Archive for the ‘Coronavirus’ Category

Coronavirus survivors: aged 93, this Indian man did everything with his wife. Including getting Covid-19 Thomas Abraham is thought to be the oldest coronavirus survivor in India He and wife Mariyamma, 88, have never been apart since marrying in 1947. ‘If we can recover at this age, we could have a few more innings together,’ he says

By Sonia Sarkar

When 93-year-old Thomas Abraham was being treated for Covid-19 in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Kottayam, southern India, the one thing he missed was making black coffee for his wife, Mariyamma, 88.

He need not have worried, the two would soon be having their morning cuppa together again – Mariyamma had contracted the disease too and both were being treated in the same hospital.

“[At first] we were in separate wards but when both of us started missing each other, the doctors moved us to a two-bedded ICU,” recalled Abraham, now back at his house in Pathanamthitta, Kerala.  Abraham is thought to be the oldest coronavirus survivor in India . The doctors treating him called his recovery “a miracle” because any patient above the age of 65 is considered high risk.

Abraham, his wife and six other members of his family are thought to have caught the virus from his youngest son, Moncy Abraham, his wife Remany Moncy and son Rijo, who arrived in Kerala from Italy at the end of February.

About a week after the trio arrived Abraham and Mariyamma, who was suffering a mild fever, both tested positive for the virus and two days later, Abraham fell seriously ill.

The doctors did not want to take any chances so they moved the elderly couple to the more advanced Government Medical College Hospital at Kottayam, 58km away from their home.

Two days later, Abraham suffered a heart attack and was put on ventilator support for a week. During that time, all Abraham could do was think about his wife.


Indigenous groups with ‘no concept of social distancing’ at risk from outsiders

NEW DELHI — After 33 coronavirus cases were reported in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a remote crescent of 572 islands in the Bay of Bengal, experts began worrying about the indigenous people who live there.

“Even though all reported cases are among nontribals, our biggest challenge is to protect the aboriginals from COVID-19,” said Anup Kumar Mondal, a tribal welfare officer with Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), a government-run tribal welfare body. “If one person in the tribe gets infected, the entire community will be at risk because there is no concept of social distancing among them.”

Three indigenous groups, the Great Andamanese, Jarawas and Onges, who live in the Andaman island chain are vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their contact with the outside world. The fourth group in the islands, the Sentinelese, who killed an intruding American missionary in 2018, is said to be safe because their land remains off-limits to most outsiders.

The Andaman Islands are within easy range of poachers from neighboring Myanmar. This puts the indigenous population at risk of contracting the disease.

As a safety measure, AAJVS in February relocated all 547 Jarawas, mostly inhabiting South Andaman and Middle Andaman islands, to the western coasts of the Middle, South and North Andamans, which are patrolled by government agencies to keep poachers at bay.

“But the risk of contracting COVID-19 is high among the Jarawas because many suffer from respiratory complications caused by measles outbreaks in 1999 and 2006,” said Sophie Grig, a senior research and advocacy officer with London-based indigenous rights group Survival International.

The Great Andamanese, who now number just 76 and have had problems with measles, pneumonia and tuberculosis over previous decades, are also at high risk.

About 124 Onges living in Little Andaman Island who survive on government aid are also vulnerable. “Officials who are sent to their territory are screened to ensure that they are not carrying any infection,” Mondal said.

“None of the tribes have the immunity to fight it,” according to Survival International’s Grig.

Several government interventions meant to “civilize” the groups have instead made them “vulnerable to diseases,” said Ratan Chandra Kar, former deputy director for tribal health and welfare in the islands.

In 1970, the Indian government moved the Great Andamanese to Strait Island, 70 km from Port Blair, the capital. Now, the group is “dependent on the government for food, shelter and clothing,” and “alcohol abuse and tuberculosis are rife,” Survival International says on its website.

Similarly, the Jarawas have developed a taste for biscuits and bread, which they get from mainlanders who travel on the highway that cuts across their land. Some even prefer to wear clothes, provided by government agencies, which have given them skin infections.

Local doctors warn the risk of indigenous people contracting COVID-19 will rise during monsoon season.

“Cases of cold and fever are common among tribals between May and July, the months of [the] monsoon, every year. They may contract the infection when they visit hospitals,” said a doctor at a primary health care center for Jarawas, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But government officials say they are well equipped. Abhijit Roy, an official in charge of handling COVID-19 for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, said about 52 beds are reserved for the tribals. “Also, we are trying our best to keep them confined to their own habitat.”


This story was published in Nikkei Asian Review on May 5 2020

Arab netizens fire back as Indians step up anti-Muslim rhetoric on Covid-19

  • Discriminatory comments against Muslims, fuelled by the narrative that they are spreading Covid-19, have sparked anger
  • Some 8.9 million Indians work in Gulf countries and even a member of the UAE royal family has warned expats to watch their words

By Sonia Sarkar


Modi recently tweeted that “Covid-19 does not see race or religion”, but this has done little to change the narrative. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has urged the Indian government to take steps to stop growing Islamophobia, but India’s minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi on Tuesday said the country was “heaven for minorities and Muslims”.

On top of this, the perception that Indians are culturally diverse moderates and liberals is changing in Gulf countries. Khaled Al Maeena, a prominent Saudi Arabia-based political analyst who calls himself a “friend of India”, said its reputation was “down the drain” in the Gulf.

He added that a civil campaign had been started to highlight the “malicious propaganda by BJP and the RSS against Muslims” and “to decrease business relations” with India. “People are really angry here,” he said.

But will this social media outrage actually affect India’s relationship with the Middle East? Some 8.9 million Indians work in Gulf Co-operation Council countries, namely the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

India, whose yearly trade relations with these countries have passed the US$100 billion mark, imports 80 per cent of its oil requirements from the region. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have bestowed their highest civilian awards on Modi for bettering ties with these countries.

A BJP parliamentarian who has been closely associated with the party’s overseas affairs said on condition of anonymity that India’s ties with the Arab countries were “very strong,” and no outrage on social media over “allegations” about atrocities against Muslims in India would “affect it.”


Some Indians, however, ridiculed Arabs over their own poor record on “human rights.”

To this, Walid al-Hathloul, brother of a jailed Saudi Arabia woman activist, said that “human rights abuses can’t be addressed by whataboutism,” or by pointing on other human rights abuses to deflect from their own problems. Acknowledging that is a one step further to solve human rights abuses.


Rothna Begum of Human Rights Watch said, “Whataboutery type comments as a way to deflect from valid criticism is often used as a shield. The truth is that prevailing islamaphobia has led to terrible violence including the pogroms in India. Calling out such violence and misogyny referring to the tweet is important. Indian authorities should tackle such forms of discrimination and violence and likewise, Gulf states should also tackle the xenophobia, discrimination in their societies along with the institutionalized systems that disadvantage migrant workers.”

Meanwhile, over the past month, at least six Indian nationals working in the UAE – where Indian expatriates make up 27 per cent of the country’s population – have been sacked by their companies or face charges for allegedly sharing Islamophobic posts on social media.

The UAE in 2015 enacted an anti-discrimination law, punishing any form of discrimination against people and religion. Pavan Kapoor, India’s ambassador to the UAE, on Monday tweeted that any discrimination would not be tolerated and “Indian national in the UAE should always remember this”.


The hate speech issue comes at a time when Delhi is negotiating with UAE officials who have been pushing for India to repatriate thousands of stranded citizens who have lost their jobs amid the Covid-19 pandemic.


John Calabrese, scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said it was unlikely the Gulf leaders would “engage in a war of words or impose a tangible cost on India” because of their existing extensive economic ties.


Indians work in white- as well as blue-collar jobs in the Gulf, while the region contributes more than 50 per cent of remittances to India. “What if Indians in the Gulf lose their jobs and are sent back to India?” asked Alam from Maulana Azad National Urdu University.


The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom also recently said it was concerned about stigmatisation and blaming of Muslims for the spread of the disease, and cited a report that a hospital in Gujarat was segregating patients by faith in Covid-19 wards.

A shorter version of the story appeared in South China Morning Post, April 22, 2020


The Muslim missionary group Tablighi Jamaat has insisted they are being unfairly blamed after Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi, who heads their New Delhi centre, was on Wednesday charged with culpable homicide for holding a religious event that fuelled a surge in Covid-19 cases in India.
“We are being targeted as if Indians are getting infected only because of us,” said Mohammad Ashraf, a Delhi-based member of the group, who said it was the victim of media “propaganda” and would fight the charges against Khandalvi in court.

Twenty-four people who attended a Tablighi Jamaat gathering in New Delhi from March 13-15 tested positive for the coronavirus on March 31. The city’s authorities on Wednesday said 1,080 of the 1,561 cases in New Delhi were linked to the gathering, while more than 25,500 people connected to it have been quarantined.

India has 13,430 cases of Covid-19 and 448 deaths.

Soon after the cases were reported, the group’s international headquarters in Delhi’s mostly Muslim Nizamuddin area was sealed. Thousands of followers – including some from Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh – were taken into quarantine by police after it emerged they had attended meetings there in mid-March.

Anil Mittal, a spokesman for the Delhi Police, confirmed charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder would be laid under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, saying: “Investigation is on and arrest will happen.”

Another senior Delhi police official, speaking anonymously, said those charges were added to the initial brief after the deaths of some members of Tablighi Jamaat.

Mittal described the allegation that Tablighi Jamaat had been targeted for being a Muslim group as “baseless”.

Authorities have said some of those infected at the gathering had died, although the numbers have not yet been released. They also said people from other parts of the country and abroad kept visiting the five-storey building, and that the group had delivered sermons to large groups of people despite government orders on social distancing.

Tablighi Jamaat member Ashraf, however, said the visits occurred before India imposed restrictions on movement or gathering.

“On a daily basis, hundreds of members who pass by Delhi stop by at the headquarters. There were many such visitors even in March,” he said. “Later, many members were stranded after the curfew was announced on March 22, and thereafter the nationwide lockdown on March 25.”

He insisted that local police were informed of the presence of many members inside the building and that the group’s members cooperated with medical officers who came to inspect the premises.

Once the lockdown was announced, Ashraf said other Tablighi Jamaat gatherings scheduled in India were cancelled. “We are law-abiding citizens, not criminals,” he said.

A gathering in Malaysia organised by the same group in February was attended by 16,000 people and resulted in more than 700 infections there, while attendees also spread the coronavirus to Thailand, Brunei and Singapore. A planned March gathering in Indonesia was cancelled at the last minute.

Legal expert Faizan Mustafa pointed out that charging Delhi chief Khandalvi with culpable homicide was “wrong” because he did not organise the event to cause death. “Khandalvi had put himself at risk too by organising the event,” he said.

Francis Robinson, a University of London professor who is an expert on Muslim politics and Islamic institutions in South Asia, said India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Delhi police had a record of “unfair action against Muslims”.

Khandalvi had on March 19 played down the risk of Covid-19 infection by calling the coronavirus azaab – meaning divine punishment – and said it was a falsehood that people gathering in mosques would lead to more infections.

When the content of his speech went viral on social media, many Muslims distanced themselves from the group by calling it “insensitive” and “foolish”.

Delhi Minorities Commission chairman Zafarul-Islam Khan on Friday called Tablighi Jamaat members “callous” for organising an event at a time when the coronavirus had spread widely in Southeast Asia, but he also blamed the government for allowing international delegates to enter India at such a time.

“The government should not have given them visas in the first place. Even if they had come, they should have been screened at the airport, how did they reach the venue?” said Khan, who added that gatherings in several Hindu places of worship had taken place around the same time.

Soon after the incident, a large section of right-wing Hindus ostracised Muslims on social media. Many Muslims were blamed for spreading the virus by not wearing masks amid claims they had attended prayers in the mosque even during the lockdown.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan, chief minister of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, last week blamed Tablighi Jamaat for a spike in cases in his state, but experts have since disputed his claim. Media reports on Wednesday claimed a government-run hospital in Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, segregated coronavirus patients based on their religion.

“What is surely upsetting for Indian Muslims is the number of fake stories and images being circulated on social media under the hashtag #CoronaJihad,” said historian Shail Mayaram from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi.

Mujibur Rehman of Jamia Millia Islamia’s Centre for Social Exclusion said the government’s move to make the Tablighi Jamaat event look like the primary reason for the spread of Covid-19 in India was “wrong”.

This will eventually lead to more “disenchantment, frustration and anxiety among Muslims and also others who don’t want laws to be selectively used by the government against one community”, Rehman said.

Founded in 1926 in India, Tablighi Jamaat has a presence in nearly 200 countries and wields considerable influence in Islamic communities. The group is a global missionary society or initiative that champions practising Islam as it was during in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, from dressing to customs and rituals.

“One of the biggest motivations of Muslims who join the group is to move around in different places and preach Islam. But they travel and live moderately and are self funded,” Rehman said.

Robinson from the University of London said its members came from all classes but the bedrock of its support was “lower-middle-class Muslims”.

Additional reporting by Reuters


Doctors complain of intimidation for reporting shortage of safety kits, and attacks over suspicion they carry infection.

Sonia Sarkar

New Delhi, India – On March 28, when Kolkata-based oncologist Indranil Khan received images of doctors wearing raincoats in the COVID-19 ward of a government hospital, he shared them on Twitter.

The next day, the West Bengal state health department assured him that “immediate steps” would be taken to reject “substandard” personal protective equipment (PPE).

Within two hours of that assurance, Khan was detained by police for questioning.

“I was released the next day only after I posted on social media that the state government is working hard for doctors,” the 31-year-old doctor, who was charged with causing communal disharmony and criminal intimidation, told Al Jazeera.

Khan moved a local court to contest the charges. The court observed that no government can intimidate doctors, even those who brought “disrepute” to it.

West Bengal police official Gyanwant Singh, who is authorised to speak on the matter, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s calls and messages seeking clarification.

Harjit Singh Bhatti@DrHarjitBhatti

Doctors of AIIMS, RML, Lady Hardinge Medical College & allied hospitals refused to donate in They asked authorities to stop mandatory cuts of our salaries & instead provide us PPEs, security, accommodation, transportation & high risk allowance

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Social media posts gagged

With 1.2 million doctors, the doctor-population ratio in India is 1:1456, much lower than the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 1:1000.

Yet, doctors across India have been reprimanded for highlighting the government’s inefficiency in providing them adequate protective gear to fight the pandemic.

Recently, four doctors of New Delhi’s Hindu Rao Hospital bore the brunt of the authorities for highlighting the lack of PPE. The doctors were threatened with dismissal.

The federal government’s Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi asked the administrators of their WhatsApp groups to provide their names, phone numbers and email IDs to share the details with the police.

The hospital’s medical superintendent Balvinder Singh Arora told Al Jazeera the circular “will work as a deterrent for people who spread fake news regarding PPE shortage on WhatsApp”.

Despite Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for data on the current stock of PPE and N-95 masks, no government official concerned with the matter responded.

In a press statement on Friday, the federal government stated that the availability of PPE with the states has “doubled” and another two million N-95 masks were provided.

Meanwhile, of the nearly 9,000 COVID-19 patients in India, at least 90 are health professionals. On Thursday, a doctor in the central Madhya Pradesh state died of COVID-19.

Doctors fear an inadequate supply of PPE makes them vulnerable to the coronavirus

AIIMS doctors write to Modi

Srinivas Rajkumar T of the resident doctors’ association at New Delhi’s premier All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), said doctors and nurses in their COVID-19 wards were asked to wear the PPE usually worn while examining HIV patients.

“PPE kits meant for examining HIV patients are not equipped to resist droplets, and the coronavirus infection gets transmitted through droplets sneezed out or coughed up by infected patients,” Rajkumar T said.

But those who raised such issues on social media were being intimidated by the authorities, he said.

However, AIIMS director Randeep Guleria told Al Jazeera the health professionals posted in COVID-19 wards were getting PPE and masks that “met the international guidelines”. He “advised” the staffers to discuss their problems “internally and not post them on social media”.

But the AIIMS doctors still wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the “harsh backlash” they faced from authorities for demanding professional safety equipment.

There has been no response yet from Modi’s office over the letter.

“There is no gag order or censorship on doctors or other health professionals by us,” India’s Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Harsh Vardhan, told Al Jazeera.

“But they must approach the authorities to get their grievances addressed instead of going to social media. They can even write to me,” he said.

Rajan Sharma of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), a voluntary national body of doctors, added: “Doctors can come to us and not sensationalise problems.”

However, geriatrician Harjit Singh Bhatti, who started a social media campaign called “DocsNeedGear”, argued: “The aim is not to sensationalise problems but to make the voices heard.”

Staff members of a hospital in Kolkata carry candles and oil lamps to show solidarity with people affected by the coronavirus disease. [Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]

Recently, doctors in Indian-administered Kashmir were also threatened with “strict action” and up to six months’ jail for speaking against the government’s alleged failures in a circular.

“It [the circular] was for a group of health professionals who were using social media for a blame game,” the Himalayan region’s director of health services, Samir Mattoo, told Al Jazeera.

But Owais H Dar, the general secretary of Kashmir Doctors’ Association, said the doctors were sharing “only the truth” because they know the “ground realities”.

Political scientist Ajay Gudavarthy told Al Jazeera that by censoring doctors, the government was attempting to create “a sense of false self-image that covers up its limitations”.

Epidemiologist Jayaprakash Muliyil warned the authorities that censoring information would only add more confusion to the existing chaos.

“Doctors are busy fighting the pandemic, they don’t want to start a fight with the government,” he told Al Jazeera.

Priyanka Udasi@priyanka_udasi

Harrasing doctors is not helping. Let’s stand together in this and make it a better place to survive in. @narendramodi @PMOIndia @AmitShah @MHOIndia Make attacks on Doctors a non-bailable offence – Sign the Petition! via @ChangeOrg_India

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Make attack on Doctors a non bailable offence

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‘Fight inside and outside hospitals’

Besides facing censorship from the government on speaking out, Indian doctors have also faced attacks and social boycotts.

Last week, two female doctors at Safdarjung Hospital were assaulted by a resident for “spreading coronavirus infection”.

In the western state of Gujarat, a mobile video of a female doctor harassed by her neighbour for working with COVID-19 patients went viral on social media.

In Madhya Pradesh, health workers were attacked as they visited a neighbourhood to test some residents. Junior doctors in the southern Telangana state were labelled “dirty”.

On March 27, Al Jazeera reported that many doctors and health workers across India were evicted from their rental houses over fear of contracting the infection.

“I frantically looked for alternative accommodation but nobody offered one,” Shamima Yasmin, 23, a medical nurse in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, who was among those evicted from her home, told Al Jazeera.

The IMA condemned the social boycott of doctors.

But Bhatti said the medical body “did nothing” beyond the condemnation. “The doctors continue to fight their own battle – inside and outside hospitals.”


The story was first published on April 13, 2020 in Al Jazeera :

A combination of virus stigma, poor health awareness and ‘herd mentality’ have been blamed for the evictions across the country They come as epidemiologists warn India could have 915,000 coronavirus infections by mid-May, more than the caseload for the whole world right now

Cases of Covid-19 infection in India have ticked rapidly higher the past week, raising alarm over the ability of the world’s second-most populous country, with its fragile health care system and battered economy, to handle a future surge in cases.

While the country has officially seen 27 deaths and more than 1,000 cases so far, experts fear the real tally could be much higher and say the disease is already spreading in the community, a charge authorities have denied.

Yet even as the looming crisis unfolds, health care workers on the front lines of the fight against the virus are now being made homeless, thanks to what Mathur, the doctor in Jodhpur, blamed on “herd mentality”.

Some health care workers have been called “dirty” by their former landlords, while in the central state of Telangana, 22-year-old Nihal Mallela, a junior resident doctor at Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital, said he hides the identifying markers of his profession such as a stethoscope and white coat out of fear people will look at him “with suspicion”.

“Doctors in other countries are fighting the virus but doctors in India are fighting the stigma,” said a senior resident doctor at the same hospital, who only gave his initials M. P.

India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan has moved to assure the public that all precautions are being taken by both “doctors and staff” treating coronavirus patients to ensure that they do not become disease carriers, and the authorities have warned of legal action against any landlords evicting tenants on such grounds.

But a general lack of personal protective equipment is leaving the country’s health care workers vulnerable to infection. There have been numerous complaints of staff having to work without face masks, sanitiser and various other basic pieces of kit, with one nurse at a hospital in Kolkata saying they had been told to wear raincoats in lieu of hospital gowns.

Leprosy, tuberculosis and HIV-Aids patients had all been similarly stigmatised in the past, he said, adding that this time the panic was particularly acute as many were “worried about how a resource-poor India will be able to survive this pandemic”.

Modi’s government has announced it will provide medical insurance cover of 5 million rupees (US$66,500) per person for all frontline health care workers fighting the virus, and on March 24 initiated the world’s largest quarantine by ordering the country’s population of 1.3 billion people not to leave their homes for three weeks.

But there is concern it still might not be enough, and such a large-scale lockdown will be difficult to implement, particularly in a place where the poor live in close quarters and the social distancing measures being advocated in the West are almost impossible.

Along with the lockdown, India has also acted to curb inbound travellers from overseas. Should these measures fail to halt the virus’ spread, though, epidemiologists say the numbers could be staggering. A University of Michigan-run study predicts the country could have 915,000 coronavirus infections by mid-May, more than the caseload for the whole world right now.

This is what is making landlords nervous, according to 33-year-old pathologist Anirban Dutta of West Bengal’s Murshidabad Medical College and Hospital, who was also evicted recently.

“I told the owner of the house that the infection is mainly transmitted through droplets that come out when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and I was not infected,” he said.

“Plus, we stayed on separate floors, we didn’t use common spaces or utensils, she could not have contracted the infection from me. But she was not convinced.”

Kolkata-based psychiatrist Jai Ranjan Ram said the “hypocritical” behaviour of landlords who applaud health care workers one day and evict them the next could be explained by “poor health awareness” in the country, as well as a cultural tendency for Indians to mistrust one another which “manifests in the form of stigmatisation”.

Last week, leading public health expert Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the US-based Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, told This Week In Asia that

as many as 300 million people in India, or about 20 per cent of the population, will catch coronavirus

in the worst-case scenario. He maintained, however, that the overwhelming majority of these infections would be “extremely mild”.

In viral hotspots like China’s Hubei province, Italy, Spain and now New York, a rapid surge of infections brought a wave of patients to hospitals that exceeded their capacity for critical care. Doctors have been forced to effectively choose who lived and who died through the deployment of scarce resources like ventilators.

In India, that tipping point – if it comes – will arrive sooner.

Story was published in South China Morning Post:


The missionary group linked to an outbreak at Malaysia’s Sri Petaling mosque complex in February, has been criticised for holding an event in New Delhi This has snowballed into anger against Muslims in India, with social media posts suggesting they were the main carriers of Covid-19

Hafiza Sheikh, a homemaker in Greater Noida in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, was suddenly flooded with anti-Muslim messages on social media on Tuesday morning. Some of these called Muslims “illiterate” while others labelled them as “carriers” of the coronavirus infection.

Confused about the reason for these Islamophobic messages, she checked a news site and found out that 24 Muslims who recently attended an event organised by missionary group Tablighi Jamaat had tested positive in New Delhi.

“The entire community became the target of right-wing propaganda machinery,” Sheikh said. “Just once again.”

Social media users expressed anger at the organisation for holding an event in early March as the coronavirus pandemic was already raging across the world. A similar gathering by the same group in Malaysia’s Sri Petaling mosque complex in February, with 16,000 attendees, resulted in hundreds of infections across Southeast Asia.

The government has declared New Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, a neighbourhood of narrow, winding lanes where Tablighi Jamaat has its international headquarters, as one of the country’s 10 coronavirus “hotspots”.

Authorities said people kept visiting the five-storey building from other parts of the country and abroad, and that the group had delivered sermons to large groups of people despite government orders on social distancing.

Some people have fled quarantine centres in India, complaining of inadequate facilities and the risk of getting the Covid-19 illness But the Indian government says it is complying with WHO rules and improving facilities, saying old pictures are being circulated

Sonia Sarkar

An Indian government quarantine centre in Baramulla in north Kashmir. Photo: HandoutAn Indian government quarantine centre in Baramulla in north Kashmir. Photo: Handout
An Indian government quarantine centre in Baramulla in north Kashmir. Photo: Handout
Seven hours after she arrived at New Delhi’s international airport on March 16, Rhea Bhalla, a student in food business management in the US, was loaded onto a bus with 20 other people and taken to an Indian  government-run coronavirus quarantine centre at Narela, 40km away.

She was asked to share a dark room with another person. There was no water in the bathroom she had to share with six others. The washbasin and the toilet carried stains from previous use. There was no drinking water.

“The water they gave us to drink was poured from a water tanker. When we refused to drink it, we were asked to drink it directly from the tap,” said Bhalla, who rushed back home from an educational exchange programme in Spain that ended abruptly because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Bhalla sent pictures of the quarantine centre to her mother, who posted them on social media, leading to a public outcry. At about 3am the next day, after spending 12 hours at the centre and hours at the airport, she and many others were allowed to move to a hotel in the city.

Quarantine centre in Narela, Delhi. Photo: Rhea Bhalla

“I understand the importance of quarantine but this was not even fulfilling the set conditions of quarantine,” said Bhalla, who is paying US$40 per night for the hotel stay. At her quarantine centre, senior citizens with bad coughs were put into the same room that had put others “at risk of contracting the infection”.

It was the same fear of cross-contamination that forced three doctoral students from Uttar Pradesh’s Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) to leave a health care centre. After being self-quarantined for nine days in their respective hostel rooms following their return from Dubai, they were sent to a facility on March 18 where they were made to stay in one room.

“There were three separate iron beds with no bedsheets to cover them. There were no hand sanitisers and masks available. Nobody checked our temperature the whole day,” said Rather, 28, who is pursuing postdoctoral studies in economics and asked just to use his surname.

“Later at night, when we came to know that a person who recently travelled to Iran was supposed to stay in the same ward, we informed the hospital authorities in writing that we would leave for our homes in Kashmir because we feared getting infected from the new entrant,” said Rather.

A government-run quarantine centre. Photo: Bilal Ahmad Rather
A government-run quarantine centre. Photo: Bilal Ahmad Rather

They took a train to Jammu and then a taxi to their hometown in Baramulla in Kashmir. By then, the authorities had issued a letter saying the three had left without permission. This was leaked on social media before authorities retracted it. But the administration in Kashmir started to track them.

“I had just reached home and the police arrived to arrest me,” said Rather, who was taken to a district hospital in north Kashmir for quarantine along with the two others.

The facilities there were no better. They shared the room with four others. Beds were laid out next to each other. Seven people used one toilet. The dustbin in the room was overflowing with garbage.

“Nobody came to check our body temperature, we checked it on our own,” said 29-year-old Bilal Ahmad Rather, no relation to the other Rather and one of the three AMU scholars in quarantine. “A local who came back from China was kept with us in the same ward. Doctors said that we are fine but we feared contracting the infection from him.”

On Monday, they were moved to different hospitals, sharing an ambulance with nine

Vinay Kumar, who returned home with his wife to New Delhi from Frankfurt, Germany, on March 16, said he has no faith in the government system as they have not had any medical check-ups since arriving.

Kumar, who has self-quarantined himself along with his wife at home, said after their flight landed at 9.30am that day they were asked to “adjust” along with 156 other passengers in an “isolation” ward of 30 beds at a quarantine centre in Gurgaon. Their passports were seized.

“Till 10pm, there was no medical team to examine us, including two pregnant women. At 10.30pm, we were provided food – rice, lentils and vegetables. Later, we were asked to leave by signing a self- declaration form and our passports were given back. The buses dropped us off at the airport at midnight,” said Kumar, a researcher.

Videos showing broken beds, stained toilet seats and wash basins filled with betel juice and waterless taps were posted on social media, mostly from Delhi, Haryana and Maharashtra. People complained that no tests were conducted and no masks, sanitisers or soaps were given out to people waiting at quarantine centres for as long as 13 hours, in some cases.

There were reports of 15 people returning from high-risk countries suspected of coronavirus infection who fled two separate hospitals in Maharashtra’s Navi Mumbai and Nagpur.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), people in quarantine must be placed in adequately ventilated spacious single rooms with hand hygiene and toilet facilities. In the absence of single rooms, beds should be placed one metre apart.

The principal spokesperson of the Indian government, K. S. Dhatwalia, said India is following these rules. “We are able to offer certain facilities to people in quarantine and we are improving by each day. Some people are circulating old pictures on social media to blame the government,” said Dhatwalia.

He insisted that nobody is “escaping quarantine” and the government is bringing people back even if they do leave.

But the government is reticent in sharing the number of people quarantined and number of quarantine centres. “Data is lesser priority than saving life first,” Dhatwalia said in a text message. When asked to elaborate in a phone call, he said he “cannot provide” the data.

Unconfirmed media reports on March 18 stated there were 40,000 people in quarantine.

If the people in quarantine do not maintain the required distance and if washbasins or the taps they use are not disinfected, there are chances of cross-transmission.Epidemiologist Alex Joseph

Health professionals are worried that unhygienic facilities in quarantine centres can lead to cross-contamination.

“If the people in quarantine do not maintain the required distance and if washbasins or the taps they use are not disinfected, there are chances of cross-transmission. This can lead to a disaster because they are all vulnerable,” epidemiologist Alex Joseph warned. “People should make an effort to keep cleanliness at their own level as much as possible.”

A paper on coronavirus in India by people’s health movement Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA) and All India People’s Science Network (AIPSN), stated, “Before it sets in, the quarantines would work to contain the disease.”

The paper, which was moderated by T. Sundaraman, the former executive director of the National Health Systems Resource Centre, an advisory body to the health ministry, also stressed that people under quarantine have “rights that must be protected” as the state “empowers itself with huge, often unnecessary powers under the epidemic”.

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Doctors Association of Kashmir general secretary Owais Ahmad Dar stressed that quality quarantine facilities should be provided to ensure people in quarantine do not suffer from “mental stress”.

Bhalla has now filed a petition with pressing the government to improve quarantine conditions. About 50,000 people have signed it so far.

“But many trolled my mother on social media. We were told that people like us should never be allowed to come to India and we were brats asking for five-star welcome in the time of crisis,” Bhalla said.

A group of people who returned to Kashmir from the Gulf look on from a hotel in Srinagar, where they have been kept in quarantine. Photo: EPA-EFE
A group of people who returned to Kashmir from the Gulf look on from a hotel in Srinagar, where they have been kept in quarantine. Photo: EPA-EFE

Rather said that many locals “blamed us for spreading the infection without even knowing that we are not carrying it”.


For Bhalla, it was not the pleasant homecoming she had expected. “I was horrified not only to be at the quarantine centre but also by the vicious campaign that followed thereafter against us,” she said.

Story was published in South China Morning Post:

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