The Australian government is expected to give the green light for Australian cricketers who fled India for the Maldives to catch a chartered flight home, despite repeatedly rejecting offers to do the same for ordinary citizens.
There are currently 10,000 Australians stranded in COVID-ravaged India who want to come home, with around 1000 of them considered vulnerable.
Cricket Australia has revealed plans to charter a private jet this weekend to ensure the 38 cricketers do not take up spots on the Morrison government’s post-travel ban repatriation flights for Australians in India.
“We’re not seeking any kind of special exemptions whatsoever,” Cricket Australia chief executive Nick Hockley stressed.
“Any kind of quarantine arrangements would be over and above the cap.”
But the chartered plane has raised questions of double standards after travel agents told The New Daily they had repeatedly offered to fly Australians home on flights operating regularly from COVID hotspots – but the government rejected help even before India’s latest coronavirus wave.
In one email seen by TND, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told operators it was working only with Qantas.
Repatriation flights rejected by government
Abhishek Sonthalia, who runs Gaura Travel in Melbourne has been organising chartered flights for Indian citizens to return to their home country for the past year, and claims he could have easily put Australian passengers on return flights – if the Morrison government had allowed it.
“We have been requesting Australian Border Force approval for charters to bring stranded Australians home and they have been rejected,” he told TND.
Mr Sonthalia said the case of the cricketers was another instance of sports stars being granted privileges while Australians were left out in the cold.
“Unfortunately there is no powerful body backing the everyday citizens who are stranded in India,” he said.
“These cricketers took an exemption from the government to travel to India for monetary purpose.
“They went to make money for their own benefit and the sports body are going out of their way to bring them back, whereas people from Australia can’t go to India even for funerals of their own immediate family member.”
When contacted by TND, The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications said it was a matter for the states.
“Consideration of international passenger charter services … is subject to the relevant state government confirming they have quarantine arrangements in place that can facilitate these passenger arrivals,” a spokesperson said.
Desperate to be reunited
Pratishtha Bhardwaj has not seen her husband since they married in 2019.
Ms Bhardwaj was meant to board a flight from India to Sydney, where her husband lives, on May 4, just four days after the ban was implemented.
Classed as vulnerable, she is now booked to leave on May 22, but she’s terrified she may catch COVID before then.
“We have been trying to keep me safe, but since you can’t see it, you don’t know who has been infected,” she said. “It’s hard.”
To get back to her husband, Ms Bhardwaj has to travel for six hours into Delhi, the epicentre of the COVID outbreak, isolate for three days, and manage to not pick up the virus.
She is desperate to be reunited with her husband.
“We both are waiting eagerly. It’s been a very long time,” Ms Bhardwaj said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously said he anticipated there would be three repatriation flights before the end of the month “bringing back the most urgent of cases”.
“In addition, there will be rapid antigen testing put in place for everyone getting on the flights,” Mr Morrison said.
“The challenge we have had with arrivals from India is the higher incidence of infections and the stress that was placing on the quarantine system.”