Dr Showkat Ahmad Lone
Outbreaks of disease, especially infectious disease, naturally create fear, but too much of fear produces social evils like racism and xenophobia. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed once again the social, political and religious fissures within and among communities. It has had a disproportionately large impact on marginalised people. History bears testimony to the fact that spread of infectious diseases has always been associated with “othering”. For example, during the “Spanish Flu”, the impression was created that the disease either originated or was most prevalent in Spain, both of which was not true. Similarly, the spread of Covid-19 from China in late 2019 led to China being blamed for its outbreak. Acts of violence against the Chinese or people who look like the Chinese have since been widespread. Chinese people have been barred from public places, including from grocery stores, in some regions.
Acts of discrimination can have ethnic, historical, political and religious contexts, but whatever be the reason, discrimination is detrimental to the social fabric of any country. There have been instances of political leaders using Covid-19 as a pretext to harden racial attitudes and to provoke anti-immigrant sentiments. A former Italian deputy prime minister wrongly linked the rise of Covid-19 cases in Italy to African asylum seekers and calling for closure of borders. Similarly, the US president called the coronavirus as “Chinese virus”. Various media outlets have been equally irresponsible in trying to side with the government without realising their responsibilities.
One of the most misunderstood terms in our times is “Jihad”. But now the term has been used more irrationally than ever. It has been associated with a rather dovish Islamic organisation known for its near neutral political views. Members of the Tableeghi Jamaat are always entangled in ways to purify their souls and improve their relationship with the Almighty, without paying much heed to what is happening around. The Tablighi Jamaat is a loosely structured non-political organisation but it has been accused of waging a “Corona Jihad” against non-Mulsims. A large religious gathering at Hazrat Nizamuddin markaz (centre) was organised in mid-March by the Tablighi Jamaat which turned out to be a hotspot for the transmission of Covid-19 in India. More than 5,000 people linked to the congregation (directly or indirectly) have tested positive and many of them have already died. The gathering attains more significance as it included people from more than ten countries, some of which had already reported clusters of Covid-19 infections in February. People of almost every state of the country participated in this gathering, thus carrying the infection throughout the country.
No doubt the gathering began before India declared Covid-19 as a public health emergency, but the gathering reflects sheer negligence, if not total ignorance, and could have well been avoided, particularly when the organisation knew that a similar gathering by its members in Malaysia led to a sudden spike in Covid-19 cases there. The organisers could also have gauged the severity of the situation from the closure of the two holiest Islamic sites in Mecca and Madinah. But the hate-mongering against the Jamaat in particular and against Muslims in general that followed news of Covid-19 infections due to the gathering was equally disheartening. There was a sudden outpouring of abuse both on social media and on primetime news shows against the organisers and the attendees of the Nizamuddin event. Some primetime anchors went on to label the gathering as a “conspiracy against India”. The attendees who were not able to leave the markaz due to the nationwide lockdown were labelled as “fugitives” who were evading the law by hiding in the markaz.
Pertinently, the cosmetic measures taken by the central government in banning some of the foreign attendees of the congregation was too late, too little, and leave a number of questions unanswered. Why did the government issue visas in the first place to people coming from countries affected by Covid-19? Even if the visas were issued long before, why were they not revoked?
The defenders of the Nizamuddin congregation argue that the restrictions on religious assembly of people were not in place when the congregation commenced on March 13. Even a press release by the Join Secretary of the Health Ministry on March 13 is quoted, which reads that “There is no health emergency, no need to panic”. Also, religious gatherings continued to take place at various religious places of different faiths across the country, including the Jamia Masjid, Golden Temple, Thirupathi Balaji, Siddhivinayak Temple, Mahakaleshwar Temple, Vaishno Devi Shrine, Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Shirdi Sai Baba Temple, and many more. These were only closed on or after March 16. Not to forget the visit of the Uttar Pradesh CM to Ayodhya along with a sizeable number of people (March 25), the swearing-in ceremony of the Madhya Pradesh Chief minister (March 23), and the ocean of migrant workers along with their families who assembled at various railway and bus stations in order to leave for their native places. All this happened when the national lockdown was already in place.
These incidents cannot be used as an excuse to justify the totally avoidable gathering that took place at the markaz in Delhi, because two (or more) wrongs do not make a right. The gathering has proven to be a monumental error and has spread the SARS-Cov-2 virus throughout the country. However, the response to such an unfortunate event from the Islamophobes, pseudo journalists, and sycophant media is even more unfortunate. The media trials were so biased that except for the markaz event there was not even a word of admonition or warning about all other gatherings. I must say that both the government’s and the organisers’ attitude towards the markaz gathering was lackadaisical, despite being aware that similar religious congregations in countries like South Korea, Italy, Spain and Singapore were responsible for large clusters of cases in those countries. The Tableeghi congregation could have easily been cancelled. In fact, the central and the Delhi state governments woke up only when the first fatality associated with the markaz congregation was reported from Kashmir on March 26. The attendees of the markaz event are now taking the unsolicited media coverage as a blessing in disguise because all the attendees and their contacts are being screened for Covid-19, while the fate of those who attended other congregations and gatherings at various places across India remains unknown.
Now, what has happened has happened, it is time to act as South Korea has acted: Trace, Test, and Treat. The responsibility on part of the markaz attendees is to voluntarily and fearlessly come forward and report to the health authorities, irrespective of whether they are symptomatic or not. The organisers can help the state governments by providing the list of people across all states who attended the congregation so that the tracing can be done without further loss of time.
Pandemics undoubtedly place enormous pressure on both the national resources and the socio-economic system of a country. This is even more so in developing economies like India. Apart from a well-organised healthcare system with broad coverage, social inclusion and solidarity are the two other essential factors on which an effective health protection system depends. In the absence of these factors, inequalities are multiplied and stereotyping persists with discrimination becoming a permanent feature. Therefore, in these testing times, everyone should do their bit to fight the common enemy, without stigmatising people for their religion, caste or creed. It is still easier to contain the biological virus than to stop the communal virus which can have much more lethal and far-reaching consequences.