Cathy Chakhesang has been living in Ahmedabad since 2017, working as an executive at a dental insurance company’s call centre. Last Friday, March 20, began as yet another day at work for the 24-year-old from Nagaland. But it ended on a horrific note: she, along with eight of her colleagues, all from Nagaland, had to spend the night in a government quarantine facility meant for suspected patients of the coronavirus disease.

There were six women and three men in the group. None of them ticked any of the boxes that qualifies people to be treated as a suspect case. They had no physical symptoms of the disease, no foreign travel history, no apparent contact with any laboratory-confirmed Covid-19 patient.

The only reason for their plight seems to be their features, which ostensibly made someone complain to the Ahmedabad police that they could be infected by the novel coronavirus that has killed thousands worldwide. The virus is reported to have originated in China.

An anonymous complaint

According to Chakhesang, it all began at around 7 pm on Friday when the police landed up in their office. “They told the owner of the company that some public had complained about us – that we are carrying the virus because we look like Chinese,” she said.

The owner tried to reason with the police but they would not listen. “We told them we are from Nagaland in India,” Chakhesang said.

The police then allegedly summoned an ambulance, which ferried them to a sports club that has been turned into quarantine centre by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. Chakhesang said their temperatures were taken, which, according to her, turned out to be within the normal range for each one of them. No blood samples or swabs were taken for further testing, she said.

Yet, the authorities insisted that they would have to stay at the quarantine facility, she said. “Our owner fought with them, but they would not listen.”

Chakhesang and her colleagues spent the night in the ward. “It was a big hall, there were other people, some of whom had come from Australia, so we were scared we could get infected,” she said.

“We kept asking why there are keeping us even though our test [temperature check up] was negative, but there was no proper answer,” she added.

Video appeal

On Saturday, Chakhesang took to social media.

She shot a video on her phone recounting her experience and sent it to a WhatsApp group that she was part of. The video went viral – particularly among people from the North East who described it as a textbook case of racism.

After the coronavirus outbreak took place in China, several people from the region have reportedly been at the receiving end of racist jibes and actions. Many have complained of being taunted as “coronavirus”.

As the video travelled, Chakhesang said she was flooded with solidarity calls from people belonging to the North East. “They stand for us, they fight for us,” she said.

Freedom, finally

On Saturday evening, the Ahmedabad police commissioner, accompanied by senior Indian Police Services officers, arrived at the hospital.

The Naga youths were finally let go at around midnight, said Chakhesang.

Ahmedabad police commissioner Ashish Bhatia confirmed the incident, but played it down. “Nothing went wrong,” he said. “It was very simple, they were not subjected to anything, only checking and all was done.”

When pointed out that the nine individuals had to spend 24 hours in an quarantine facility meant for those who may have been exposed to coronavirus, Bhatia said: “Everybody is there, [other] people are there for 14 days.”

But Chakhesang alleged that she and her friends were quarantined only because “we look different.”. “We feel very bad, it was insulting,” she said.

Even though the incident had left a bad taste, Chakhesang affirmed that she would continue to live in Ahmedabad. “We did not anything wrong, why should we hide?” she said. “India is our own country.”