India's Muslims bear brunt of crisis after being blamed for outbreak

India’s Muslims bear the brunt of crisis after being blamed by government for surge in coronavirus cases

  • One in five of India’s coronavirus cases were identified at an Islamic compound
  • Around 8,000 people had gathered at the site in New Delhi in March this year
  • Experts have warned that the stigma could make India’s outbreak worse 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Muslims in India are bearing the brunt of the country’s coronavirus crisis after the Hindu-nationalist government blamed an Islamic missionary for a surge in cases.

Politicians in the ruling Bharatiya Janata party have been quoted by newspapers and TV accusing Muslims of ‘corona terrorism’ after the country’s largest cluster of cases was identified at an Islamic compound in New Delhi.

The joint secretary for India’s health ministry, Lav Aggarwal, has repeatedly called out the congregation in daily news briefings.

There has also been a reported surge in violence, business boycotts and hate speech towards the minority in the world’s second most populous country. 

As many as one-in-five of India’s confirmed 24,500 cases have been identified at the Islamic centre. 

Eight-thousand people met in the compound for three days in March. It has since been used to house those unable to return home due to the lockdown.

It comes as parts of India report dramatic falls in coronavirus deaths as funeral parlours brace for a surge. There have been 775 deaths so far. 

Muslims have been the target of business boycott’s in India during the coronavirus outbreak

Muslim men pictured wearing face masks in front of closed shops in Delhi’s old quarter

‘Not only is the (Muslim) community at a higher risk of being infected, but they will also be at a high risk of spreading the virus,’ said Dr. Anant Bhan, a bioethics and global health expert. ‘It becomes a cycle that will continue.’

The Tablighi Jamaat held the congregation in the Nizamuddin area of New Delhi before large gatherings were banned.

The compound stayed open, later giving shelter to people stranded in a 21-day lockdown imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24, according to the group’s spokesman, Mujeeb ur Rehman.

On the second day of the lockdown, a government raid on the compound discovered the largest virus cluster in India. Police filed a case against some of the group’s leaders for violating the ban, a charge the group denies. 

Officials said Tuesday they have arrested 29 people, including 16 foreigners, who participated in the missionary meeting.

India’s communal fault lines, still stressed by deadly riots over a new naturalization law that excludes Muslims, were split wide open by the allegations against Jamaat.

Muslims have not come to mosques for Ramadan as the country remains in lockdown. Pictured above is a mosque in Srinagar, Kashmir

An ambulance pictured transporting a suspected coronavirus case in Allahabad

Politicians in Modi’s ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party were quoted on TV and in newspapers describing the Jamaat incident as ‘corona terrorism’.

False news targeting Muslims began to circulate, including video clips purportedly showing congregation members spitting on authorities. The clips were quickly proven to be fake, yet by April 1, the hashtag ‘CoronaJihad’ was trending on Twitter in India.

Lav Aggarwal, joint secretary of India’s health ministry, repeatedly called out the congregation by name in daily news briefings. On April 5, he said the number of virus cases was doubling in just 4.1 days, and would have been a slower 7.4 days ‘if the additional … cases due to the Tablighi Jamaat meeting would not have arisen’.

That same day, Dilshad Mohammad took his life.

Panic, blame and stigma were spreading across India when the 37-year-old chicken peddler was shunned by his neighbors in Bangarh, a village in the hilly state of Himachal Pradesh, for giving two members of the Jamaat congregation a ride to their village on his scooter. Neighbors accused him of deliberately trying to infect them with the virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.

Karthikeyan Gokulachandran, the district police superintendent, blamed his suicide on stigma.

In Rajasthan state, a pregnant Muslim woman was turned away from a public hospital because of her religion, resulting in the death of her 7-month-old fetus, said Vishvendra Singh, the state’s tourism minister.

Mosques have remained deserted during Ramadan. Pictured is an empty mosque in Delhi

Ambulances transport suspected coronavirus cases to hospital in Allahabad

In Uttarakhand, Hindu youths forced Muslim fruit vendors to stop selling. Shots were fired at a mosque in Gurugram, a suburb of New Delhi, and a Muslim family in the neighbouring state of Haryana was attacked by neighbours who accused them of not turning off their lights on April 9, the night Modi had asked the country to extinguish household lights for 15 minutes in a show of national unity.

Doctors who studied previous epidemics warn that stigma and blame for a contagious disease weaken trust in marginalised communities, threatening decades-long efforts against illnesses such as polio and tuberculosis by making people less likely to seek treatment.

Stigma in general is adding to India’s coronavirus death toll, said Dr. Randeep Guleria, head of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi and among the architects of the country’s response.

‘It is actually causing increasing morbidity and mortality. Because of the stigma that is happening, many patients who have COVID-19 or who have flu-like symptoms are not coming forward,’ he said.

Muslims were already at a disadvantage when the coronavirus entered India.

India’s 200 million Muslims account for 14 per cent of the population and are the largest minority group in the Hindu-majority nation and also the poorest, surviving on an average of 32.6 rupees ($0.43) per day, a 2013 government survey found.

Hindu devotees pictured using rosaries as they pray outside of their homes in Amritsar

Paramilitary troops speak to travellers as they stand opposite a closed mosque

Muslims also have less access to health care. About 40 per cent of villages with large Muslims populations don’t have medical facilities, a government report in 2006 said. The government in Maharahstra – the state with the biggest concentration of coronavirus cases – said Muslim-majority areas had a ‘paucity of health facilities’ in a 2013 report. It said the ‘threat of communal riots’ forced Muslims to ‘live together in slums and ghettos’ where social distancing is often impossible.

In deeply polarised India, some Modi critics have suggested that the government singled out the Jamaat congregation for strategic reasons.

The ‘vilification of Muslims was done to hide the government’s mismanagement in dealing with the virus and their callousness,’ said Professor Tanweer Fazal, a sociologist at the University of Hyderabad.

Aggarwal, the health ministry spokesman, declined to respond.

On Sunday, Modi tweeted that the coronavirus does not discriminate based on race, religion or creed.

‘Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together,’ he said.

His remarks came hours after the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s human rights body condemned the ‘unrelenting vicious Islamophobic campaign in India maligning Muslims for spread of COVID-19’.

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