Gangtok, May 7:

With the country in its third phase of the lockdown from May 4, and the Ministry of Home Affairs on April 29 announcing that all states will have to start making arrangements to bring back their stranded people in coordination with other states. Many Sikkimese people have returned home to Sikkim of May 5.

It had been announced by the State Government on May 2 that all returnees will have to comply to a mandatory screening where they will be assessed by local medical authorities at the state’s check posts- Rangpo and Melli, and according to their assessment will have to go through a 14 day home quarantine or institutional quarantine. Earlier, many returnees had to go through the quarantine process at home or at institutional facilities, but this is the first time that this has been implemented on such a large scale. If the returnees are advised institutional quarantine, they have the option of staying in a free quarantine facility or in a paid quarantine facility. Many hotels across the state have volunteered their premises for the paid facility quarantine.

On May 5, the first batch of 76 stranded returnees was reported to have entered the state from parts of West Bengal by an SNT bus which followed social distancing norms as well as sanitation norms. Among them, 26 persons opted for the paid quarantine facility while the remaining 50 opted for the free quarantine facility. None of the 76 returnees was given home quarantine. In addition, the Chief Minister P.S. Tamang informed on May 6, in a press conference that the state’s first testing centre will be operable from May 15.

The clause in the undertaking of the persons opting for the free quarantine facility will have to make their own arrangements for bed sheets, blankets and pillows, has caused quite a stir among the netizens of Sikkim. Their primary grievance is why the State Government isn’t arranging for this.

District Collector East IAS Raj Yadav on this matter says, “The Government cannot look after everything, given the situation. And we cannot use the Chief Minister Relief Fund for everything since the budget is also for other miscellaneous things; this arrangement can be made by the returnees as well”.

The DC explained that the free quarantine facility will maintain social distancing with all food and medical wellbeing looked after by the Government, whereas the paid facility quarantine will be at a hotel, with a host of facilities, will be offered besides the usual ones set up by the state government, like Television.

“The paid facility will cost Rs. 1000 per day for food and lodging excluding additional charges. They will be tended to by the hotel staff under the guidance and authority of Government Healthcare authorities. For Rs. 1000 per day, the paid quarantine facility is quite reasonable. As of today, 50 hotels have a volunteer to be paid quarantine centres”.

The paid facility quarantine is mostly located in hotels, which mentioned earlier have volunteered their premises for this purpose. This decision to make paid quarantine facility in hotels has also caused the State government to receive flak due to the close proximity of the paid quarantine facility with the capital in Gangtok. Comments such as these have surfaced on digital media platforms:

Credit: Mechung Bhutia, Facebook
Credit: Bhanu Pratap, Facebook

While most of the returnees have opted to avail the free quarantine facility. The returnees availing the free quarantine facility will have to sign the following undertakings:

The returnees opting for the paid facility quarantine will have to sign the following undertaking:

Dr Diki Wangmu Phempu, Chief Medical Officer (CMO East) and the In-charge of Facility Quarantine, East informed SC that thorough screenings are being done on all returnees with tests for fever, cough and shortness of breath amongst others. After this assessment done by them (medical authorities) they will instruct the returnee either towards home quarantine or institutional quarantine.

The paid quarantine facility or the free quarantine facility will be then decided by the returnee with the Administrative section which is being dealt with by the District Collector East IAS Yadav, Additional District Collector East (ADC) and the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), who will ask which quarantine facility they would prefer and according to that, they will be placed.

“Since Siliguri and many West Bengal districts are under the red zone we are sending most returnees to institutional quarantine rather than home quarantine in order to better protect our state. Only in rare exception case, we are sending returnees to home quarantine. The institutional quarantine is then divided into paid facility and Government supported or free facility. There isn’t a vast difference in regard to the facility in both paid and free quarantine, both are equally good, but some people don’t want to share a room, some free quarantine facility will have to have shared rooms while maintaining 6 feet distance with shared bathrooms. Some parents don’t want their children sharing bathrooms or even the room so they opt for the paid. Otherwise, there isn’t a difference in regard to food and other facilities, so I think that is the only difference,” she says.

As of May 7, these are the quarantine facilities in Sikkim:

Initially on May 2 the above were the list of the quarantine facilities, free and paid across the state.

Sikkim is not the first state in India to implement the use of paid and free quarantine facilities, states like Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi etc. In major cities of Odisha, close to 50 hotels have been designated as paid quarantine facilities for 14 days with rates ranging between Rs. 450- Rs 2000 per day.

The Delhi Government on May 6 announced that Indian returnees from abroad arriving at the Delhi airport will be quarantined at a paid facility for a period of 14 days, which will also commence one of the largest air rescue operations in the world, with Air India and its subsidiary Air India Express will start the first phase of the rescue mission, operating 64 flights in seven days to bring back 14,800 stranded Indians from 12 countries.

While some posts show, returnees or those who have been quarantined at a government facility complaining about the lack of commodities, other posts commend and congratulate the Administration on doing a wonderful job on the free facility. With contradicting reports, SC decided to speak to various returnees from both free and paid quarantine facilities to better understand and from a cumulative opinion.

A dancer, along with 7 other friends was evacuated from Guwahati and currently quarantined at a free facility in Ranipool, informed us that the staff and the healthcare workers have all been gracious to them. While they are sharing a room between the seven who returned together, the staff have been fetching the commodities they request, as well as the food has been nicely prepared and given thrice a day. While he has no complaints with his quarantine facility and has quoted it as a ‘comfortable stay.’

In regard to the ‘facilities’ available at the paid facility quarantine, we spoke to two returnees who also gave us contradicting information. While one returnee from South Sikkim, who travelled from Delhi and is currently isolated at a hotel in Mining, Karfector says, “I would say the quarantine facility has been exceptional, the food has been very good and nutritional, whole there were mismanagement during our evacuation from Delhi to Sikkim, I have no complaints in regard to the facility. The essential commodities we request are fetched by the hotel staff promptly, and they are very polite with us. I have been quarantined with one more person and social distancing norms have been followed completely. We are being given food 4 times a day- breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner and we will have to pay Rs. 1000 per day excluding the GST, SGST and other charges, and we can also avail the room service facility. So far, I would say I’ve had a very nice stay at the facility.”

She commended the hotel staff for practising social distancing in all forms.

While another returnees says he has some complaints. A nutrition student from East Sikkim, pursuing higher education at Delhi, he says had to wait almost 6 hours to be ferried from the check post to the quarantine facility. He is currently isolated at Lemon Tree Hotel which is a paid quarantine facility. His grievances with the facility are that WIFI is not being provided by the hotel and when asked why he was reprimanded. 

“Students have online classes and assignments to complete, just because we are quarantined doesn’t mean life stops. Also to better oast time we can do our assignments if WIFI was provided by the hotel. I have tweeted in this as well, but as of now nothing jas changed,” he said.

“Every day for the past week, they have been getting potatoes- breakfast, lunch, dinner. There is no meat or even eggs being served to us. Being a nutrition student, I know how important protein is to my diet, but we are only getting to eat potatoes.”

Another of his grievances is that the hotel staff have been treating them like ‘patients’; he says that when food is served, the staff ring the bell, leave food next to a table and run away. 

With varying reports and statements in both the paid and free quarantine facilities, it is indeed hard to say that which public opinion is the correct one. For now, all the general public can do is to wait for the pandemic to somehow finish, or learn to live with it. One way or another, the quarantine facilities will be here for a long time.

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