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UK south-Asian diaspora despairs as India joins Covid red list


For the past 17 months, Saurav Dutt has had to watch from afar as relatives were lost to Covid, ancestral homes were damaged by a typhoon, and the mental toll of isolation, grief and illness led elders to question their very existence.

He had flights booked for May, but with cases soaring and India on the UK’s travel red list from 23 April, that is no longer an option. “It’s a very worrying time,” Dutt said. “You would think there are a million ways to help from over here, but we’re handcuffed. To deal with these things we need to be there.”

With India joining Pakistan and Bangladesh on the red list, travel from all three south Asian countries with diaspora populations in the UK is mostly banned, dashing hopes for thousands of families of reuniting over the summer.

And many who travelled in recent weeks are stuck in limbo, unable to return home to the UK because of the cost of hotel quarantine and rocketing flight prices. This means a sea of financial and mental struggles as families are separated, jobs and livelihoods are placed in jeopardy, and schooling and exams are missed.

“The government’s big bang approach to red-listing Pakistan was insensitive and has punished British citizens unnecessarily,” said Zeeshan Mirza, who is returning to the UK from Lahore and has no choice but to pay the “extortionate” hotel quarantine charge, even though he is already in debt, as he needs to get back to his wife and child and to work.

Many feel they have been penalised for travelling on compassionate grounds and not given enough time to get back to the UK. “Not everyone travels for the purpose of a holiday and has affordability,” said one man, who went to Pakistan last month to help his ailing mother. He is self-employed and also needs to return to his wife and child.

Gohar Shah’s wife and three young children travelled to Lahore for her father’s funeral at the end of March, and he feared he would not see them again until home quarantine was allowed. “They need to come back,” said Shah, whose two youngest children have since fallen ill and had to be admitted to hospital. “But I can’t afford [hotel quarantine] as I’m already in so much debt and can’t take out any more loans.”

There was a sense of unfair treatment, with many pointing out that more developed countries with worse case rates have not been red-listed. And given that the crisis in India had been escalating for weeks, questions have been raised about why the UK delayed adding India to the red list, even when it was recording record daily cases, while countries with lesser outbreaks were added earlier.

“The only reason the UK took so long is because of the trade deal,” said Dutt. “Time is ticking and both sides need it signed off, but the UK need it more than India at this point.”

Another issue is that the UK does not yet have a system in place for fully vaccinated citizens to bypass hotel quarantine, and they question why the government cannot let these travellers quarantine at home.

Lives are on hold. One NHS worker in Derby, who is fully vaccinated, has yet to meet his one-year-old son. Repeatedly having to cancel trips due to lockdowns has lost him a lot of money as well as causing him mental distress, as he has not been able to get to Islamabad to bring his wife and baby home.

In January, Hamid Azeem and his wife sold their inherited agricultural land in Pakistan to buy a piece of land to build their retirement home, and the fully inoculated couple booked flights in May to complete the transaction. “Now if we go it will nearly cost us £4,000 extra and if we don’t go then we will lose our deposit for the land, which is nearly £7,000,” said Azeem.

Students who travelled back to India or Pakistan over Easter say they cannot afford hotel quarantine but are still having to pay their rent back in the UK, and are desperately trying to keep up with classes despite the time difference. Others say they stand to miss exams.

For those left behind in the UK, this will be a summer of missed opportunities to see parents, siblings, or grandchildren. “We don’t know how many summers we have left,” said one woman, whose father is in frail health and lives in Pakistan.

Murad Hossain’s parents, in Bangladesh, have not seen their only son since November 2019. The entire family hoped this would change by May or June, but once more they are in a state of uncertainty. “At times I’ve counselled myself not to be in despair,” said Hossain. “But will it be a couple of months or a dozen we wait? No one knows. The only thing I know is my parents are dying to see me.”



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