On 15 April, Meghalaya recorded its first COVID-19 death—John L Sailo Ryntathiang, a 69-year-old doctor, who had tested positive two days earlier. On the afternoon of 16 April, the Riatsamthiah Presbytarian Church cemetery located in Shillong’s Lawmali area was abuzz with movement, a rare sight since the government imposed a nationwide lockdown on 24 March. A small group of men in personal protective equipment carried a wooden casket, while Reverend Lyndan Syiem of the Presbytarian Church conducted Sailo’s funeral service.
Sailo was the founder of Bethany hospital, a multi-speciality hospital in Shillong, where he had been working prior to testing positive. In 2014, he also set up Bethany Hospital Outreach, a hospital in Nongpoh, a town in Meghalaya’s Ri Bhoi district. The government planned to have the doctor’s body cremated at the Shillong Electric Crematorium. His family requested that after the cremation, his remains be buried at their farmhouse in Nongpoh.
However, the news of his death led to panic and fear among locals in Shillong and Nongpoh. The residents of Jhalupara, a locality in Shillong where the electric crematorium is located, protested against the cremation of Sailo in their area. They feared that the staff of the crematorium lacked the skill and the necessary equipment, and that it could cause a virus outbreak in their locality. Similarly, the Nongpoh Dorbar Shnong, the local constitutional body of Nongpoh, rejected the family’s request to bury the remains of the doctor in the family-owned farmhouse in the town.
On the day of Sailo’s death, Conrad Sangma, the chief minister of Meghalaya, announced that six other people, who were relatives and helpers of the doctor, had tested positive for COVID-19. After Sailo’s death, the government said that people who visited the Bethany hospital in Shillong from 22 March onwards, and people who visited the Bethany hospital in Nongpoh from 30 March onwards should call and register themselves on a government hotline number or register online on a government portal. On the government website, they were asked to fill a form and indicate if they had any COVID-19 related symptoms. The government further asked them to quarantine themselves at home.
According to a report published in The Shillong Times on 17 April, 5,092 individuals registered themselves. Of these, 4,622 individuals had visited the Bethany hospitals in Shillong and Nongpoh. Suddenly, in a matter of days, the state of Meghalaya, which had earlier been in the news for having no COVID-19 positive cases faced the prospect of having over four thousand probable cases.
After the first positive case was announced on 13 April, all the doctors, patients and staff of Bethany hospital in Shillong were quarantined in the hospital, which was sealed as per the government’s orders. “I am afraid to get tested,” a staff at the hospital told me on the condition of anonymity. “The same doctors that were exposed to the late doctor are taking our tests, and I don’t feel it is safe.”
He said the hospital staff had received more than fifteen calls from health officials but it seemed like they were only fulfilling a daily duty. “They ask me my name, age, and if I was exposed to the virus, but no action is taken,” he said. “Why doesn’t the health department send an independent body to test us so that fear of contamination is not there?” The staff added that he feared for his life and was afraid to step out of his room even to pick up necessities from the nursing station. On 19 April, six days after the first case was reported, the doctors and patients at the hospital were evacuated so the premises could be sanitised.