India must use the lockdown for full contact tracing, especially after the Nizamuddin scare
Nizamuddin in Delhi has turned into a large cluster of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) cases after a big religious congregation was held in mid-March by the Tablighi Jamaat at the Alami Markaz Banglewali Masjid. More than 400 people showing symptoms have been hospitalised in Delhi alone and nearly 240 have tested positive; at least 10 have died. The spectre of large-scale community spread by a few hundred attendees from different States cannot be ruled out. That the three-day event began on a day when the Health Ministry said that it did not consider the novel coronavirus as a health emergency despite 81 cases being reported cannot be an excuse. After all, WHO had called COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11. The organisers should have been very much aware that a similar congregation organised by them in Malaysia in end-February led to a spike in cases there and the attendees had carried the virus to other countries. But the Delhi government is equally culpable as nothing was done to stop such a meeting except issuing an order on March 13 prohibiting the assembly of more than 200 people. What prevented the State government from following the Centre’s March 6 advice to States to avoid or postpone mass gatherings till the pandemic was contained? There have been several such large gatherings, religious and non-religious, in the country after India reported its first case, beginning with the Namaste Trump rally in Ahmedabad, to migrants gathering in a few cities including Delhi a few days ago. Until the lockdown began, many places of worship were open and political events held. Each such event could have potentially seeded the virus into the population and should have therefore been cancelled or prevented. But India failed despite being aware how global congregations — some linked to religion — had led to an alarming spread of the virus, examples being the large outbreaks in South Korea, Singapore, southern Italy and Spain.
States that already have cases with a link to the Nizamuddin event should now use the lockdown period to actively engage in finding everyone who has attended the event, trace their contacts, quarantine, test and treat them without losing time. Both South Korea and Singapore have demonstrated how meticulous tracing of contacts of a church event, isolation and aggressive testing helped prevent the highly infectious virus from spreading widely in the community. Ideally, the remaining period of the shutdown should be used to expand the testing to at least limited community level to find every suspected case linked to the attendee. The last thing that India can afford in the war against the virus is the disease acquiring a religious or class colour. Community leaders have been irresponsible, but those in the government have been lax too.
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