An Australian permanent resident has died of Covid-19 while stranded in India, days after the government’s strict ban on arrivals from the country began.
The family of the 59-year-old claim their father was “disowned” by the Australian government before he died. Now, they are pleading for help so their mother, who is also stuck in India, can return to Australia so they can grieve together.
The foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, has acknowledged the man’s death, and Australia’s high commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell, said consular assistance was being provided to the family.
However, Payne, O’Farrell and the department of foreign affairs, when asked by the Guardian, have not addressed the family’s claims that Australia’s high commission ignored requests to help repatriate or provide a ventilator to the man in the weeks before his death.
Sydney woman Sonali Ralhan’s father reportedly died in a New Delhi hospital on Wednesday, two days after an Australian government determination came into effect that made it a criminal offence for anyone to travel to Australia within 14 days of being in India.
The ban applies to citizens and permanent residents, who face fines of up to $66,600 or five years jail, or both, if they attempt to flee the worsening crisis in India.
In an open letter to the prime minister posted on Facebook, Ralhan, an Australian citizen, said she contacted consular officials in India a few weeks ago with “great hopes” they would help her parents, long-term residents of Australia, return home safely.
Instead, within weeks she would be mourning the death of her father.
“I write to you with so much anger brewing inside me,” she wrote on 6 May.
“I am an Australian citizen and highly disappointed to be one today.
“What nation disowns their own citizens? (It) is a matter of wonder for the entire world.”
India’s death toll has topped 230,000 and the country has been setting records each day with the tally of new cases. Hospitals are overwhelmed and oxygen supplies are low.
On Friday, the Senate’s Covid-19 committee heard from Dfat officials that the number of Australians in India registered as wanting to return had grown to 9,500, with 950 of them now classed as vulnerable. It also heard 173 unaccompanied children were among the Australians seeking to return from India.
At the committee hearing, O’Farrell was asked if he was aware of any citizens who had died of the disease while waiting to return home.
The former NSW Liberal premier said Dfat was providing consular assistance to the family of an Australian permanent resident who reportedly had died in India, but local authorities had not yet confirmed the cause.
O’Farrell said with the nightly infection rate in India being “greater than the population of Canberra”, and with reported daily deaths of about 4,000 people, he did not believe “anyone can put hand on heart” and say that Australian citizens or permanent residents were not among the deaths.
Payne on Friday extended her sympathies to the family, who she did not identify.
“Let me extend my sympathy, and that of the government, to the family of this person and to so many families that we know are dealing with what is an extraordinary challenge, with infection rates surging,” she told 2GB radio.
“There are very many families dealing with this challenge,” Payne said.
Ralhan told SBS News her parents travelled to India towards the end of last year and had been unable to secure flights back to Australia since – a symptom of the fluctuating number of quarantine spaces in Australia and the resulting impact on flight cancellations and ticket costs.
She said her father, who she has chosen not to identify, heard news of Australia’s entry ban while sick, “then his condition kept on deteriorating” while in a private hospital in New Delhi.
Ralhan said that without consular help, she was left to track down oxygen for her father in his final days.
“My father was still conscious and he heard the news. He got the email from the Australian government regarding the new rule and everything. He was sick, and in that condition, receiving this news really panicked him,” she told SBS.
Ralhan says her pleas for help – for repatriation or even assistance in obtaining her father a desperately needed ventilator – were ignored.
Instead of offering any real assistance, consular officials only called Ralhan’s mother periodically to “note down her distressed condition”.
Ralhan’s mother also contracted Covid and has since recovered, but is grief-stricken and isolated from her children and community in Australia.
“All I have left is my mother, who has been abandoned by her own government of Australia, with no way to come back to her children.
“We all want to cry our hearts out, but we are saving them for when we are all together again.
“With your current actions, there is not much to expect, but all I ask is to bring my mother home and gather the broken pieces of our souls together.”
The Guardian has contacted Dfat for comment.
With Australian Associated Press