Last month, when Deepti Tamhane was relocating from Mumbai to London, her mind was marbled with thoughts of the future.
Along with her husband and two children, she boarded the flight with a heavy heart. She was leaving behind a country she had spent many years in and which was just starting to recover from a devastating second wave of COVID-19. But she was also grateful to have her kids be able to go to a brick-and-mortar school in London, as opposed to the many months of online schooling they had behind them in India.
Tamhane expected the move to a new country amid a global pandemic to be tough. What she didn’t expect was that her travel story would take the internet by storm.
“We were waiting for India to move out of the Red list, but we weren’t sure how long it would take. So we decided to route through Serbia to avoid hotel quarantine [in London],” Tamhane told VICE.
Back in July, many countries were either cancelling flights from India or restricting Indian travellers with mandatory tests and quarantines. All this, amid a vaccine shortage in the world’s second most populated country. At the time, India had administered at least one dose to 22.4 percent of its population but only 5.3 percent of the entire population had been fully vaccinated.
The Tamhanes, fortunately, had received both their doses of Covishield, an Indian version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca’s AZD-1222 formulation and the principal vaccine being used in India’s mass immunisation drive. Other vaccines available in India, such as Sputnik and Covaxin, were not being accepted abroad.
The family first arrived at Frankfurt airport after which they were to fly to Belgrade in Serbia and from there, to London. “That morning, we learned that Serbia had banned Indians from entering. So we made our way to the airline customer service desk, where we were asked for our documents and, of course, our vaccine certificate,” said Tamhane.
What followed was an exchange so strange, it couldn’t be fiction.
“The woman at the desk saw the photograph on the certificate, then looked at me and then back at the certificate,” said Tamhane. “I could tell she was suspicious of me. She angrily asked how I could submit this vaccine certificate when the photo on the document was not mine. She called a colleague to the counter. He too did a double take and repeated what she had said, that the photo on the document was completely different.”
Tamhane was initially confused about what this meant.
And then, the lady pointed to a picture on her vaccine certificate that was actually that of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.
Tamhane tried explaining to her that the picture was obviously not hers. “The woman at the customer service desk was so shocked. She looked at my vaccine certificate over and over again. She told me that she deals with passengers day in and day out, but this was the first time she had seen any prime minister’s photo on a personal document. She thought we were committing a fraud.”
Modi’s photo on the vaccine certificate has been the subject of much debate as India became probably the first and only country whose head of state is using the vaccination drive as an opportunity to promote himself and his politics.
The provisional certificates issued by the Indian Health Ministry prominently feature Modi, along with pithy encouragements in English and Hindi saying “Together, India Will Defeat Covid-19” and “Davai Bhi Aur Kadai Bhi (medicines as well as rigour).”
Opposition parties such as the Indian National Congress saw the use of the Prime Minister’s photograph as a ploy to influence voters before upcoming elections in several states. Not surprisingly, the Election Commission of India had to intervene and ask that the photo be taken down in those states. The photo became a hot topic of discussion in the Indian Parliament and effectively polarised Twitter.