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Airport staff tighten virus masks and gloves

Time: 3.45pm

Place: The arrival lounge at the international terminal building

Indian Airlines’ flight IC 732 from Bangkok has just landed at Calcutta airport. There is a flurry of activity among the paramedics, doctors, Immigration staff, police and airport officials present. “Shob kichhu tight korey baandh, jate virus na dhukte parey. Ei asukher kono cure nei (tighten your masks so the virus cannot enter. There is no cure for this disease),’’ an airport employee barks out to colleagues.

“We are scared about Asitabha Purakayastha testing positive for SARS,’’ a police officer at the Immigration counter admits.

Paramedics and doctors at the airport are beginning to believe that their screening of patients is not foolproof. According to a Union health ministry guideline, the paramedics and doctors at the airport have been directed to segregate passengers suffering from fever and cough and refer them to Beleghata’s Infectious Diseases (ID) Hospital.

“Asitabha must have been checked when he had landed at Mumbai on April 18. The doctors probably could not confirm any of the symptoms and permitted him to leave the airport,’’ says a paramedic. However, he admits, the SARS symptoms may not have developed then. “So, we took no chances with Jamil Ahmed, a Bangladesh Biman passenger from Hong Kong and Dhaka, when he showed some basic symptoms on Sunday morning,’’ the paramedic explains. “Ahmed complained of feeling feverish and was coughing and so we immediately isolated him. He was put in an ambulance to ID Hospital,’’ Airports Authority of India acting director J. Kongari says.

Minutes before the passengers from Bangkok enter the arrival lounge, the paramedics and doctors tighten their masks and gloves. “The virus can sneak in through any gap. We must take all precautions,’’ explains paramedic B. Mukherjee at one of the counters. According to deputy commissioner of police (security control) P.K. Chatterjee, 20 countries are on the SARS radar and passengers from these countries have to fill up a declaration form along with the disembarkation card. They are made to queue up in front of the four counters.

Anish Kumar of UP is surprised to see masked men behind every counter. “I have been in Bangkok for two years, but with SARS breaking out, I decided to return. Has the disease caught on here too'” he asks.

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