Doctors in hazmat suits ran temperature checks on passengers at Delhi airport and bags were disinfected as the first group of Indians returned home on special flights from Singapore and the Gulf on Friday since a sweeping lockdown was imposed in March.
Some 400,000 Indians were expected to be brought back from the United States and the United Kingdom, besides southeast Asia and the Gulf, in a mammoth airlift mounted by state carrier Air India.
Separately, the Indian navy sent warships to the island nation of Maldives for citizens stranded there since the government cut off all travel and ordered its 1.3 billion people to stay indoors to prevent a surge in coronavirus infections.
“The process for return of Indian nationals stranded abroad via non-scheduled commercial flights and Indian navy ships has begun,” Home Ministry Joint Secretary Punya Salila Srivastava told a news conference.
Local TV networks showed Air India crew dressed in light blue overalls, masks and protective plastic face shields inside the plane waiting to receive passengers in Abu Dhabi. “Long live India,” they said, raising their hands.
India has 56,342 cases of the novel coronavirus, rising by 3,390 over the previous day and showing no sign of abating, despite the lockdown which has battered the economy and left millions without work. At least 1,886 people have died.
Distress had also been mounting among the vast Indian diaspora unable to return home.
There have been numerous tales of hardship, both financial and emotional, from people desperate to see sick relatives, attend funerals or births, while others have simply lost their jobs and are running out of money stranded abroad.
The first round of evacuations would bring back around 200,000 people by the middle of May and then by mid-June a total of 350,000-400,00 would be flown back, the government said.
In Delhi, some 250 people got off the plane from Singapore and were screened for symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
They stood far apart from each other in a spotlessly clean terminal building, wearing masks and waiting to be cleared for entry.
Srivastava said if any traveller is found symptomatic upon arrival, they will be taken to hospital while others will be placed under a 14-day quarantine in a government facility.
There were some concerns that the influx of people from overseas could lead to a further spike in infections.
Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary in the Health Ministry, said the Central government had asked state authorities to make sure hotels, college hostels and empty houses that had been converted into quarantine centres for those returning, are closely supervised by health workers.