India acts against worshippers for spreading coronavirus; health experts call it counter-productive

Men, who according to officials had visited three Muslim missionary gatherings, waiting to be taken to a quarantine facility, in Ahmedabad, India, on April 3, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGALORE - As India tries to contain the coronavirus, the authorities are struggling to enforce physical distancing in a country that celebrates faith in large crowds.

One event in Delhi has drawn most attention. At least 9,000 people participated in the religious gathering at the Islamic group Tablighi Jamaat's headquarters in Delhi last month.

The congregation included members from the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, who subsequently tested positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Many Indian participants then travelled across the country for missionary work.

The congregation has thus become the largest known source for the spread of Covid-19 in India.

The Union health ministry said that of the over 5,000 cases of coronavirus here, about a third are linked to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation. Over 25,000 contacts have been placed under quarantine nationwide.

Several religious groups have ignored social distancing rules, and flouted lockdown regulations.

The police arrested a Christian pastor in Rayavaram, Andhra Pradesh for allowing 150 people to gather at a church for Palm Sunday, and drinking holy water from the same jar.

Bishop Zachariah Mar Nicholovos from Kerala posted for weeks on Facebook saying the holy book can transmit nothing but healing. He continued to have gatherings till March 28, when he tested positive for Covid-19.

A popular Sikh spiritual singer Nirmal Singh held many gatherings in Delhi, Chandigarh and Amritsar after he returned from a foreign country, and on April 2, he died of Covid-19. All the people he met are now under quarantine.

Over 800 people gathered for a Hindu ceremony on March 20 in Morena, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, on the invite of a Dubai returnee. The man had showed symptoms of Covid-19, but held the ceremony in honour of his dead mother.

The man and his wife, and 10 other participants have since tested positive.

Migrant workers are also at risk, as they remain stuck in crowded government shelters, stranded in cities around the country after India abruptly announced a three-week lockdown.

The police are detaining errant religious leaders and violators of the lockdown. Healthcare workers span the districts, tracing contacts of coronavirus-positive worshippers of all religions, and placing them under quarantine.

However, sections of the Indian media, social media and some politicians hold the Tablighi Jamaat particularly responsible for undoing India's gains in reducing the rapid transmission of the virus.

The Uttar Pradesh police has decided to book some Tablighi Jamaat members under the stringent National Security Act, which allows detention on government orders without charge or trial for up to two years.

Hindu-Muslim tension, coronavirus panic and fake news have since coalesced dangerously. Indian social media is today buzzing with Islamophobic hashtags like #CoronaJihad.

A popular video allegedly showing Muslim men licking plates to spread the virus turned out to be an old video of a traditional Bohra Muslim practice of cleaning the plate, so as to not waste food. Many other Whatsapp forwards claim coronavirus-positive Muslim patients spat on doctors.

A 45-second video accused a Muslim restaurant worker of spitting in the food being packed for delivery. It was retweeted over 2,000 times.

The same video seems to have gone viral in Singapore as well. The Singapore Food Agency issued a statement on March 19 saying the video was from April 2019, and that the man was only blowing into the food packet to open the flaps.

Paranoia has begun to impact treatment and relief work on the ground. On Monday (April 6) in Bangalore, members of a Hindu right-wing organisation allegedly beat Muslim social workers with cricket bats for distributing rations in a low-income locality.

"They accused us of spreading the virus deliberately through the rations," said Ms Zareen Taj, whose injured son and relatives are now in hospital.

The Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, a leading organisation of Islamic scholars in India, has filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking action against those spreading inter-religious hatred.

In an interview with a local news channel, Karnataka's state leader BS Yediyurappa said: "If anyone blames the entire Muslim community for some isolated incident, I'll take action against them also without a second thought."

Mr Zafar Islam, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national spokesman based in New Delhi, told The Straits Times: "The Indian government or the BJP has not stated that Muslims, or any particular community, is solely responsible for spreading coronavirus.

"Anyone responsible for spreading such baseless and untrue statements will be condemned, investigated and punished."

Mr Islam added that the government's focus is "on tracing, quarantining and treating people - from any community".

Mr T. Sundararaman, a co-convenor of the Indian chapter of the global collective People's Health Movement said filing police cases and revealing identities of high-risk people is counter-productive.

"The notion of attaching criminality to anyone who is Covid-19 positive is wrong. The stigmatisation and hostility will create a huge setback in our ability to control the spread.

"People will not come forward voluntarily or reveal their travel and contact history, to avoid being associated with spreading the disease," he said.

"The government will do well to send a strong message out that one should neither blame oneself nor any other group if the virus spreads. Fighting this pandemic requires cooperation, not fear," added Mr Sundararaman.

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