Air travel in times of COVID: Shows our failure to test and impose restrictions uniformly

Why are India’s COVID numbers low? Air travel provides a clue. We are neither testing uniformly across country nor are the restrictions on air travel imposed all time

Air travel in times of COVID: Shows our failure to test and impose restrictions uniformly

Aakar Patel

Hong Kong banned Air India flights again this week, after Indians landing there tested positive for COVID for the fifth time since August.

Passengers are supposed to board the plane only after taking a test that confirms that they are negative, but the testing does not appear to be done at our end with any sort of rigour. The passengers who boarded the flight and landed in Hong Kong had certificates showing they were COVID negative but this turned out to be untrue.

I was not surprised by this because there is no standard process that India is following for testing and for flying and I can vouch for this from personal experience.

For the last few months, I have been going to Surat every month to attend to a case that has been filed against me. The first time I went was the first time I flew after the pandemic and had to find out what the process for flying was. I was told by the airline that an app from the Surat Municipal Corporation would have to be downloaded, and a form that was self-attested which said that I was not bearing any symptoms would also be needed to be signed and submitted.

I tried downloading the app but it was a fairly crude piece of software and my phone refused to download it. On landing in Surat, I was not asked to show either the app or the form but instead all passengers above 50 were told to take a rapid test, and their phone numbers and addresses were taken. On leaving Surat, I was asked to show if I had downloaded the Aarogya Setu app, which I did not have and did not know I was supposed to have. On landing back in Bangalore, nothing was asked for.
That was the first time I travelled.

The second time, the following month, on landing in Surat there was nobody at the airport to check anything and I walked about without the test or any form. The third time, which was in October, there were people at Surat airport who were taking the temperatures of passengers who were getting off the plane but no testing or taking down of addresses or phone numbers. This time, on leaving, nobody checked Aarogya Setu either.

One airline gave out face shields but did not insist that all passengers use them. Another airline forced all passengers to wear the shield over their mask.

Each time there was a different process and even that process wasn’t followed with any kind of rigour. It is random and does not reflect the seriousness with which the rest of the world has taken the virus. This could be one reason why China has 100 times fewer infections that India and why Hong Kong has had to repeatedly ban Air India.

The problem of testing is not limited to the airlines. A report from Bloomberg this week said that questionable testing in India could be the reason why our COVID numbers were down. Half of all testing in India was done through rapid antigen tests. These tests were quick but were likely to result in false negatives (meaning reporting a negative wrongly) half the time. This could mean that one out of every four people getting tested negative could actually be infected with the virus.

In mid-August only 25% of the total tests were done in this way but now it is 50%. In states like Bihar, about 90% of all tests are of the rapid variety. This could explain the sharp fall in the number of cases in India, the report said. Other nations which had large numbers of positive cases like the US and UK were using RT-PCR tests which took longer but were more reliable.

There is also uneven testing across the country and no specific standard. The day the Bloomberg report was published, Bihar, which had just voted in an election with large rallies reported only 600 cases while the city of Delhi added about 7,000.

The report quoted several experts who were sceptical about the numbers in India and again, this doesn’t surprise me. We have no standard processes in place to address the more serious public health hazard of our lifetime. It is obvious to those of us who have travelled in this time.

The rest of the world, as the repeated bans on us from Hong Kong show, knows it too now.

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