Saudi Arabia’s decision to ban all flights to and from India until further notice should force Indian civil aviation authorities to take stock of the manner in which Covid protocols are followed at the country’s many airports when clearing passengers for overseas travel.

Riyadh’s decision came after aviation authorities in Hong Kong and Dubai suspended air travel from India in the midst of concerns about the country exporting Covid-positive patients on international flights.

In both cases, it was the national carrier that was at fault; one case involved an Air India flight while the other was an Air India Express service. In the case of Hong Kong, it was Air India’s second suspension because last month, it was accused of ferrying 14 Covid positive passengers to the city.

The Dubai suspension was lifted a few days ago after Air India Express reportedly apologised and assured authorities it would subject passengers to stringent tests. But these developments were enough to alarm Saudi Arabia which has now suspended air operations to and from India.

Many countries require international passengers to carry a negative RT-PCR test certificate issued within 72 hours of travel, and for the airline to check that the certificate is in order. The occurrence of such cases in passengers departing Indian shores suggests one of three possible things ~ first, that the certificate was false; second, the test threw up a false negative report or third, that the airline did not check the passenger’s test report.

While Saudi Arabia’s decision will affect the many Indians who work in the kingdom, there is a larger worry that Indian authorities, especially the Ministry of Civil Aviation, must address urgently. For Indians face the real risk of being labelled international pariahs because of the galloping numbers of coronavirus patients and, worse, the widely held suspicion that those who have tested positive make up only a fraction of those actually affected in the country.

Notwithstanding the catalogue of achievements that the Ministry of Health seeks to reassure us with every day, the fact is that India’s numbers are growing twice as fast as the next worst daily performer ~ the United States ~ and its daily death tally is now the highest in the world. Already, many countries have begun tightening requirements for those arriving from India, be they nationals or visitors,

Singapore having become the latest to do so by mandating that all those who were in this country up to 14 days before their arrival in the island republic face stringent health tests. While it is not within the province of civil aviation authorities to manage the epidemic, the least that is expected of them is to take all necessary steps before allowing passengers to board international flights.

Unless the position changes drastically ~ and quickly ~ Indians may soon face the prospect of being left with just a handful of countries that allow them entry.