UN aviation body argues for Covid jabs, priority status; when will India wake up?

National carrier Air India has shockingly lost five of its top pilots in May itself and is in dire straits

UN aviation body argues for Covid jabs, priority status; when will India wake up?
An IndiGo staff (left) and a SpiceJet staff being vaccinated. Image courtesy: Twitter/@IndiGo6E and @flyspicejet

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a specialised United Nations agency, has called upon states to treat aircrew, frontline aviation workers and those in critical safety and security positions as essential workers to ensure the availability of air transportation during the Covid-19 pandemic. The ICAO also advised that the aviation employees should be vaccinated "as an added layer of individual protection" and they should follow the recommended vaccination considerations and protocols.  

"Member states should facilitate access for aircrew to vaccination as quickly as possible within the World Health Organisation (WHO) Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation (SAGE) Stage-3 recommendations," the ICAO said in its Recommendation 18. 

"At such time as evidence shows that vaccinated persons would not transmit the SARS-CoV-2 virus or would present a reduced risk of transmitting the virus, member states may exempt such individuals from testing and/or quarantine measures in accordance with a state's accepted risk threshold (and) the Covid-19 situation," the ICAO had said. However, it added that "vaccination should not be a prerequisite for international travel".

Surprisingly in India, aviation employees have still not been accorded priority sector status by the concerned authorities. This has been the case despite the then Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola writing to his counterpart in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) Rajesh Bhushan, as early as January this year when India started the immunisation drive, saying that there was merit in the demand of the airline and airport employees to get vaccinated after the healthcare workers.  

Covid vaccines carried by IndiGo. Image courtesy: Twitter/@IndiGo6E

According to the guidelines issued by the health ministry on December 28 last year, initially around 30 crore Indians were to be vaccinated. This included 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 did 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,"  Kharola wrote in a January 20 letter, according to a PTI report. 

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

"Considering that the frontline workers of airlines and airports are also involved in the movement of vaccines, the MoCA recognises the merit in the proposal (of the aviation staff) 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.

After that, the new Civil Aviation Secretary TK Pandey wrote to the state governments on April 27 to consider personnel involved in aviation and related services for vaccination on priority. However, the states continued to drag their feet, which forced the airlines to formulate plans themselves and contact hospitals for inoculating their staff against the coronavirus. 

On May 6, a MoCA empathetic to the aviation sector's demands issued guidelines for the vaccination of all stakeholders, while suggesting that priority be given to Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs), pilots and cabin crew of airlines and mission-critical and passenger-facing staff. 

These MoCA guidelines were a result of its acknowledgement that "during the surge of Covid-19, the aviation community has risen to the occasion to provide unhindered services for the movement of people in need and the essential cargo (critical medical cargo like vaccines, medicines, oxygen concentrators, etc)."     

Oxygen concentrators carried by SpiceJet. Image courtesy: @Guidance_TN

Even after factoring in the vaccine shortage that hit India, especially after the drive was opened for the 18-44 years age group, it cannot be denied that there seems to be an unwillingness to accept the aviation employees as frontline workers notwithstanding the stellar role played by them during the pandemic. It is almost forgotten that air travel is one of the easiest ways to import and spread virus strains far and wide.     

Aircrew had worked even through the lockdown when it was imposed in India in March last year, carrying medical and other essential cargo to far-flung regions in India and also to foreign lands. Airlines carried essential supplies to India from abroad as well. This qualified the aviation employees as essential service providers and frontline workers, much like let's say doctors and police personnel. Sadly, the Indian government is still to officially recognise this fact.

Also read: Covid hits nearly 2,000 Air India employees despite study showing low risk inflight

Even before the cargo flights, evacuation exercises were undertaken to bring back Indians and even foreign citizens from some of the worst Covid hotspots at that time, including China and Italy. The national carrier Air India played a pivotal role in this, and evacuated people even from a quarantined ship off the coast of Japan and also carried evacuees from Iran to quarantine facilities in India. Foreign nationals were also sent home. 

Then came the mega Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) repatriation, which remains the largest such initiative in the Covid era. According to MoCA data, since the VBM's launch in May last year, and till April 30 this year, a total of 61,10,130 people have arrived through various channels -- land, air and sea. Till May 30, 2021, the Air India group had carried 34,52,741 passengers on 25,984 flights across regions like South Asia, South East Asia, East Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, Africa, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Caucasus, Oceania, Scandinavia and North America.    

There have been air bubble flights between India and 27 other countries that have kept India connected to the world at a time when scheduled commercial international air travel continues to stay suspended in the wake of the pandemic. 

As the second Covid wave crashed into the Indian shores and an acute shortage of vital medical supplies like oxygen started to create panic, aviation employees flew far and wide to bring Covid relief materials to India. 

While doing all these, the aviation employees have been badly exposed to the coronavirus and its various manifestations in India and abroad. Operating in the searing heat of the pandemic for such a long time, often doing multiple flights in a short span of time, getting exposed to foreign and often more virulent strains of the virus, the aircrew ran the risk of getting infected sooner rather later. And that is what seems to have happened. In the bid to reconnect so many families separated by the pandemic and the resultant travel bans and lockdowns, the aviation employees are now seeing their own families being broken apart. 

An Air India plane carries Covaxin boxes to Kolkata. Image courtesy: Twitter/@aaikolairport

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri had said in Parliament on February 11 that a total of 1,995 Air India personnel, including those deployed on the VBM, had tested Covid-positive till February 1. Out of them, 583 were hospitalised. Nineteen Air India ground staff had died due to Covid-19 and other complications.

According to data provided by an Air India spokesperson, as of January 1, 2021, Air India had about 12,350 staff on its payroll, including 8,290 permanent staff and 4,060 contractual staff. Therefore, going by the figures provided by Puri, about one-sixth of the carrier's staff were infected by the coronavirus.

The national carrier has shockingly lost five of its top pilots in May itself and is in dire straits. And we are not even talking about the staff of private airlines getting infected and dying while answering the call of duty. 

The high incidence of Covid-19 infection among the Air India staff seems to be at odds with an International Air Transport Association (IATA) report in October 2020 that suggested that there was a low risk for coronavirus transmission inflight.

By the time airlines in India decided to not wait for the government to arrange vaccinations for their staff and started vaccinating their staff themselves, precious time was lost. On the contrary, global airline giants like Emirates, Etihad and Singapore Airlines had already aggressively undertaken campaigns to vaccinate aircrew. In fact, it is a widely-held view that with timely vaccinations, the families of these unfortunate pilots, some of whom had children as young as five-year-old, would not have faced bereavement.