By Sanjeev Miglani and Mubasher Bukhari
NEW DELHI/LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – India and Pakistan sealed off centers belonging to a Muslim missionary group on Tuesday and began investigating how many coronavirus cases were linked to its activities.
Tablighi Jamaat is a Deobandi Sunni Muslim missionary movement that preaches worldwide. Every year, tens of thousands attend its congregations in the Pakistani city of Lahore and other parts of South Asia.
India has so far registered 32 deaths from 1,251 confirmed infections, and Pakistan 20 from 1,914.
The numbers are small compared with the United States, Italy or China but health officials say both countries have weak public health systems that could be overwhelmed by a surge in cases.
New Delhi’s city administration has flagged a Muslim quarter where the 100-year-old group has a branch as a coronavirus hotspot after dozens of people tested positive for the virus there and at least seven died.
Authorities said people kept visiting the center, in a five-storey building in a neighborhood of narrow, winding lanes, from other parts of the country and abroad, and that it had preached sermons to large groups despite government orders on social distancing.
Hundreds of people were crammed into the building until the weekend, when authorities began taking them out for testing. More buses arrived on Tuesday to take them away to quarantine centers in another part of the city.
“It looks like social distancing and quarantine protocols were not practised 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.”
Authorities are trying to trace the movements of people who had gathered at the Tablighi centers in Delhi and Lahore and the people who were exposed to them.
In Pakistan, the Lahore Tablighi center was sealed off and dozens of other preaching centers across the country were placed in quarantine after 143 Tablighi members tested positive and three died, officials said.
Media said the cases included Tablighi members from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Saudi Arabia.
Malaysia’s health ministry had told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur that it was investigating the presence of Malaysians at the Delhi center.
India, with a population of more than 1.3 billion, is under lockdown until mid-April to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus, but tens of thousands of out-of-work migrants are fleeing to the countryside, undermining the restrictions.
Musharraf Ali, an administrator of the Tablighi center in Delhi, said the group had been seeking help from police and the city authorities to deal with the large number who were unable to leave after the government announced a lockdown.
“There was no option … but to accommodate the stranded visitors with prescribed medical precautions until such time as the situation becomes conducive for their movement or arrangements are made by the authorities,” Ali said.
In Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told government officials that she might extend a 10-day lockdown due to end on April 4 for a few more days.
Following is data on the spread of the coronavirus in South Asia’s eight countries, according to government figures:
* Pakistan has registered 1,914 cases, including 20 deaths.
* India has registered 1,251 cases, including 32 deaths.
* Sri Lanka has registered 132 cases, including two deaths.
* Afghanistan has registered 183 cases, including four deaths.
* Bangladesh has registered 51 cases, including five deaths.
* Maldives has registered 28 cases and no deaths.
* Nepal has registered five cases and no deaths.
* Bhutan has registered four cases and no deaths.
(Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur, Devjyot Ghoshal and Aftab Ahmed in New Delhi, Syed Raza Hasan in Karachi, Pakistan, Gibran Peshimam and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Ruma Paul in Dhaka; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)