Fake negative test reports cause for concern172 passengers were turned away from Tribhuvan International Airport for furnishing Covid-19 negative results from the labs that were caught issuing reports to foreign job aspirants without testing them.
Chandan Kumar Mandal
Credibility of PCR test reports issued by private labs in Kathmandu has once again come into question after scores of passengers were barred by the authorities at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu from flying abroad for furnishing fake Covid 19 negative test certificates.
On Wednesday morning, the airport authorities and immigration officials offloaded a large number of passengers trying to leave the country using fake PCR reports on three different flights.
According to Pratap Babu Tiwari, general manager at the airport, a total of 122 passengers—72 Nepali, 49 Indian and 1 Pakistani—were prohibited from flying after their PCR reports were found to be fake.
The airport authorities removed 32 passengers from Salam Air, 36 from Jazeera Airways and another 54 from Air Arabia. The flights were bound for Muscat, Kuwait and Sharjah respectively.
Meanwhile, 50 other passengers—29 Nepali, 19 Indian and two Pakistani—were turned away from the airport’s health desk.
“These passengers had doubtful PCR reports which are mandatory for flying,” said Sushil Baidya, chief at the airport immigration office. “They were carrying PCR reports issued by the labs which were found to be issuing fake PCR certificates.”
Wednesday morning’s bust of fake PCR reports carriers, mostly migrant workers, came a day after police police raided two private labs—Sooriya Healthcare Pvt Ltd and Merit Multicare Medical Centre, following a tip-off that these facilities were issuing bogus PCR reports. The two labs were found issuing PCR reports mainly to foreign job aspirants without even collecting their swabs for the test.
Agents of Merit Multicare Medical Centre would charge Rs9,000 from candidates and would produce fake reports in collusion with Sooriya Healthcare Pvt. Ltd, according to the Metropolitan Crime Division.
Police also arrested eight staff members of the two labs for investigation.
“The passengers barred from flying were carrying PCR reports from the same lab the police had raided on Tuesday,” said SSP Rajesh Nath Bastola, chief of airport security.
The majority of the passengers had already taken their boarding passes and entered the waiting area when the airport authorities learned about their dubious Covid-19 test reports.
The incident has rekindled concern about the credibility of PCR reports issued by Nepali labs. Last year in November, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) had raised questions about the credibility of private labs after some Nepal Airlines passengers carrying Covid-19 negative certificates later tested positive at the destination airports.
Such malpractice is a cause of concern and can only bring a bad name to the airlines operating from Nepal and the Nepal government for transporting the virus to destination countries, stakeholders say.
“CAAN cannot decide about which labs should be permitted to conduct Covid tests for airline passengers. The government and the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC) can make such a decision,” Raj Kumar Chhetri, deputy director general of CAAN, told the Post. “Labs that have received the permission to conduct such tests must be genuine as it is not possible to verify the test report or conduct the PCR test at the airport again. We can only check whether passengers have Covid negative reports or not. Such a trend can bring a bad reputation for the country.”
Nepal Airlines faced suspension after several passengers it flew to Hong Kong were found to be infected upon arrival.
On October 3, six passengers on a Nepal Airlines flight to Hong Kong tested positive upon arrival. The national flag carrier was issued a two-week suspension for violating Covid-19 norms by Hong Kong authorities.
On October 22, nine Nepal Airlines passengers, who had twice tested negative during their quarantine period, were among the 11 new Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong. Authorities banned Nepal Airlines yet again, just four days after its earlier two-week suspension was lifted.
In November, Nepal Airlines faced its third suspension from operating Kathmandu-Hong Kong flights after another batch of its passengers tested positive for the coronavirus on arrival.
“We cannot designate labs for conducting PCR tests for passengers. The Health Ministry can list out labs that are deemed reliable,” said Jhanka Nath Dhakal, a spokesperson with the Department of Immigration.
Besides airlines facing suspension and Nepal inviting a lousy reputation, Nepalis migrating with fake PCR reports can also have another consequence—loss of jobs abroad for Nepali migrant workers.
“Nepal’s labour migration market has opened up after a disastrous year. And, if labour destination countries come to know about such malpractices, they can place Nepal at risk zone and might stop taking our workers again,” said Swarna Kumar Jha, a labour migration expert. “Such a large number of people trying to migrate with fake PCR reports shows there is a lack of monitoring from the government. It exposed that just because someone has a PCR report, it doesn’t prove its credibility as it is not verified again.”
Besides, the negligence has also come on the part of the migrant workers and the health professionals, as both have ignored the safety precautions at a time when Covid-19 cases are rising.
“The government can enlist some labs as reliable ones for conducting PCR tests for airline passengers,” said Jha. “However, such setup can lead to another issue like creation of a syndicate or monopoly of handful labs if not monitored through a mechanism.”