Religious center in Delhi becomes India’s latest virus hotspot

Police officers use sniffer dogs to scan the premises of the historic Taj Mahal, in Agra, India, February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/File Photo

A large religious gathering in India’s capital New Delhi has emerged as one of the country’s 10 coronavirus hotspots, with at least six deaths and 37 positive cases found so far.

Infection spread when about 2,000 Muslim devotees, including some visiting from Indonesia and Malaysia, attended a gathering at the Tabligh-e-Jamaat’s Markaz in New Delhi’s tightly packed Nizamuddin area from in mid-March.

About 334 people from the center are being tested for Covid-19 and 630 others have been placed under quarantine after the building was evacuated on Monday and Tuesday by health officials and local police, two senior health officials of the Delhi state government said, asking not to be identified as they are not authorized to speak to the media. The emergence of the new infections was a huge health risk, the officials said.

Six people who had attended the Delhi gathering died in the southern state of Telangana after contracting the infection, the office of the chief minister said in a tweet. Another 13 people who attended the same event have also tested positive in the state of Andhra Pradesh, a local government statement said. India has so far reported 1,251 coronavirus infections, including 32 deaths.

The organizers of the gathering in Nizamuddin violated social distancing and quarantine protocols, the Delhi government said in a statement on Tuesday. The city administration has moved all symptomatic patients to medical facilities and as a safety precaution all non-symptomatic contacts have been moved to quarantine centers, the statement added.

However in a statement Tuesday, the Jamaat said its program was discontinued on March 22 — before the nationwide shutdown was announced — but because the city of New Delhi was partially locked down, a large number of its visitors were unable to go back home. It denied violating lockdown norms.

Authorities in India have started identifying emerging hotspots and taking cluster containment measures, said Lav Agarwal, a senior official of the health ministry. Officials have increased testing in at least 10 identified areas, which include Delhi’s Nizamuddin, the towns of Noida, Meerut in northern Uttar Pradesh state and pockets in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Kerala and Gujarat, according to several local media reports.

The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai on Monday sealed a rundown settlement in the suburb of Worli after a small cluster of fresh Covid-19 cases were discovered, the Mumbai Mirror newspaper reported. Authorities also sealed neighboring Janata Colony — together the localities are home to more than 35,000 people.

Officials visit each house in the affected area to seek detailed reports on the health status of residents. Those with respiratory illness or influenza-like symptoms are closely monitored. “Contact tracing in the containment zone and buffer zone gets done,” said Agarwal. “That is how we try to break the chain.”

On Monday Agarwal repeated the government’s position that India has not reported any community transmissions. The country, which is home to 1.3 billion, has some of the lowest coronavirus testing rates in the world and has so far tested just over 38,000 people.

India enforced a nationwide lockdown on March 24. to try and stem rising infections but reports have continued to emerge of people violating lockdown instructions. The sudden closures have also triggered a mass exodus of poor migrant workers leaving cities to head to their villages as work and money dried up for them as cities began shutting down all but essential services.

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