A religious congregation organised by the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area has turned out to be the super-spreader of coronavirus in India. Around 10 deaths in different parts of the country can be traced to this event held in the first week of March; many others tested positive. More than 2,000 people, including from Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Malaysia, where Covid-19 has already spread, had also attended the event.
Days before the Delhi event, the Tablighi Jamaat organised a bigger congregation at the Sri Petaling mosque in Malaysia’s Selangor. Some 16,000 people, including 1,500 foreigners from Canada, Nigeria, India, China, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and Australia, attended the event held from February 27 to March 1.
It unfortunately resulted in perhaps one of the biggest Covid-19 cluster in Southeast Asia. The first death out of this cluster was on March 17. It is not clear who the index spreader of this cluster was. Soon after this cluster outbreak, Malaysia went under partial lockdown and eventually into a complete lockdown as this cluster alone amounted to two-third of its cases back then.
As of March 30, a total of 1,290 people who attended the congregation have tested positive for Covid-19. This amounts to a whopping 49.2 per cent of the total Covid-19 cases recorded in Malaysia. This number may grow as many test results are still awaited.
Until the event, the only major conflict in Malaysia was on the political front, and not on the Covid-19 front as Malaysia was having less than 30 cases at that time. Perhaps, the political instability took the focus out of this event.
The Tablighi Jamaat is an Islamic missionary movement that focuses on urging Muslims to return to practising their religion during the lifetime of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. The organisation is estimated to have between 150 million to 250 million adherents (the majority living in South Asia) and a presence in somewhere between 180 and 200 countries.
The Tablighi Jamaat congregation may have left Indian authorities on their toes now, but the fact is this event took place way before the formal lockdown and there have been numerous other religious gatherings in India during the same period. The onus should have been on respective government agencies to scrutinise such events at the time of the outbreak, especially when Malaysia had just suffered a huge blow owing to a similar event.
The testimonials from the Malaysian event suggest that the gathering was very closely knit with participants holding each others hands during prayers and sharing means from the same plates. The rest is history. The event In Delhi should have been similar in nature, considering Tablighi Jamaat regularly organises such events around the world. We know that there were around 300 foreigners who took part in this event and a few of them may have been carriers of the Covid-19 infection.
Government sources say these foreigners include people from Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and a few other countries. Roughly 1,900 Indians took part in this event, with maximum attendees from Tamil Nadu (501) , Assam (216), Uttar Pradesh (156), Maharashtra (109) and Madhya Pradesh (107).
Considering the number of foreigners attending this event (especially from affected countries), the state and central governments must have been cognizant of the situation. Were these attendees screened effectively at the airport? Were the organisers apprised of safety measures to be followed at a time like this? Did the foreigners follow mandatory quarantine procedures? We don’t yet have answers to many of these questions.
What we do know is that FIRs have been filed against the organisers and many of the foreigners have been blacklisted as they violated visa regulations. Reports suggest many participants remained in the occupancies they were allotted even after the events unfolded owing to the sudden lockdown announcement.
Letters shared to the media by the Tablighi Jamaat indicate that all participants had arrived before the lockdown period and details of the same were shared with the SHO of Hazrat Nizamuddin on March 24; requests were also made to help de-congest the event area.
At present, all participants across the country are being traced and quarantined; contact tracing is also underway to stop possible spread of infection. The full impact of this cluster will be known after a week, but some damage may have already been done.
(The writer is a Singapore-based Open-Source Intelligence analyst)