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MEA’s plea to embassies on hoarding triggers disquiet

Many diplomatic missions in India have preferred to remain quiet on a statement issued by India’s foreign ministry, urging them not to hoard essential supplies like oxygen. But the statement has triggered some disquiet among diplomats, who expressed concern over the pandemic situation in India.

At least one diplomat, identified as Colonel Doctor Moses Beatus Mlula, a defence adviser of Tanzania, died after contracting covid-19 in India. Mlula died in the Base Hospital at Delhi Cantonment on 28 April, according to a letter dated 29 April from the Tanzanian mission to the Indian foreign ministry.

Many from other diplomatic missions are suffering from the infection.

“We are closely monitoring the situation and we will take all necessary measures to safeguard the health and well-being of our employees, including offering vaccines,” said the US embassy spokesperson. “Due to privacy concerns, we are unable to share additional information.”

Though diplomats were opposed to hoarding, some said that in “a life and death situation” they would do whatever it takes to save lives.

The trouble began when the Indian Youth Congress posted on Twitter that its volunteers had supplied oxygen cylinders to the New Zealand and Philippines missions over the weekend following requests. Foreign minister S. Jaishankar described this as “unsolicited” and the ministry later put out a statement urging not to hoard oxygen.

India, particularly Delhi, has been in the grip of a vicious second wave of covid-19 infections, which has led to a shortage of oxygen supplies, essential drugs and intensive care beds.

While no diplomat in the Philippines mission had taken ill, speculation is rife that the oxygen sought could have been for some Filipino national in New Delhi who had tested positive for covid-19.

While many missions declined to comment on Monday, one diplomat said: “Honestly, in a matter of life and death, you put the message out there and hope someone responds. True, our first call should be to the Indian foreign ministry, but after hearing the conditions in New Delhi, you want to get whatever help you can and the fastest way you can.”

The foreign ministry said the “chief of protocol and heads of divisions are in continuous touch with all high commissions/embassies and the MEA (ministry of external affairs) is responding to their medical demands, especially those related to covid. It includes facilitating hospital treatment”.

Another diplomat told Mint, also seeking anonymity, that it was the duty of the host government to provide certain protection and services. But “care should be taken that seeking help” from outside “does not create liability for the host government”.

Several embassies, including Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Norway, had evacuated their staff in view of the situation, leaving behind just a handful of personnel, besides local employees, to carry on with the functions at the embassies, the second diplomat said.

“Seeking help via Twitter for oxygen in an emergency should not be read as an effort towards hoarding”, a third diplomat said. “We see on social media the kind of requests being made. There is a shortage of some essential things like medicines. We hope India can emerge from this situation soon.”

According to a person familiar with the controversy on the Indian side, the foreign ministry was facilitating whatever assistance it could to foreign diplomats in New Delhi. “We cannot keep aside hospital beds and rooms at this time for diplomats. That aside, we are doing all we can,” the person added.

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