‘I am on their hitlist to be thrown out of the building’: Airline crew and doctors harassed amid coronavirus paranoia

From their photos circulated on WhatsApp to threats of eviction, the harassment comes from neighbours, resident associations, and even the police.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal
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On February 2, when Chander Prakash and his colleagues landed in Wuhan, he remembers the sighs of relief that greeted him. Prakash, who works as cabin crew for Air India, was on the first flight evacuating Indian citizens from China in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in the country.

Prakash was filled with happiness to help those in need, despite the risks involved. The flight’s crew received certificates of appreciation signed by the prime minister — but their joy was short-lived.

A month later, Prakash returned to his home in Delhi after traveling to South Korea on March 9, on another evacuation flight operated by the national carrier. This time, his neighbours kept away, ostracising not just him but his entire family. Soon, photographs of Prakash’s house circulated on social media, all because his neighbours feared that they’d pick up the virus from him.

Prakash isn’t alone. From airline crew who were part of evacuation processes, to doctors and healthcare workers employed at hospitals treating COVID-19 patients, there’s been a slew of reports of their harassment and discrimination. This harassment comes from various quarters, including resident associations, neighbours and even the police.

Air India issued a press release on March 22, saying “vigilante resident welfare associations and neighbours have started ostracising the crew” and appealed that its crew be treated with “courtesy, respect and freedom”. It pointed out that “thorough safety measures” had been provided for crew members landing from evacuated cities, including hazmat suits, home quarantine, and check-ups at designated hospitals.

This was reiterated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who said the Air India team showed “utmost courage and risen to the call of humanity”.

However, for some employees, the harassment continues unabated.

‘They’re acting as if I’ve committed a crime’

For Prakash, the ordeal started when a sticker was pasted next to his house’s name plate, stating that a resident of the house was in home quarantine for COVID-19. Several state governments kickstarted this drive after the outbreak, to warn outsiders from visiting those under quarantine.

It was a Sunday.

“On the same day, my father, brother and I started receiving messages asking if everything is alright at home or not,” Prakash told Newslaundry. “Then a close family friend told me that photos of the name plate of our house, with the sticker next to it, were circulating on WhatsApp groups, saying there’s a corona positive case in Pitampura.”

Prakash said the sticker had been pasted by a Delhi government official who later telephoned him to inquire after his wellbeing. “I questioned the official as to why she didn’t even tell us before sticking it outside our house,” Prakash said. “I have no problem with it, but people began circulating photos of it. They shamed me on WhatsApp groups, acting as if I’ve committed a crime.”

On Monday morning, Prakash’s mother went out to buy vegetables. “People started turning away when she reached,” he said. “When my father stepped out, they looked at him as if he’s an offender.”

Upset, Prakash pasted a copy of the appreciation certificate from the prime minister next to the sticker, took a photo of it, and posted it on social media. “I did this just to counter my shaming,” he explained. “I went on the evacuation flight as it was my duty. I didn't go there to spend some leisure time...I am abiding by all rules and regulations but social shaming is dangerous. Even my old friends aren’t taking my calls. It’s very humiliating.”

Ankit Vidhani, an Air India crew member who lives in Delhi, told Newslaundry he was “threatened” by residents of his housing society.

“We recently did a Dubai flight and brought back 111 passengers,” Vidhani said. “I operated the flight from Indore to Dubai. While returning to Delhi, we came via Kolkata.”

Vidhani returned to Delhi on March 20. By that time, the government ordered that anyone who had traveled on an international flight must be quarantined. Vidhani was scanned at the airport — he had no symptoms — and quarantined himself for 14 days.

Three days later, the COVID-19 quarantine sticker was put up outside his house, and Vidhani was told he should stay home.

“It’s a normal precautionary measure and nothing to worry about,” he pointed out. “Then some people from the society came and began taking pictures of my house. They started calling me a COVID-19 patient. Then they called the police.”

Vidhani said a few police officers turned up, and he told them what had happened. He wanted to file a complaint against the residents of his society, but didn’t go forward. “Many airline crew are facing such problems,” he said, “and some are even asked to vacate their rented houses.”

Harassed by a police officer

In Mumbai, a cabin crew member, who didn’t want to be named, said she was harassed by a police officer attached to Vashi police station.

The woman wrote about her experience in a letter that was later posted in a private Facebook group. She said she had a “harrowing experience”.

After a flight from the US, she returned to India on March 21. Health authorities at Mumbai airport stamped her and, though she had no symptoms, told her to quarantine herself and her family at home.

“We all made it a point not to step out of the house, including the entire family, from that day onwards, strictly following the home quarantine protocols,” she wrote. “However, last night around 10.30 pm, my husband got a call from Vashi police station from an official identified as a member of the crime branch unit. He started shouting at us and asked us why we hid the fact that I was a foreign-returned person.

“My husband responded that we were not aware of any such rules for the cabin crew to be followed and it angered him all the more. He had demanded that I should make myself physically present in his office tomorrow which we politely declined since we would be violating the home quarantine norms. He had threatened us that he would ensure that proper action is taken against us for not reporting the matter. He further screamed that a team from his office will reach...my place the next day to screen me and take further course of actions and hung up the phone on us.”

She added: “I wasn’t sure whether I have violated any government guidelines on this or was I supposed to inform anyone locally on my return from an affected country.” The woman thought “some overzealous society committee members” had reported to the police that she had been abroad but not informed local authorities.

The woman said she and her family, including her small children, were in shock. She informed her base supervisor and began to write an email to the executive director of in-flight services, Air India.

Before she could send it, six officers from the Vashi police station landed up at her house in the middle of the night, she said. However, they were reasonable, took her details, and told her to update them on a regular basis. The police also informed the municipal corporation.

Once the woman raised the issue with the executive director, she said, the matter was flagged to Sanjay Kumar, commissioner of police, Navi Mumbai, to stop harassing Air India crew members.

Kumar told Newslaundry that the woman’s housing society filed a complaint saying she had returned from the US. “Our job was to inform the municipal corporation who sent their people to her house,” Kumar said. “It should have been communicated to local authorities.”

Why was the police officer reportedly rude to the woman on the phone?

“The thing is, when you show arrogance, you should expect a reply on the same terms. She mentioned her association with Air India and started talking arrogantly,” Kumar replied. “Then my officers also have the full right to reply in the same way...Our officer only asked if she was quarantined, why didn’t she come and report to us. She started saying she’s doing service to the government and the people.”

He added: “Everybody is doing service. Unfortunately, ours is to restrict people from going here and there, and that's why we are facing the brunt. But nobody is ready to understand the job of the police."

Kumar agreed that shaming those in quarantine, and circulating their photos on social media, is “incorrect”. “Such behaviour is totally unacceptable.”

‘Behave accordingly or face consequences’

Even doctors aren’t spared from harassment.

On March 24, Sanjibani Panigrahi, a doctor based in Surat, tweeted that she had been threatened by residents of her housing society.

Panigrahi works at New Civil Hospital, a government hospital in Surat.

“Three positive cases of COVID-19 came to our hospital,” she told Newslaundry. “Doctors are assigned duties on a rotational basis so that they can be quarantined for 15 days. My duty at the COVID-19 ward hasn’t come yet, but I go to the hospital daily and work there from 9 am to 6 pm.”

Surat is locked down, but her job is part of the essential services, Panigrahi pointed out. “However, this is not going down well with my society’s residents.”

Panigrahi lives in a rented apartment in a housing society in Adajan. “A few days ago, my society members threatened me. They told me I shouldn’t go out, I’ve become a threat to them, I am on their hit-list to be thrown out of the building,” she said. “They told me I should behave accordingly or I’ll face consequences in the future.”

Panigrahi said most of these residents were office-bearers, about 12-15 of them, who generally sit by the main gate and keep watch of whosoever is coming and going.

“Even when I go out to buy vegetables, they ask me to return within a time limit. They don’t like my going to the hospital, but how can I stop working as my job is an essential service?” she said. “Just as cops are doing their jobs, so are doctors, nurses, health staff, and others. I’m not asking for appreciation for doing my job, but at least they shouldn’t threaten me.”

Panigrahi did not want to name the housing society. However, she said: “They should understand one thing: I am not going to be afraid of their threats, and will speak out if they are going to stop me from doing my work.”


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