Authorities sealed off the headquarters of a Muslim missionary group on Tuesday and ordered an investigation into accusations that it held religious meetings that officials fear may have infected dozens of people with the coronavirus.
India has registered 1,251 cases of the coronavirus, of whom 32 have died, the health ministry said. The numbers are small compared with the United States, Italy and China but health officials say India faces a huge surge that could overwhelm its weak public health system.
One of the coronavirus hot spots that the government of the capital, New Delhi, has flagged is a Muslim quarter where the 100-year-old Tablighi Jamaat group is based, after dozens of people tested positive for the virus and at least seven died.
Authorities said people kept visiting the Tablighi centre, in a five-storey building in a neighbourhood of narrow, winding lanes, from other parts of the country, and it held prayer meetings, despite government orders on social distancing.
Hundreds of people were crammed into the group’s building until the weekend when authorities began taking them out for testing.
“It looks like social distancing and quarantine protocols were not practiced here,” the city administration said in a statement.
“The administrators violated these conditions and several cases of corona positive patients have been found … By this gross act of negligence many lives have been endangered … this is nothing but a criminal act.”
India is under a 21-day strict lockdown that will end mid-April to try and stem the spread of the coronavirus.
But Musharraf Ali, one of the administrators of the Tablighi centre in Delhi, said the group had been seeking help from police and the city administration to deal with people streaming in. But the lockdown had made things more difficult.
“Under such compelling circumstances there was no option … but to accommodate the stranded visitors with prescribed medical precautions until such time that the situation becomes conducive for their movement or arrangements are made by the authorities,” the Tablighi said in a statement.
The Tablighi, one of the world’s largest missionary movements, hosted a gathering last month at a mosque complex on the outskirts of Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur that has emerged as a source of hundreds of coronavirus infections across Southeast Asia.