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Airport scan for VIPs, carrier moves free

A drama in three acts was played out at the airport through Monday night and Tuesday morning. And SARS was at the centre of it all.

First, the Monday midnight drama. Hazari Prasad had been moving about freely inside the international terminal for an hour after arriving by a Thai Airways flight at 11.15 pm, waiting for two senior doctors — “on round-the-clock duty” — to return to their post at the arrival lounge. The man from Gorakhpur was directed to a corner and asked to wear a mask but, irritated, he approached the Immigration counter and pleaded with the officers to let him go.

“Why are you harassing me' I am fine,” he said. With two senior health officers missing in action, Airports Authority of India (AAI) officials rushed to the arrival lounge and directed the police to detain him and ensure isolation. “We fumigated the aircraft before allowing it to return to Bangkok at 4 am,” said AAI deputy general manager B.K. Goswami. Prasad was taken to Beleghata’s Infectious Diseases Hospital at 5 am.

The second drama unfolded around 10 am on Tuesday, when a special flight bearing the 77-member Vietnamese delegation (including Prime Minister Nong Duc Manh and 10 other VIPs) landed at the airport. The visitors made it clear that the 11 VIPs would not go through the “humiliating regimen” of SARS tests. They had run the gamut of tests at Hanoi and, therefore, there was no reason to put them through the grind again, they argued.

AAI officials, however, insisted that every visitor pass the WHO-directed check-up. AAI director J. Kongari even citied the example of defence minister George Fernandes, who was subjected to SARS tests in New Delhi despite having undergone them in Beijing. With the Vietnamese sticking to their stance, airport officials contacted the Union health ministry and the ministry of external affairs, who backed AAI’s play and slammed the doors on any ‘special treatment’. The 15-minute stand-off ended with every member of the Vietnamese delegation going through the check-up.

But it was a Mumbaiker, coming on a holiday to Calcutta, who bore the brunt of the SARS scare. He was quarantined for his cough by panicky co-passengers on board the Jet Airways flight, the pilot told ground-control officials. A team of doctors arrived around 11.15 am — an hour after the flight touched down — to find that the quarantined passenger was merely suffering from bronchial asthma.

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