Modi government’s targeting of minorities for COVID repeats old mistakes of HIV pandemic

The Modi administration has repeatedly focused on the Tablighi Jamaat conference as one of the main reasons for the spread of the pandemic in India—a false narrative that the mainstream media was only eager to emphasise in its coverage. Manish Swarup / AP Photo
02 May, 2020

Nations, like humans, reveal themselves during a crisis. Over the last two months, India has revealed itself in all its ugliness, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has revealed himself to be unequal to this moment of monumental crisis. As a journalist covering  the pandemic, I have had a ringside view of  the government’s response becoming intricately woven with the persecution of Indian Muslims. The centre’s COVID-19 response has only proven what Indian minorities knew all along, that this government has no qualms sacrificing the lives and livelihoods of its poorest, sickest and most vulnerable citizens.

Since 30 January, when India reported its first case of COVID-19, the Modi administration’s handling of  the pandemic has been marked by ineptitude, unpreparedness and a chase to rectify predictable consequences of its ill-thought-out actions. With a nationwide lockdown that was announced with four-hours’ notice, Modi launched a migrant crisis unparalleled since Partition. The sudden lockdown led to individuals starving to death, after they were left without work, money or any way to travel to their native homes, and abandoned by the government that put them in this position.

Among the many transgressions of the Indian government, the scapegoating of Muslim minorities will be the lasting memory. It drove patients into hiding, sick but frightened of admitting to symptoms, fearful that they will face the stigma created by the government’s response. Such a response was not unprecedented—previous pandemics have consistently shown administrations responding to unexpected public-health crises by blaming its minorities. As Muslims are blamed in India today, during the initial years of the HIV epidemic, homosexuals were wrongly blamed worldwide for spreading the virus. HIV then swept the world and decimated populations precisely because of the crucial time wasted in blaming minorities. With a similar response focused on the Muslim minority, the Modi administration has allowed the COVID-19 pandemic to spread in India.

In mid March, the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist organisation, held its annual conference at the Markaz, its headquarters in Delhi’s Nizamudddin area. Later that month, news broke that there had been a cluster outbreak of novel coronavirus at the conference. In the days and weeks that followed, the Modi administration repeatedly focused on the conference as one of the main reasons for the spread of the pandemic in India—a false narrative that the mainstream media was only eager to emphasise in its coverage. Misinformation about Muslims intentionally spreading the virus circulated widely. The centre’s daily press briefings spent a disproportionate amount of time discussing the Tablighi Jamaat, with the health and home ministries specifically and repeatedly handed out data on the Markaz-related infections. Meanwhile, the government has evaded questions about the lack of personal protective equipment for health workers and the government’s strategy to fight the pandemic.

On 28 April, news emerged that members of the Tablighi Jamaat had donated blood plasma to help the government treat COVID-19 patients. The next morning, I spoke to a doctor who was involved in the extensive contact-tracing exercise that followed the outbreak of the virus at the Nizamuddin Markaz. The doctor, who asked to remain anonymous, remembered the exercise in great detail. She remembered that on 28 March, when the tracing began, was a Saturday, and told me that for the next 36 hours, she was involved in the evacuation of the now infamous Markaz cluster, in which 2,361 people who attended the religious gathering were reportedly evacuated.

The doctor told me that most of the Markaz attendees were elderly. “They were scared but did what we asked them to,” she said. She added that the doctors caring for these patients, including herself, were blindsided by the steady stream of Islamophobic news articles. As the misinformation about the attendees spread, she recalled that her phone buzzed constantly at the time, with friends and family asking questions about the attendees misbehaving, spitting, walking around naked in quarantine centres, as the news reports suggested they were doing. “People would call me, and over and over again, I’d say that that is not the case,” the doctor said.

For the past four years, I have been writing a non-fiction book on India’s other infectious pandemic: tuberculosis. I have spent the better part of these years reading plague literature and combing through medical history to make sense of how societies behave when faced with pandemics. From the bubonic plague of the fourteenth century to the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918, pandemics have left deep gashes in collective memory, resulting  in inter-generational trauma and changing how societies function forever. In 1901, Cape Town in South Africa suffered an outbreak of the bubonic plague that resulted in an aggressive, racially segregated quarantine. This went on to provide a blueprint for apartheid South Africa.

Throughout history, pandemics have stoked racism and bigotry against minorities. In my research, I have found over and over again that the initial response to pandemics has been one of denial. Local authorities have been late to respond, and governments have resorted to massaging the number of persons affected to deny the extent of the outbreak. For instance, the Spanish flu did not originate in Spain. It received the name because the flu broke out during the First World War, at a point when Germany, the United States, Britain and France all had media gags and governments that did not want to disclose the number of deaths. As a result, while newspapers in these countries were censored to control the narrative, Spain, which was a neutral country during the war, reported on the spread of the virus—hence the “Spanish” flu. But among the millions who died in the pandemic, less than 260,000 reportedly were in Spain. The most consistent thread between the flu of 1918 and the current coronavirus, however, is the human need to blame an external factor for what’s happening.

In more recent memory, the HIV pandemic of the 1980s provides an eerie echo of India’s current mistakes. The HIV pandemic began with a slow trickle of patients in the United States turning up at hospitals in Los Angeles and New York, with a pneumonia that did not respond to drugs. As is the case with COVID-19 right now, the HIV epidemic began with doctors and governments knowing nothing about the disease. For a whole, HIV was an unnamed new virus, disproportionately affecting the gay population. The US mainstream media routinely associated homosexuals with drugs and sexual deviancy, contributing to their persecution.

Despite ample evidence that HIV was not limited to the homosexual community, the world continued to blame the spread of the disease on this oppressed minority instead of providing affected individuals with medical care or investing in much-needed research. The public turned to shallow explanations that god was punishing the gays. The HIV patients of the 1980s were morally judged—many still are today—and faced the full force of societal biases.

In India, we are seeing the Modi administration repeat the same mistake. The government has opted for a strategy of testing, tracing and isolating, but it has proven difficult due to the levels of stigmatisation that it has enabled and allowed under its watch. COVID-19 patients are being ostracised the same way as HIV patients were, and whole communities vilified. As a result, they are not coming forward for treatment—just like it once was with HIV—making contact tracing difficult.

The doctor who was a part of the Markaz evacuation told me that there is growing paranoia among everyone about getting infected and being taken away to a quarantine facility. She told me that for her, and for all health workers on the front lines of the pandemic, patients do not have a religion. “This is an infectious disease,” she said. “Talking about the religion of the patients has never happened before. We are already seeing patients are reluctant to come forward and report symptoms.” As a result, the Modi administration also actively made the jobs of India’s health workers tougher.

The Modi administration’s Islamophobic response to the pandemic has been condemned globally, with several international news outlets reporting on the rise of misinformation targeting India’s Muslim community. These have included The Guardian, TIME, The Intercept, Foreign Policy, BBC, CNN and the New York Times. On 25 April, The Lancet, a reputed medical journal, published an editorial titled, “India under lockdown,” in which it noted, “One threat to the COVID-19 response in India is the spread of misinformation driven by fear, stigma, and blame … The pandemic has also been used to fan anti-Muslim sentiment and violence, after a gathering connected to the group Tablighi Jamaat was identified as being responsible for many cases.” The slow-drip of misinformation stigmatising the Muslim minority community quickly turned into a tsunami that, a month later, resulted in an embarrassing diplomatic incident with a member of the United Arab Emirates’ royal family criticising “racist and discriminatory” comments by Indians.

So far, the Modi administration has issued token statements condemning the Islamophobia associated with COVID, without making any attempts to put an end to the stigma. The hashtag “#CoronaJihad” has trended on Twitter. In Uttar Pradesh, Suresh Tiwari, a member of legislative assembly from the Bharatiya Janata Party, was recorded on video calling upon people not to buy vegetables from Muslim vendors. Muslims have been beaten on suspicion of being linked to the Tablighi Jamaat. Yet, the Modi government has neither felt an obligation to stop the Islamophobic attacks, nor shown the responsibility to intervene, nor even acted like it has the resources to reign in errant citizens making inflammatory remarks.

India will emerge from this pandemic a different country. If this steady stream of Islamophobia is not stemmed, and the government officials do not stop singling out minority clusters with reckless abandon, the pandemic will deepen the brutal communal divisions that it has already inflamed.

The government has shown its endless capacity to deny mounting evidence of its failure to provide succour to its people. The food shortages, directly related to the poorly executed lockdown, pushed hundreds and thousands of migrants to the edge of starvation. History will remember that India’s granaries were over-flowing as its people were dying from starvation.

Characteristically, Modi has so far not accepted a shred of responsibility of any of the woes that have befallen Indian citizens on his watch. By the time the dust settles, in a year or two, we would have revealed ourselves as a society of the indifferent, governed by the merciless.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a doctor involved in the evacuation at the Tablighi Jamaat's Markaz was working with the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Hospital in Delhi. The Caravan regrets the error.