It was late on Sunday night when officials in Andhra Pradesh received the alert. Federal authorities said they needed to track down more than 1,000 people linked to a large Muslim missionary gathering nearly 2,000 km away in the capital New Delhi.
Authorities in Andhra Pradesh, a region of about 50 million people, used cell phone towers, government databases and even village volunteers over the next five days to find almost everyone on the list — from attendees to the people they had been in close contact to fellow travellers.
The search is part of a nationwide manhunt for thousands of people linked to an outbreak of coronavirus at the headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat group in a cramped corner of New Delhi, which is propelling a surge of cases in India, the world’s second most populous country after China.
“We have almost tracked everybody,” a senior Andhra Pradesh health official told Reuters.
Authorities have found and quarantined 9,000 people connected to the headquarters or their close contacts, the home ministry said on Thursday. Officials from at least three states said they were looking for hundreds more linked to the Nizamuddin Markaz building, which serves as a hostel and center for missionary workers from all over the world.
The outbreak is the largest cluster reported in India, according to federal and state health department data. It presents a major challenge to the country of 1.3 billion people, where high population density and a rudimentary public health system risk undermining the fight against the disease that has killed tens of thousands of people worldwide.
With authorities concerned the outbreak has spread the virus across India, the incident has fanned communal tensions just weeks after Hindu-Muslim riots in the capital killed more than 50 this year.
More than 450 coronavirus cases and at least eight deaths have now already been linked to Tablighi Jamaat in India, according to data from state governments.
That accounts for about a fifth of the more than 2,000 infections reported by the health ministry, which has said there have been 53 deaths. More than 950,000 infections have been reported globally, according to a Reuters tally.
The group also held big gatherings in February and March that led to mass outbreaks in Malaysia and Pakistan, respectively, according to officials in those countries.
A spokesman for the Tablighi Jamaat group, Mujeeb ur Rehman, denied that the headquarters was a big source of India’s coronavirus cases: “India by then had already hundreds of cases. So, it will be wrong to say that Markaz was a major source of outbreak in the country.”