As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies, two unusual factors in Indiaare making it difficult to contain it. One is the large numbers of potentially infected returning passengers who are fleeing isolation wards or choosing not to report themselves at all. The other is the rising number of cases where influential people have used their power to evade quarantine.
Both factors have sparked to popular outrage, leading to strident calls for legal punishment for anyone who fails to observe quarantine norms.
The most visible example of this trend is the Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor, who arrived in Mumbai from London on March 9. Unknown to her, she was carrying the coronavirus. But because she had not displayed any symptoms yet, she passed through the airport’s detection mechanisms.
Since Kapoor was returning from the United Kingdom, as per Union government rules, she should have gone into self-quarantine. Instead, she appeared at a spree of parties in Lucknow, attended by the cream of Lucknow society – which also included business and political elites from Delhi.
The singer set off a chain of events which ended up exposing India’s parliamentarians, top bureaucrats and even the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath. Perhaps most troublingly, since then Adityanath has even met Prime Minister Modi.
Following this, there were loud calls on social media for Kapoor to be punished for not following quarantine rules. “Unless the law is enforced and repercussions displayed, people are going to do incredibly stupid things and endanger millions,” wrote writer Vivan Marwah, calling for Kapoor to be arrested.
Tuhin Sinha, a BJP national media panellist also called for strict action.
On Saturday, the Uttar Pradesh police booked her under three sections of the Indian Penal Code: 269 (negligent acts likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life), 270 (malignant acts likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life), 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant).
On Saturday, veteran journalist Vir Sangvi also called for the arrest of a man from Warangal who had recently returned from France. Rather than go into self-quarantine as per government regulations, the man went on to attend his own wedding – a celebration attended by more than a 1,000 people.
Earlier, similar calls for punitive action were seen as the son of a senior West Bengal bureaucrat put the entire state secretariat at risk, leading to a furious Mamata Banerjee herself publicly upbraiding the bureaucrat. “You can’t claim VIP status and avoid Covid-19 tests,” said the West Bengal chief minister.
Since the virus was initiated in India by international travel, this has led to mob action against people who look visibly foreign. In Assam, a Swiss couple were heckled on Sunday. A day later, three French tourists needed to be rescued by the Assam police, who then sent them for a health check up.
In Kerala – India’s state most hit by Covid-19 – foreign tourists are finding it difficult to obtain accommodation. In Kannur district, a couple were rescued by the authorities after they alleged that restaurant were refusing to serve them food. Locals informed the police after the couple was spotted crying on the road, reported the Press Trust of India.
‘Patients not suspects’
However, there have been some voices against treating people who could carry the virus from being treated harshly.
In an egregious breach of privacy, some governments have made the details of suspected carriers public. The cities of Nagpur, Chandigarh and Mohali have published lists of people under quarantine. This would would be counterproductive since it would “breed wide stigma n would prompt people to hide their travel ann exposure history”, pointed out health activist Chhaya Pachauli.
Repressive measures have been used the world over to tackle Covid-19. In China, videos have surfaced showing police in hazmat suits breaking into a house in order to force a man into quarantine. In Beijing, not only the Chinese state but members of the Communist Party were roped in to enforce lockdowns.
In Italy, the country now most affected by the pandemic, the government has tried to follow in China’s footsteps, charging more than 40,000 people from violating the lockdown. Thousands of Italians on social media have been complaining about the presence of people on the streets in their neighbourhoods, reported the Guardian. On Friday, the United Kingdom made its first arrest of a person for violating self-isolation norms and could face jail time of up to three months.