Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Packed repatriation flight from India leaves Vancouver actor fearing COVID-19 exposure

Vancouver actor Bhavkhandan Rakhra is home from India but worries about the risk he took on a Canadian government repatriation flight that provided no physical distancing between passengers. 

The journey from Amritsar, Punjab to Vancouver, with a short stop in Doha, Qatar took nearly 19 hours.

"Jam-packed plane. Not a single seat empty," said Rakhra, 64, regarding Qatar Airways flight 5481.

Rakhra paid $3,215 for the one-way flight and assumed the hefty price would ensure him a safe seat.
"I don't see how can they justify four times the fare, one-way travel, without any social distancing," said Rakhra, who estimates a one-way ticket usually costs approximately $800.

Rakhra, who travelled to India on February 27 for a film shoot, was scheduled to return to B.C. on April 7 but was stranded when India declared a 21-day lockdown and all commercial flights were suspended.

He returned on May 7 and is now in mandatory quarantine for 14 days at his South Vancouver home anxious and worried that he may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Passengers were instructed to be at Amritsar's Sri Guru Ram Das Ji International Airport six hours before departure time.

Rakhra arrived at 1:45 p.m. and waited outside the airport for an hour to get inside, while the temperature hovered at 38 C.

There were 40 people ahead of him and within 45 minutes another 150 behind him.

"People were not following that six feet or two metre thing and no one was really enforcing it even though there was the police and airline people," said Rakhra.
Once in the airport, passengers had their temperature checked and filled out medical forms beyond the regular check-in process — which Rakhra said moved quite smoothly.

Everyone was issued a boarding pass and through security in about two hours, he said.

Then there was more waiting until 7 p.m. and the scheduled arrival of their Qatar Airways plane, while the air-conditioning worked in only one small area of the boarding lounge.

"There were mosquitos at the airport. There were birds. There were pigeons flying here and there," said Rakhra who managed to snag a seat in the cooler area. 
While there was little physical distancing during the wait, at boarding time, Rakhra says, airline staff were very strict with passengers. 

"They were telling everyone make one line, stay six feet away and we'll gently load up everybody but if you stay together it will delay the flight," he said.

None of that mattered on the plane, said Rakhra, where passengers were shoulder-to-shoulder.
Surrey-Newton Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal says everyone who gets on a repatriation flight is subject to a temperature check, obligated to wear a mask during the flight and then self-isolate for 14 days after arriving home.

In an email to CBC News, Dhaliwal said the federal government feels it has achieved an appropriate balance between safety measures and the urgent need to get thousands of people back to Canada.
12/05/20 Belle Puri/CBC News
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