The number of Covid-19 cases in India soared over 2,000 on Wednesday, fuelled largely by infections linked to a March event of the Tablighi Jamaat in the heart of Delhi that emerged this week as the biggest domestic source of the disease in the country.
According to a tally of numbers released by 25 states and union territories, close to 8,500 people have been identified as having been to the Islamic sect’s headquarters in the capital’s Nizamuddin area, prompting authorities to intensify efforts to trace them since they may be carrying the virus and potentially infecting others.
This is in addition to the 2,346 people who have been evacuated from the Tablighi Jamaat’s six-storey mosque complex – called a markaz – in Delhi since Sunday, including 531 who have now been taken to hospitals as they showed symptoms of the disease.
In all, 358 confirmed Covid-19 cases across the country have been linked to the markaz.
Covid-19 infections across the world crossed 900,000, with the United States, Italy, Spain and the UK now reporting the bulk of approximately 4,000 new daily fatalities.
In a video conference with the police and administration heads of the states, Union cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba asked all states to launch on “war footing” a contact tracing of all those who attended Tablighi Jamaat events in Delhi this month.
In a briefing later in the evening, the health ministry said the country recorded 386 new cases in 24 hours – a surge that was driven by the infections among the sect’s members. “I want to highlight that the rise in the number of positive cases does not represent a national trend, but if there will be a failure anywhere, obviously cases will rise,” said health ministry joint secretary Lav Agarwal, reiterating the need for people to follow social distancing guidelines and not violate the nationwide lockdown underway at present.
Over the weekend, officials discovered infections were multiplying at the markaz after alerts began streaming in from other states where people who had been to the building had developed symptoms after heading out to other cities. At least nine of these people – six in Telangana and one each in Kashmir, Gujarat and Karnataka – have died due to the disease.
By 1pm on Wednesday, the markaz was sanitised by sanitation workers in decontamination suits. The workers said they found the insides of the building to be damp. “We have sprayed every corner of the building, but its insides are damp due to the absence of sunlight. Usually the surfaces we have been spraying all these days were dry, so we don’t know how effective the disinfectant would be,” said Harish Kumar, a sanitation worker.
Kumar described the markaz as comprising mostly large halls, many of which had rows of beds spread out. “Rows and rows of mattresses were spread out in the halls, floor after floor,” he said.
Authorities may now begin an exercise to canvass the Nizamuddin area, a congested residential locality. “As part of the cluster containment strategy, Nizamuddin, which is turning out to be a big cluster, would require aggressive- door-to-door- contact tracing and testing to pick up positive cases. After the evacuation and segregation at the epicentre, next step will be to trace possible cases that may have directly or indirectly come into contact with them; and test them,” said a senior health ministry official, requesting anonymity.
The Delhi Police and Intelligence Bureau separately estimated that around 6,500 to 7,000 people visited the markaz between March 10 and March 24 – when active infections are believed to have been taking place at the building. At least 300 of these were foreign nationals, including the six Indonesians who died in Telangana.
Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have seen the bulk of infections linked to the markaz, with the three states reporting 237 cases. Tamil Nadu added 110 on Wednesday alone, taking its total to 190.
Officials in at least two other states — Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra — said they are using cellphone location and call data to search for people who had been to the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi.
According to intelligence bureau officials who asked not to be named, about 2,000 foreign nationals arrived on tourist visas from at least 70 countries to take part in the sect’s work across the country since January 1. Participating in religious activity while on a tourist visa is prohibited by Indian immigration rules.
According to the home ministry’s assessment, a majority of these foreign nationals were from Bangladesh (493), Indonesia (472), Malaysia (150) and Thailand (142).
“All the ambassadors of the concerned countries have been contacted and they’ve been informed about the position of various nationals that are involved in this [matter],” said a person who asked not to be named.
The home ministry has now directed state authorities to immediately deport foreigners who test negative for Covid-19 by the “first available flights”.