India must focus on what needs to be done, not on whom to blame for the virus spread

For millennia, people travelled for reasons of religion and trade, and in recent decades increasingly for pleasure too. The germs that these travellers carried globalised many contagions. In the history of humankind, no pestilence has spread as fast and as far as the novel coronavirus, for the singular reason that China, its source, is at the centre of world trade and economy. China is the biggest trading partner for at least 120 countries and regions, much of Europe and the U.S. included. Until recently, it was India’s too. At least 430,000 people travelled from China to the U.S. after the outbreak of the disease. The whirlwind of global travel, goaded by an intense human hunger for new economic opportunities and pleasure, has taken the virus to at least 180 countries on last count. In the year ending March 2019, 6.9 crore international passengers arrived in India. Such context has been obfuscated deliberately by sections trying to reinforce social prejudices, justify xenophobia and advance perilous political agendas by blaming particular social groups for the growing tragedy. People of Asian origin have been targeted in the U.S. as a result; within India, people from its northeastern region have come under attack. After a March congregation of Tablighi Jamaat faithful in Delhi turned out to be the epicentre of the biggest cluster of COVID-19 infections in India, Muslims in general are facing renewed hostility in some parts of the country. On Monday, a 30-year-old man was brutally thrashed by a group of locals who accused him of spreading the disease in the Outer-North district of Delhi. The man had arrived home after attending a religious gathering.

The Centre’s briefers have been volunteering daily updates on the number of cases linked to the Tablighi event, as if it were relevant to the pandemic response. Indeed, there must be a discussion on what went wrong, and how and why the disease spread in India. There are questions about the arrival of so many religious activists from international hotspots of the disease. Why were they given visas and allowed entry? However, right now, all efforts and attention of the government must be on containment and mitigation. All sections must feel protected and cared for by the state. In some instances, the Tablighi leaders have been defiantly non-cooperative in contact tracing even after their unconscionable folly triggered such an avalanche of cases. While legal and police action against those who are not cooperating with the official measures is essential, care must be taken against adding fuel to the fire of communalism. The common threat of the virus should have doused the smouldering embers of religious tensions. In any case, the battle against the virus must not deepen existing social fissures.