India scours mosques to trace Tablighi Jamaat gathering attendees

Paramedics take down the names of Muslim pilgrims in New Delhi before they are taken to a quarantine facility. (AP pic)

NEW DELHI: As coronavirus cases rose across densely-populated South Asia, authorities scoured mosques in northern India on Wednesday trying to trace people who attended the gathering of a Muslim group in New Delhi that later emerged as an infection hotspot.

Thousands of people from across India and some from countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, had visited the headquarters of the Sunni Muslim missionary movement, Tablighi Jamaat, in a narrow winding Delhi lane last month, participating in prayer sessions and lectures over several days.

With no public transportation and all movement stopped due to a nationwide lockdown, thousands of people had been stranded inside the Tablighi centre’s dormitories after the meeting ended while others had left the city, the administrators said.

Delhi’s Health Minister Satyendra Jain said 2,335 people were taken out of the Tablighi centre and its mosque over a 36-hour period that ended on Wednesday.

“They have been sent to quarantine centres, others who showed symptoms are in hospitals,” he said.

Television images on Wednesday showed health officials in protective gear escorting people out of mosques in India northern state of Uttar Pradesh as the search for the people who attended and whoever they came in contact with progressed.

“We are asking all these people who attended the meeting to surrender themselves wherever they are in the country, if they are in mosques they must inform officials so they can be taken and put into quarantine,” Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia said.

India has had 1,397 cases of coronavirus of which 35 have died, according to the latest figures from the health ministry, still a small number compared with the United States, Italy and Spain.

At least 128 cases have been tied to the Tablighi centre, and seven of these have died, making it the first big cluster since infections began spreading in the world’s second most populous country last month.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a 21-day lockdown that will end in mid-April in a desperate bid to stave off an epidemic among India’s 1.3 billion people.

With hundreds of millions living in cramped, unhygienic conditions, there are fears that India’s fragile health system could be easily overwhelmed if the coronavirus takes root.

But the world’s largest shutdown has left millions of economically vulnerable people jobless and led to a mass exodus from the cities to the countryside.

South Asia surge expected

With one-fifth of the world’s population, millions of whom live on the edge of poverty, South Asia could see a surge of cases, health experts say. Pakistan had 2,039 people infected with the virus after a jump of 240 cases on Tuesday, the largest single-day rise, government statistic showed.

Most of the new cases were related to a Pakistani branch of the Tablighi which put off its meeting in Lahore at the last minute because of fear of the virus, but by then hundreds had already landed up at its centre in the eastern city.

“The last 24 hours has seen a substantial increase in suspected patients,” Pakistan’s top health official Zafar Mirza told reporters.

Bangladesh said it had lost a sixth person to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus while the number of confirmed cases stood at 54.

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