The publication of COVID-19 quarantine lists violates the right to privacy

On 3 February, Kerala declared a state disaster on account of the novel coronavirus. Incoming passengers at the Trivandrum International Airport in Thiruvananthapuram, were asked to sign declarations stating that they have not recently travelled to China. A month later, the union ministry of health and family welfare directed all incoming international passengers to fill self-declarations forms and undergo health-screenings at the point of entry.
Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto/Getty Images
On 3 February, Kerala declared a state disaster on account of the novel coronavirus. Incoming passengers at the Trivandrum International Airport in Thiruvananthapuram, were asked to sign declarations stating that they have not recently travelled to China. A month later, the union ministry of health and family welfare directed all incoming international passengers to fill self-declarations forms and undergo health-screenings at the point of entry.
Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto/Getty Images

On 19 March, the district administration of Mohali, a satellite city of Chandigarh, published a “quarantine list” on their official website. This list had names of people who had been placed under quarantine as suspected carriers of the novel coronavirus. It also included other personal details, such as residential addresses and phone numbers. The authorities claimed that the identities of the quarantined people were revealed due to “social pressure,” and that outing those under quarantine was necessary to contain community transmission. The deputy commissioner further said that this way “people will get information about such persons while sitting at home and they would be vigilant to avoid contact with them and their family members.” In the following days, several other government authorities, including in Chandigarh, Karnataka, Odisha, Delhi, Nagpur, Ajmer, and Mumbai,  prepared such “quarantine lists.” The lists were either published on their publicly accessible websites or eventually leaked through unidentified channels.

The data that was eventually used to curate these quarantine lists was first collected by the government of India, under the aegis of the union ministry of health and family welfare. On 3 March, the MOHFW mandated that all international passengers entering India would have to fill self-declaration forms, submit the forms to health officials and immigration officials, and undergo health screenings at the points of entry. In essence, this form operated as a prerequisite for entry into India and sought personal information, including name, residential address, phone number, port of departure and final destination.

Shockingly, it was this data obtained from incoming passengers that was used to curate the quarantine lists. All these lists included personal details in varying measures, ranging from names, phone numbers, residential addresses and port of journey, and were freely floating around on Whatsapp or Telegram groups, within a few hours. If you were on one of these lists, by that evening, everybody had your personal information, and your neighbours viewed you with suspicion. Needless to say, these quarantine lists ended up operating as target lists—they have led to people facing severe harassment, ostracisation, stigma and anonymous hate-calls.

Till 6 March, incoming passengers were required to fill the form and were advised to isolate themselves if they experienced symptoms within 28 days after return from COVID-19 affected areas. Four days later, passengers from China, Hong Kong, Republic of Korea, Japan, Italy, Thailand, Singapore, Iran, Malaysia, France, Spain and Germany were advised to undergo self-imposed quarantine for a period of 14 days from the date of their arrival. Progressively though, the guidelines were made more stringent. On 11 March, the MOHFW declared that while passengers from these destinations shall be mandatorily quarantined for a minimum period of 14 days, passengers from other destinations could also be quarantined for the same period. Five days later, the categories of passengers who would undergo mandatory quarantine were further expanded. Eventually, on 18 March, the MOHFW published its standard operating procedure which stated that passengers without risk factors would be strictly under “Home Quarantine,” or face penal sanction, while high-risk passengers would be under “Government supervised quarantine” at a paid hotel or a government facility. 

Neither the MOHFW guidelines nor the self-declaration form mentioned the purpose for the collection of the personal information. However, one could assume that the aim was to alert people if a co-passenger was subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19, or to check on people who might be experiencing symptoms and were asked to be under home quarantine.

Sanya Kumar is a practising advocate in Delhi and an alumnus of the National Law University, Delhi.

Shrutanjaya Bhardwaj is a practising advocate in Delhi and an alumnus of the National Law University, Delhi.

Keywords: COVID-19 Quarantine Right to Privacy
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