Of the 548 deaths recorded in Maharashtra as of May 3, 239 (44 per cent) are from the minority Muslim community — almost thrice their share (just under 12 per cent) in the state’s population.
This has prompted the state epidemiology department to plan issuing Covid awareness messages in Urdu in select hotspots and roping in local religious leaders for outreach.
An analysis of official records by The Indian Express shows that between March 17, when the first death was reported in the state, and April 15, 89 of the 187 deaths were from the Muslim community. Between April 15 to May 3, of the 361 additional deaths, 150 were from the community.
State officials and experts point to several reasons behind this: curbs on travellers from the Gulf came as late as mid-March; Friday prayers in many mosques continued until March 20; a significant share of the community lives in neighbourhoods where social distancing is difficult, population density is high, and access to healthcare poor.
Incidentally, only 69 Covid positive cases in Maharashtra were traced to the Tablighi Jamaat event in New Delhi. The lone death in the state linked to the Tablighi event was that of a Filipino national on March 22. By contrast, at the last count (April 18), the number of positive cases linked to the Nizamuddin superspreader group countrywide was 4,291.
“A lot of people working (in the Gulf) returned home and were missed during airport screening. That was a game-changer. We noticed that several of them, although asymptomatic, spread infection in community,” state epidemiologist Pradeep Awate said.
As per guidelines, it was only on March 16 — almost two months after the first China advisory — that the government started the quarantine of passengers coming from the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait. The same day, passengers from EU, Turkey and the UK were banned, and on March 22, all international flights were suspended.
Awate added that most cases were now coming from the lower socio-economic strata. “The cases are spreading in slums not because of a particular religious group, but because of poor living conditions. And in the slums, Muslims are in large numbers. At least 8-10 people live in a small room where social distancing is difficult,” Awate said.
This is clear in the E-ward of Mumbai, which covers Agripada and Nagpada. With 34 deaths, it has the second highest Covid-19 toll after the G-South ward (Worli) in Mumbai.
“Several in this ward live in chawls and it is there that cases are increasing. One residential building with Muslim residents had 26 people with foreign travel history, but only one tested positive. The infection did not spread in the building. But in a chawl one case can potentially infect several others, and all nearby chawls have Covid cases,” said Prashant Gaikwad, assistant commissioner, BMC.
While the Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Delhi itself did not lead to a surge in cases, it could have had an impact. Said Bhiwandi MLA Rais Shaikh: “The Tablighi Jamaat episode instilled fear in the community. They do not report symptoms fearing they will be stigmatised.”
He cited the example of a 36-year-old Govandi resident who died last week due to Covid-19.
“He avoided going to a hospital due to these reasons and took medicines based on local doctor’s prescription.
Eventually his condition did worsen and he died in KEM hospital,” Shaikh said. He added that local community leaders are trying to address this fear and encourage reporting when someone has symptoms.
Then there are issues of delayed intervention. “Intensive care treatment for critical cases comes late if they are from the low-income group. Poor people are visiting multiple hospitals before they get admitted, by then it is too late,” Shaikh added.
The state public health department has roped in mosques and local Maulanas to relay Covid awareness messages to community. “We are now trying to look for local popular figures who can act as messengers and disseminate information about the disease locally. We will soon issue awareness messages in Urdu in hotspots like Malegaon and Mumbai to reach out to minority,” said Awate.
Until Wednesday, Maharashtra had recorded 651 deaths and 16,758 cases of Covid-19. Mumbai and Pune together account for 75 per cent of cases.