On March 14, the day after a man from their building tested positive for coronavirus, the residents of a housing society in the Mumbai suburb of Ghatkopar visited the local police station to complain that they were being boycotted by their neighbours.

Domestic workers were threatened with dismissal if they continued to work for families in the building in which the family of the 64-year-old man lived, reported the Mumbai Mirror. Staff were warned against collecting garbage and delivery personnel were told they would be infected if they continued their services to the building.

More than ten days after the man succumbed to the virus, residents of the building are still isolated, a sales and distribution professional who lives in the same complex told Scroll.in on Tuesday. “In that society, no house help is going there,” he said. “They have been in lockdown for the past ten days.”

As the coronavirus outbreak spreads through India, several cases have been reported from other parts of the country of people being stigmatised for testing positive or merely being under quarantine. In some cases, mere suspicion of being infected has been cause for ostracisation.

By Tuesday, even doctors and parademics across the country were facing the same threat, prompting Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan to tweet that he was “deeply anguished” by the news.

The health minister said that he had come across news reports of doctors facing eviction in Delhi, Noida, Warangal and Chennai. “Landlords are threatening to evict them fearing Covid-19 infection,” he said. “Please don’t panic.”

Undermining the battle

Public health experts have warned that stigmatising people under quarantine will undermine the battle against Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“It’s well observed that stigma is the reason that people hide symptoms and even avoid treatment,” said public health specialist Chapal Mehra. “It leads to deep-seated social fears and sometimes can lead to economic and social boycotting and even abandonment.”

He added: “People avoiding care means that they continue to spread infections at an alarming rate especially with regard to corona which needs little to transmission.”

On Tuesday morning, a video went viral on social media showing a woman reported to be a crew member at IndiGo airlines breaking into sobs because the residents of her locality were spreading rumours that she had been infected with the virus. When she was away, the neighbours came by to threaten her mother, the woman says in the clip. It had got so bad, her mother was unable to go to the market to buy groceries.

Shortly after, the airline put out a statement noting that its employees were being ostracized as a result of their travel history to Covid-19-infected areas. “Our operational crew, in all areas, play an equally important role to keep vital services intact,” IndiGo said. “Our colleagues have been working selflessly to serve the country at this critical juncture. Please support our operating colleagues in such a difficult time.”

On Sunday, Air India had made a similar appeal. “...It is alarming to note that in many localities, vigilante Resident Welfare Associations and neighbours have started ostracising the crew, obstructing them from performing their duty or even calling in the police, simply because the crew travelled abroad in the course of their duty,” the national carrier had said.

In some places, concern has been expressed about public health notices stuck to the gates of people under quarantine.

“Cannot believe people are doing something as awful!!” tweeted author Shobhaa De, attaching the image below of a notice attached to the gate of a person in quarantine. “Is this legally permitted??? How can anybody be stigmatised like this????”

The notice said: “Please do not visit, home under quarantine.” It bears the name of the person who has been put under quarantine and the number of people who live in house.

A public notice stuck outside a house in Delhi.

This is the kind of notice members of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan or People’s Health Movement brought to the attention of Health Minister Harsh Vardhan in a letter on Monday. They pointed out that some state governments were publishing the names of those suspected patients as well as those who have tested in newspapers or on official websites. “Their names are also being displayed by sticking notices outside the homes of the persons,” the letter noted.

“Displaying names of such persons is not only a breach of confidentiality, it also does not ensure the containment of the disease, rather, it gives a false sense of security that no one else will be infected,” the letter warned. “These are arbitrary and reactionary measures that do not serve the purpose and would instead cause fear, isolation and stigmatisation. Such measures will drive the disease underground, as people will not come forward for testing, and will likely worsen the situation and hence, should not be undertaken at all.”

Sandhya Srinivasan, consulting editor at the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics warned that stigmatising potential patients leaves them open to the danger of violence. “So far the option of being tested is not really there but if testing becomes more widely available, yes, people may be reluctant to come forward,” she said.

Framing guidelines

As the number of cases continues to rise and people being ordered to self-quarantine mounts, housing complexes around the country are scrambling to frame guidelines to deal with the situation.

This week, as a resident of a complex in the Mumbai neighbourhood of Wadala tested positive, his neighbours moved to restrict entry to the building – even barring domestic workers. “The full building was sanitised,” said Rahul Daga, a resident of the complex who runs a WhatsApp broadcast list titled Friends of Wadala East. “There’s a lot of fear.”

In an apartment complex in Gurgaon’s DLF City where nine residents began to quarantine themselves after returning from Covid-19-affected countries, the complex management decided to stop doorstep deliveries, to install sanitisers at the entrances, to scrub down the lifts every four hours and to check the temperature of visitors with laser thermal sensors.

It also assured those in quarantine of all assistance. “The CAC [Complex Administrative Council] and RWA [Residents Welfare Association] would like to thank the nine residents who voluntarily declared about their return from Covid-19 infested areas to the Estate Office and are undergoing self-quarantine or staying in isolation outside the complex,” it said in an email to residents, going on to list procedures involved for self-quarantine. “The Estate Office is in constant contact with them and have informed them that they will be available for any help or assistance as required.”