Coronavirus: Indian community leader backs call to temporarily ban travellers from India

The Indian community is split over the Government's controversial move to suspend entry to New Zealand for travellers from India, after a spike in COVID-19 cases at the border. 

India is currently experiencing a rapid increase in infections and deaths - the number of reported cases each day has multiplied by six in the past few weeks, and deaths by a similar amount. 

And there has been a growing number of cases from India detected at the border - more than half of all imported cases in the last couple of months have originated on the subcontinent. 

While there have been past spikes in positive arrivals from other countries - notably the US and UK - the percentage of arrivals from India testing positive has "shot up towards 10 percent in recent weeks", according to Michael Plank, maths professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and a researcher at Te Pūnaha Matatini, which does disease modelling to help guide the Government's COVID-19 response. 

Paul Patel, president of the NZ Indian Central Association - which represents 14 different local Indian community groups around the country - said he's heard a "mixture" of responses, but backs the temporary travel ban.

"I can understand why the Prime Minister has chosen India over say American countries like Brazil and the USA," he told Newshub. "The amount of travellers returning from there compared to the amount of travellers that are testing positive on day zero, the numbers are very high from India."

As the world's second-most populous country, India's death toll has is large - 167,000 to date - but many expected it to be much worse. While various theories have been suggested for its resilience to date, the new spike in cases has happened extremely quickly - taking just a few weeks to surpass September's peak of 100,000 daily cases, which took months to reach.

India's cases are spiking.
India's cases are spiking. Photo credit: Our World in Data

Patel said it was a "fair call" to stop arrivals in the meantime, saying Kiwis and Indians resident New Zealand should have realised as the pandemic took hold around the world, travelling overseas was perhaps a bad idea.

He recently decided not to travel to India after a family member died, saying it was "too risky". 

"There are still New Zealand citizens that leave... and travel to India. Sometimes decisions have got to be made especially from here about whether we should travel or not. For safety reasons, a lot more people need to consider, do they need to travel?"

"Yes, there are some sad stories that the Prime Minister mentioned - I've heard those throughout since around about March last year... Some of them may not have finances, but the majority will be able to cope with this unexpected two-and-a-half-week period. Yes, there are some that probably want to get here, but I think they need to realise... you're going under your own free will. 

"When we leave the shores here, during this COVID period we need - as travellers, as New Zealand citizens - need to be aware it is our issue. It is not always our Government's issue... this is only a short-term measure."

That said, he did say the Government should perhaps have let more Kiwis from India in before the current wave of infections took hold, rather than save spaces in managed isolation and quarantine for entertainers like Australian children's pop group The Wiggles. 

"We've got families stuck over there, children stuck over there. We feel for them. Maybe those sort of people, those sort of passengers, those sort of New Zealand citizens probably should have been more concentrated on, than other people."

But not all Indian community leaders agree. Sunil Kaushal, president of the Waitakere Indian Association, told The AM Show the travel ban was "adding injury to the insult".

"It's not the right decision, we feel. The community doesn't feel like the team of 5 million when you're actually pointing out a specific race. Are you telling me there haven't been cases from other countries like Europe and the UK?"

He said people travelling from India were likely catching the virus on the flights here. There are no direct flights from India at present, with travellers having to pass through international travel hub Dubai. 

"They are catching it probably on the flight. Are we not trusting our MIQ?" 

Kaushal questioned why Brazil wasn't singled out. The pandemic is currently ravaging the South American nation, with 4000 people dying a day. It's expected the death toll there - currently 345,287 - will eventually overtake that in the US, despite its much smaller population. A homegrown new variant, P.1, is believed to be deadlier and more transmissible than the original strain. 

Few people arrive in New Zealand from Brazil testing positive for the virus, however. A look over the last month of reports only brings up a couple of cases - while Thursday had 17 from India alone. 

People require a pre-departure negative test before boarding a flight to New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has queried whether they are being done properly in India.

"Was it that we were getting inaccurate pre-departure testing information?" she said in a Facebook Live video on Thursday night. "Was it that testing was being conducted in a different way? We haven't been able to get to the bottom of that but we are still concerned enough about the number of cases coming through, particularly from India, that we decided what we need to do is suspend those flights for a short period of time."