, sugar, potatoes and onions to the Maldives even as the country observes Ramzan.
Ahead of Indian Navy's Operation “Samudra Setu” (Sea Bridge) to get back stranded Indians from the Maldives due to COVID crisis, Indian Envoy to the Maldives Sunjay Sudhir has said while the process starts on 8th May Mid Day, more such evacuation will happen in subsequent days. Speaking exclusively to our principal diplomatic correspondent Sidhant Sibal from capital Male, Envoy Sunjay said, "We have the full backing of our govt" and "we are looking forward to 8th of May when the first lot of Indians will return back home to Kochi".
He confirmed 54 Indians have been tested positive in the Indian Ocean Island country. Meanwhile, New Delhi has been reaching out to the Maldives during the ongoing COVID crisis with medicines and in coming few days will be gifting 580 tons of essential food items including wheat, flours, eggs, sugar, potatoes and onions to the Maldives even as the country observes Ramzan.
WION: How is the mission reaching out to Indians stranded in the Maldives and the repatriation process is all set to start, your take?
Sunjay Sudhir: The Indian community is a high priority for us. In the Maldives, we have 27000 Indians, mainly in the hospitality sector, the medical profession, as well as the education profession. Of the total 550 cases, 54 Indians have tested positive. Fortunately, they are all in good health. We maintain very close contact with the community mainly using social media--Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber groups in the community. We try our best to share practical information, authentic information on how to deal with COVID and other evacuation related information.
I myself have given out 2 video messages to the Indian community. We have also set up helplines, on which people can call freely and speak in multiple Indian languages. As far as positive tested Indians are concerned we have sent out care packages which contain lot of essential things which can at least mitigate the difficult times which are Indian friends are going through. We have also made an arrangement for food for those who have lost the jobs and are finding difficult to fend for themselves.
We are providing medical assistance including essential medicines for stranded tourist. We have been able to create a complete database of Indians who want to go back to India. We will take Indian navy's ship help, the first of which, will arrive 2 days from now. Around midday of 8th of May, the first group of about 700 Indians will set sail back home, back to Kochi, that will be the first lot. After that we are planning few other evacuations though Navy ship.
WION: How has the cooperation between India and Maldives going to jointly deal with COVID crisis. We launched operation Sanjevani to supply medicines to the Maldives..
Sunjay Sudhir: Cooperation on the COVID front has been characteristic of the relationship, the way we have been working with each other at almost all times in our history. The first thing we did was in the context of COVID is to evacuate all the 7 Maldivians from Wuhan. Actually, Maldives was the first country whose nationals we evacuated from Wuhan. Our 14 member rapid response medical team were here for 10 days in March.
Again the Maldives was the first country to which we sent a medical team. We also gifted about 5.5 tonnes of COVID related and other essential medicines to the govt of Maldives. Operation Sanjeevani was a very challenging operation which we could accomplish with the help of IAF. One IAF C130 picked up huge amount of medical consignment from 4 Indian cities and delivered that to Male, it was about 6.2 tonns.
This was done on April 2nd. We also facilitated continues supply of essential food items, also commodities like cement so that the construction sector does not suffer here. We have been facilitating evacuation flights for Maldivians, facilitating cargo flights. Digital video conferences have happened between trade officials, health officials and as we speak--series of 3 video conferences between top doctors of AIIMS and top doctors in the Maldives currently going on. The first of the series happened only yesterday. Within a week's time, we will also be gifting 580 tonnes of essential food items including wheat, flours, eggs, sugar, potatoes and onions to the govt of Maldives.
It has been testing times and also remembers it happens to be the holy month of Ramzan. On the economic front, the govt of Maldives has taken a big hit because of the hit to the tourism industry as well as the export of fishes. This has led to a bad liquidity situation. We have provided $150 million dollars worth of currency swap under the bilateral agreement which we had. This happened just a few days back and it happened of 27th April, we have been trying our level best to provide whatever assistance we can to govt of Maldives in these very very difficult times.
WION: How has the cooperation to deal with COVID crisis been between the countries been under the SAARC framework..
Sunjay Sudhir: PM Modi has championed a regional approach to combat tourism, perhaps that is the most sustainable way in which we can handle a pandemic situation. In the digital video conference which PM initiated on March 5th with heads of state of govt of SAARC countries, India had announced a COVID emergency fund of 10 million dollars. And the Maldives was the first and perhaps the largest beneficiary of this fund so far.
The Maldives on its part also pledged $ 200,000 for this fund. PM had initiated some kind of viable framework for joint cooperation between SAARC countries to combat COVID.A digital video conference was also initiated by the SAARC disaster management centre in Gujarat with all the other countries to deal with this disaster could be discussed and that was a very successful video conference.
WION: How has been the ground situation and how are the Indian diplomats faring..
Sunjay Sudhir: I must say govt of Maldives has been trying its level best. President Solih has himself led the charge for this big challenge and for a long time they were able to protect Male. It was only on 15th April, the situation changed when the first person tested positive in the capital city and after that, you can imagine that in a city as congested as Male, it is very difficult to contain the spread and now, unfortunately, it has reached the level of community spread. I think things have plateaued out. Of the 550 cases, the majority are foreigners.
It all started with foreigners and even now if you look at Male, the majority are foreigners. Actually half the numbers are Bangladeshis because of a lot of Bangladeshi workers in Male. Govt is working on a war footing to contain the spread and create new isolation facilities but it is a herculean task.
For us at the high commission, it has been testing times. We are working overtime to take care of the community and at the same time provide assistance to the govt of Maldives. You have rightly mentioned it is the largest evacuation process globally as well as Indians in the Maldives. We have roped in some volunteers from the community and I must acknowledge that help has been very very forthcoming. We have the full backing of our govt that makes our task much less formidable. These days we are working day in and day out on evacuation exercise and we are looking forward to 8th of May when the first lot of Indians will return back home to Kochi and then we will subsequently plan other rounds of evacuation in the days and weeks to come.
WION: Have we shared any Indian COVID containment models with the Maldives?
Sunjay Sudhir: We have done that. The Indian rapid response medical teams were first to visit the Maldives. It was first for the Maldives as well as Indian team to visit any country and that team came here with the protocols which were in practice, in India at that time, including the protocol developed by AIIMS and the medical teams also helped set up facilities in outline Islands. And as we speak digital video conference between the senior doctors from AIIMS including director Dr Randeep Guleria and very senior cardiologist Dr Ambuj Roy has been taking place.
The first session took place earlier and the Maldivian side was led by the Maldives minister of state for health who happens to be a medical doctor Dr Shah Mahir. In this discussion, I am told several containment models and approaches have been discussed and we continue to share best practices.