Swine Flu Message to Indians from Overseas

No one is yet telling NRI family members not to come home this holiday season. That would be cruel to the overseas breadwinners who keep the fires burning back home.

But with the spread of the swine flu, apparently being carried by NRIs in significant numbers, the message to them could well be: Do remit, but do not visit.

For a state like Kerala that is a beneficiary of copious amounts of remittances, it is a piquant situation. It happens to be school vacation time in many countries where Keralites abound, like the Middle East and the UK, and the expats are flowing into the state for their annual holiday break. And the first A(H1N1)-related casualty in the state happens to be a youth who had until recently been in the Gulf.

The medical fraternity has differing viewpoints on the issue, but what is apparent is that a significant number of visiting NRIs are suffering from flu. Half a dozen people arriving at the Cochin International Airport on Tuesday from destinations including Singapore, Dubai and Muscat were quarantined while NRIs from other countries including the US are in-patients in different hospitals across the state.

NRIs being affected should be a matter of serious concern for Kerala, considering their financial contribution to the state. Total outstandings in Kerala's commercial banks had reached a historic high of Rs 37,019 crore at the end of March 2009, reflecting a 19% increase over the Rs 29,889 crore in NRI accounts at the end of March 2008.

According to Anup Warrier, who heads the infectious diseases department at the Kerala Institute of Medical Sciences here, the government of India directive to avoid unnecessary travel is particularly valid for Kerala. "Recreational and entertainment-related travel should be curbed, because the possibility of being exposed to the disease gets higher as the number of affected persons increases", Dr. Warrier told ET. Mathew Parakkal, a former professor of medicine, said it was not practical to prevent NRIs from visiting their near and dear ones, adding that life could carry on with the necessary precautions. He, however, warned that the possibility of the spread of the disease was considerably higher in our country, considering the "high density of population in the metros, poor sanitary conditions and low education levels".

"Keralites are a mobile people, both internally and overseas. They are the beneficiaries of remittances, and for that reason should accept developments like a spread of communicable diseases that come through such wide travel", S Irudayarajan, a specialist in migration studies at the Centre for Development Studies here told ET.

Remittances have been so buoyant in recent years that any setback to NRIs can reflect significantly on home budgets in Kerala. According to Y Sudhir Kumar Shetty, COO for global operations of the UAE Exchange, the period 2004-06 was one of exceptional growth when there was a 34% year-on-year growth in remittances. That has dropped to about 22-25%, which are also considered healthy levels.

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