COVID-19 flight suspensions: Hundreds of health workers stuck in India, UAE groups seek support to bring back employees

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Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport Mumbai, India. Flights from India to UAE remain suspended since April 25. Image Credit: Rex Features

Dubai: Hundreds of UAE health workers, who have been stuck in India due to the COVID-19-related suspension of inbound passenger flights from India to the UAE, are appealing to authorities to help facilitate their early return.

Prominent private health care groups in the UAE confirmed to Gulf News that hundreds of their employees, including existing ones and new recruits in India, have not been able to travel to the UAE ever since the restriction on passengers from India began on April 25.

Spokespersons of different private health care groups said they were in discussion with authorities and had sought support to bring back front line warriors to the UAE since the flight suspension has been extended. They also pointed out that health care workers have been fully vaccinated and appealed for their return subject to compliance with COVID-19 travel protocols announced for exempted categories of passengers such as UAE golden visa holders and diplomats.

Indian Ambassador to the UAE Pavan Kapoor told Gulf News that the Indian missions had already raised the issue with the UAE authorities and sought their support in allowing the health care workers to return.

Pavan Kapoor
Pavan Kapoor, Indian Ambassador to the UAE Image Credit: Supplied

“We are aware of several UAE resident doctors and health care workers presently stuck in India. We have been raising this issue with relevant UAE authorities for some time, and are hopeful that they will be allowed to return soon,” he said.

325 stuck: VPS Healthcare

Sanjai Kumar, chief human resources officer at VPS Healthcare, said 125 employees of the group including five clinicians and 50 nurses, are stuck in India. “We also have more than 200 newly hired employees who are stuck in different parts of India.

“Those who are currently there either went on emergency leave or maternity leave. They are eagerly awaiting to return to work. Our HR team is in constant touch with them to check their whereabouts and well-being,” he said.

“We are extremely thankful to the UAE government for the extensive support to us through this pandemic period, and VPS Healthcare was in the front line joining the fight against this pandemic. It’s highly recommended to make an exemption for the stranded health care professionals to fly back. We are in constant discussions with the authorities concerned,” Kumar added.

300 stuck: Aster DM Healthcare

Fara Siddiqi, group chief human resources officer, Aster DM Healthcare, said more than 300 employees of the group are stuck in India due to the travel ban, with the majority of them being health care staff.

Fara Siddiqi

“Some of our employees were on vacation in their home country when the UAE announced flight cancellations,” she said. “As an organisation, we are concerned about their well-being and want to bring them back to their home where they can continue to serve our patients.

“Since the very beginning of this pandemic, our health care staff have helped both the UAE and India emerge from this crisis by risking their own lives to serve our communities, now it is our responsibility to get our employees back safe and as a responsible health care organisation in the region, we have also made a promise to the community, that ‘We Will Treat Them Well!’.”

Siddiqi said the group was in discussions with government institutions for support to bring back the health care staff while keeping safety protocols in mind.

Several stuck: Thumbay Group

Thumbay Healthcare Division said several of its health care workers are also stuck in India, without specifying the total number of the workforce affected due to the travel restrictions.

“We would be glad to help them in any way to return to work and serve the community of the UAE,” said Akbar Moideen Thumbay, vice-president, Healthcare Division, Thumbay Group.

Akbar Moideen Thumbay

“We fully support the government and wish to play an important role in fighting the pandemic. The UAE has always been in the forefront in adapting to new policies and supporting the local business and health care workers,” he said, hoping for support for the return of health workers from India.

Independent facilities also hit

Other groups and independent health care establishments like hospitals, medical centres and clinics have also reported absence of several members of their work force due to the travel restrictions from India and urged the authorities to facilitate their return by following strict COVID-19 travel protocol.

Gopinath S, chief strategic officer at Canadian Specialist Hospital in Dubai, said the hospital has 16 employees including doctors, nurses and paramedics stuck in India.

Gopinath S

“Considering the unusual situation, we urge that an exemption be given in terms of a waiver for visa and license renewal periods to health care workers, who are stuck in India.

“We have appealed to the authorities to consider our plea, and as always we expect the proactive and compassionate stance of the authorities should help us sail through this situation as well,” he said, adding that the UAE has marked a huge success in dealing with the pandemic.

Stranded health workers speak

Dr. Mohammed Nisar Ali, specialist anaesthesiologist at Aster Hospital, Qusais, said he went to India on April 16 due to an emergency. “My mother was not doing well and she was hospitalised. I came here to look after her as she was alone in the hospital. With COVID-19 protocols in place, no one else was allowed to visit her and this was a major psychological trauma for her, hindering her recovery. By the time she started improving and I was looking forward to my return, the flight ban came into effect and since then I am stuck in India,” he said.

Dr. Mohammed Nisar Ali

“I am a front line worker working in critical areas of operation theatre and emergency. Being away from duty for such a long time affects me physically, emotionally, psychologically. Also, in time of this pandemic crisis, I could be of help to the hospital. It does affect my whole family also as I am the bread earner.”

He urged the authorities to help facilitate the return of the UAE resident visa holders, especially those like him who have genuine reasons.

Steffi Christina, an ICU Nurse at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said she went home for a much-needed vacation after being away from her dear ones for two years.

Steffi Christina

“It has been two years since I came to my hometown as I was active in the front line service during the pandemic. Since we were handling COVID-19 positive patients and considering the emergency, our duty was essential in the group,” she said.

The front line warrior said she had also contracted the virus and was hospitalised for 15 days. “Finally, I felt I needed a break and was missing my family badly. On top of that, I had plans for my family engagement; therefore, I took leave for a month and came to India on April 18. I was supposed to join on May 22. But, unfortunately, flights were closed.”

COVID-19 has also claimed the lives of some of her relatives. Concerns about not being able to resume work as planned was adding to the mental trauma, she said. “At present, my unit in Burjeel Hospital requires my service, and unfortunately, I am not able to travel. It would be of great help if authorities concerned would make arrangements to take the health workers back with a special permit. As I reside in Chennai, it will be helpful if permissions are granted for travel from here as travelling interstate will be very unsafe and risky at this moment.”

Difficulties explained

Deepthi Sambhu, a registered nurse at VPS Health Care, said she had gone home on vacation on March 16, and her return was planned for April last week.

Deepthi Sambhu

“I am very much concerned that I am not able to meet my work commitments and facing several challenges.”

“When l informed my management about these challenges, I learnt that they are trying their best to help us and looking for options to facilitate the travel. I am hopeful that the authorities will consider this as a special case and allow us to join back to duty at the earliest,” she added.

Soumya Kesava Udayakumar, unit-in-charge at Aster Pharmacy in Muhaisnah, said she also went to India for her annual vacation after two years. “I came on April 7 and my vacation was supposed to resume work on May 12. The suspension of the flight was until May 4 and I was hoping to return on time. But, it has got extended again and again.

Soumya Kesava Udayakumar

“Last year, due to the pandemic situation, many of our staff could not go on annual vacation. It has become difficult for my colleagues working over there because some of us are stuck even after our annual leave ended. They have to work more time without some staff members. We have pending work also. These are big concerns.”

Like several other UAE residents stranded in India, she said it has been difficult for people like her to pay house rent, phone bills etc while they are stranded back home.

Online training explored

Though the health workers’ jobs require physical presence in their work places, private health care groups are also exploring online opportunities for training. “While we wait for further directives, we launched a three-month skill enhancement training programme for our newly hired nurses stuck in India to get them better prepared when they relocate to the UAE,” said Aster’s Siddiqi.

“This programme not only allows our nursing talent to upskill and multi-skill themselves to address organisational skill shortage and enhance productivity, but also expand their own personalities for their career and development while moving across roles,” she added.

VPS Healthcare is also exploring the possibilities of remote training and online orientation possibilities where applicable, said Sanjai Kumar.

However, Gopinath said the online option is not feasible in many circumstances.