As the country readies itself for the final week of the lockdown, doctors and nurses at Delhi’s GTB Hospital can’t help feel a sense of despair at a group of patients placed under their care. Even as they risk their own well-being and fight the disease at the frontlines, there is another factor none of them was prepared for – religious bigotry.
“It is just so frustrating at times”, says Dr Anjali, who has been tasked with monitoring the quarantined men and women, “we are trained to handle diseases, not unruly patients. We feel completely helpless.”
After the COVID-19 cluster at the Nizamuddin Markaz came to light on the 29th of March, the members of the Tablighi Jamat, the organization that held its congregation at Nizamuddin, have come under increasing criticism. Members of the mostly-male, ultra-orthodox organization have been criticized for not being co-operative, refusing to take medication, not following instructions of doctors, and intentionally indulging in risky behaviour that may further the spread of the virus. On Thursday, images from Hyderabad’s Gandhi hospital went viral. In these images, a group of Jamat men – who’d been put in under quarantine in an isolation ward – can be seen defying distancing norms and praying together. The next day, authorities in Ghaziabad district of U.P. had to file an F.I.R after female nurses accused some among the quarantined Jamat men of “making obscene gestures” and moving around the wards with their clothes off. The U.P. Health Department later ordered that only male nursing staff attend to the Jamat members.
While those quarantined at Delhi’s G.T.B. hospital have not misbehaved with the staff, they remain unresponsive to the doctors’ repeated requests for co-operation. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, another doctor says, “When the Jamat members arrived, I was on duty. With a colleague, I immediately went to each room to collect their travel history. Unfortunately, some of them tried to hide their histories, while others would not tell us all their symptoms. When we tried to take nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal swabs, they did not co-operate, and many were seen roaming around in the corridor.”
A member of the nursing staff, who was on duty in one of the wards, says, “Despite being given clear instructions to observe social distancing, they were seen performing the namaaz together again and again. They also refused to wear the masks that were given to them.”
The Markaz of Nizamuddin has emerged as one of the most potent epicentres of the COVID19 outbreak in India. What makes this place particularly dangerous is that it housed visiting preachers from various Central Asian and South-East Asian countries, who carried the virus with them. Later, infected members travelled all over the country for preaching work, spreading infection in their wake.
After the news of the hotspot broke, almost every state began large scale operations to trace and quarantine members of Jamat who’d entered its boundaries. States ranging from Manipur in the North East, to Goa on the Western Coast have been forced to re-allocate a significant portion of their resources into the work of contact tracing and quarantining Jamat members. A significant challenge to this effort remains the seeds of mistrust sown towards healthcare workers. On Friday, healthcare workers in Indore were assaulted while they conducted a door-to-door assessment of suspected neighbourhoods. On the same day, police in Uttar Pradesh’s Kannauj were assaulted after they tried to shut down a mosque where a crowd had gathered for Friday prayers.
Despite the difficulties, doctors at G.T.B Hospital stay optimistic. “This is an unprecedented situation for all of us. The entire country came together and thanked us for doing what we do” says Dr Anjali, “and that gives you strength. When you see the Prime Minister himself thank you on national television when you see people clap and cheer for you, that gives you the determination to not let such small challenges stand in your way.”