India's aviation staff seek Covid vaccination on priority; will govt be kinder now?

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri had said in Parliament that 829 Air India group employees tested positive for the coronavirus till September 10

India's aviation staff seek Covid vaccination on priority; will govt be kinder now?
IndiGo staff at Mumbai airport during Covid vaccine delivery. Image courtesy: Twitter/@IndiGo6E

Frontline workers in the aviation sector should be considered for Covid-19 vaccination on a priority basis after health workers are given the jabs, the ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) has told the ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW).

According to the guidelines issued by the health ministry on December 28 last year, initially around 30 crore Indians would be vaccinated, including around three crore healthcare and frontline workers, and approximately 27 crore people over the age of 50 years.

The frontline workers mentioned in the December 28 guidelines does not include aviation sector employees but armed forces personnel, prison staff and municipal workers among others.

"You will agree with me that the crew, engineers, technicians, ground staff, frontline workers in aviation have certain risk elements while performing their duties in a most diligent manner and make air transportation a safe mode of transport," Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola wrote to his counterpart in the health ministry Rajesh Bhushan in a January 20 letter, according to a PTI report. 

"Considering that the frontline workers of airlines and airports are also involved in the movement of vaccines, this MoCA recognises the merit in the proposal and requests the MoHFW (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare) to include frontline workers of airlines and airports along with frontline workers mentioned in the operational guidelines released on December 28, 2020," Kharola added.

Also read: Covid-19 vaccination to cover 30 crore Indians from January-July, MoCA fully ready

Airlines and airports had recently approached the ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) with the request that their staff be vaccinated on a priority basis after the healthcare workers are covered, Kharola mentioned in his letter. 

The airline sector, which has been one of the worst-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, has not budged from its responsibility of keeping the nation going, first carrying medical supplies and other essential cargo to the remotest corners during the lockdown, when regular air travel was strictly banned, then by repatriating stranded people to and from India, and then coming forward to ensure that at least the domestic air travel ban did not stretch for an indefinite period of time. What's more, even before the lockdown was imposed, India's national carrier Air India had flown deep into some of the Covid-19 hotspots like China, Italy and Iran to bring back stranded Indians and also foreign nationals.  

The aviation professionals have done all these at tremendous risk to their lives and those of their families. Air India revealed in May that five pilots who flew cargo flights to China and two employees of the airline's engineering services subsidiary AIESL had been infected by the coronavirus. In July, two leading Air India pilot unions said in a letter to CMD Rajiv Bansal that 55 pilots had already contracted the virus. In an internal circular dated July 20, the airline noted that some of its employees had died due to the disease.

Also read: 7 crippling problems Air India employees faced during Covid-19 battle

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said in Parliament on September 17 last year that 829 Air India group employees, including pilots and cabin crew members, had tested positive for the coronavirus till September 10.    

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a massive Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package in May to rejuvenate the economy dented by Covid-19. However, unlike several other countries, the Indian aviation sector has not had any special financial support from the government despite being one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, and despite playing such a pivotal role in the economy. It would now be interesting to see if the government takes a kinder approach towards the aviation sector as far as Covid-19 vaccination is concerned.    

Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan tweeted on January 27 that more than 23 lakh health workers have already been vaccinated across the country, and nearly three lakh beneficiaries were vaccinated till 6 pm on the 12th day of the vaccination drive. PM Modi had launched the nationwide Covid-19 vaccination drive on January 16, 2021. 

Puri had said at a press conference in New Delhi on December 29 that the Covid-19 vaccine was expected to be available in India from January 2021, and the effort would be to vaccinate nearly 30 crore Indians from January to July 2021, for which at least 60 crore doses were needed.