AMIDST the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant curbs on international travel, the question of bringing back Pakistanis stranded overseas poses a major dilemma. The government recently announced the suspension of all international flights until April 4 to limit the spread of the virus as authorities ramped up efforts to contain it. The announcement caused panic amongst Pakistani citizens abroad as their return flights were cancelled or indefinitely postponed. Those trying to book flights for after April 4 are confronted with exorbitant ticket prices and the unavailability of seats. Moreover, the government is not sure whether it will resume international flights after that date. All this is causing distress to citizens stuck overseas, and pressure is building on the government to take action.
As Pakistan grapples with Covid-19, one thing is clear: there are no easy choices for the government. Given the havoc it has wreaked in far more developed countries, the government has taken an unpopular yet practical decision to halt international flights. The reality of authorities’ capacity to deal with the huge number of citizens who want to return was evident in the case of the Taftan returnees and poor quarantine facilities. Unless the government can test every returning passenger and make adequate arrangements to hold tens of thousands of citizens near airports, resuming international flights will be a disaster. At present, Pakistan has over 1,700 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and more than 20 fatalities — figures that are accelerating at an alarming rate and crushing the country’s inherently fragile healthcare infrastructure. Bringing citizens back from countries in the grip of the pandemic and without effective provisions will have devastating consequences.
In this situation, the government must provide support to stranded citizens through effective communication. Mixed messaging creates confusion and should be avoided. For instance, in response to the plight of citizens, the government briefly granted permission to PIA to operate four special flights to bring passengers back from the UK and Canada, but was forced to withdraw the offer as cases in both countries soared. The CAA’s earlier announcement that all returning passengers must provide a Covid-19 certificate, too, was unhelpful and only exacerbated their problems as mass testing is not easily available in many countries. Instead, embassies and consular staff should be directed to provide support to Pakistanis stuck abroad. Helplines must be established which provide steady updates and missions required to troubleshoot the challenges faced by citizens to the best of their ability. They must develop a strategy to manage the cases of those who have fallen ill, run out of funds or are seeking information regarding affordable accommodation. Missions in these countries should also interact with the authorities there to ensure that stranded citizens are provided with emergency visas to help prolong their stay. The message should be conveyed that in these extraordinary circumstances, Pakistani citizens have not been abandoned.
Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2020