Pakistani Muslims attend the annual Tablighi Jamaat in Islamabad, Pakistan on May 1, 2016. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Metin Aktas

An evangelist Islamic organization, Tablighi Jamaat, has been heating up the headlines in India after a conclave it held in Delhi last month has been linked to hundreds of Covid-19 infections, including some fatalities.

Outside India, many have tested positive for the coronavirus after similar Tablighi Jamaat conclaves in other Asian countries. More than 620 people in Malaysia, 73 in Brunei and 10 in Thailand who tested positive have reportedly had their woes attributed to Tablighi Jamaat congregations.

Ten people in India whose deaths were linked to Covid-19 had attended the Delhi event, and nearly 400 have tested positive. Security forces launched a frantic countrywide search to trace the 3,400 people, including air and train travelers, who attended the Tablighi Jamaat annual event in the Nizamuddin area of Delhi in mid-March.

The 93-year-old global evangelical organization Tablighi Jamaat has become one of Asia’s single biggest Covid-19-spreading bombs, with the coronavirus shrapnel spreading across a dozen countries.

Tablighi Jamaat has followers in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Nepal, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Algeria, Djibouti, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, England, Fiji, France and Kuwait – with the Delhi conclave being a premier annual event. Two of the three Covid-19 deaths in Malaysia involved participants of a densely crowded Tablighi Jamaat event at Sri Petaling mosque from February 27 to March 1.

Tablighi Jamaat held a conclave of 3,400 people at its Banglewali Masjid headquarters in Delhi between March 13 and 15, according to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11.

Tablighi Jamaat organizers said they canceled their Delhi events after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the first “Janata (People’s) Curfew” on Sunday, March 22, the test-run to the nationwide lockdown he announced three days later.

Tablighi Jamaat members could not leave, organizers said, because trains suddenly stopped. More than 2,000 stayed on in their Delhi center. As of Wednesday, they continued to refuse to move out, rejecting the two life-saving words most of the planet now has embraced: social distancing.

But Tablighi Jamaat organizers had merely joined others worldwide who have been airily dismissive of the Covid-19 threat, with calamitous consequences. That list included British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, now under self-isolation in 10 Downing Street after testing positive for the coronavirus on March 27. Johnson’s reluctance to announce a lockdown has already cost at least 2,352 deaths in the UK. The dithering continues.

The desperate necessity to get on with work essential for one’s livelihood, religious dogma, individual idiocy and misunderstandings about personal freedom are contributing to social distancing continuing to be ignored.

The alternative is a rising death toll. Six have died of Covid-19 from the Tablighi Jamaat source in the southern Indian state of Telangana, while the chief minister of neighboring Andhra Pradesh, Jagan Mohan Reddy, confirmed that 70 of 87 Covid-19 positives in the state were linked to the same congregation.

The northeastern states of Assam and Meghalaya have also linked their first coronavirus cases to participants of Tablighi Jamaat’s Delhi conclave.

India’s Home Ministry has blacklisted 800 preachers from Indonesia at the Delhi meeting. The preachers misused tourist visas for doing missionary work. They will not be allowed to enter India again.

The Home Ministry circulated a note to state governments detailing Tablighi Jamaat activities in India.

Only after a 36-hour operation ending on Wednesday did the local Delhi government evacuate 2,631 Tablighi Jamaat members from their “Markaz” (local base or center) in Delhi to quarantine them in hospitals.

The damage was done by the time Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Wednesday ordered a police case against the Markaz Nizamuddin administration for negligence endangering lives.

Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, Puducherry, Rajasthan, and Kerala are among states frantically tracing the Tablighi Jamaat congregation attendees.

As of this writing, 2,137 have been located, quarantined or self-isolated. Victims included people in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 2,481 kilometers from Delhi across the Bay of Bengal.

Similar problems abound worldwide with coronavirus-infected people who unwittingly spread the disease. A Champions League soccer match in Milan on February 19 is being considered the source of 13,155 Covid-19 deaths in Italy.

In India, a Srinagar businessman who attended the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi traveled by air, train and road to Uttar Pradesh and back to Srinagar – before he died of Covid-19. He infected 80% of coronavirus cases in his home state of Jammu and Kashmir and may have infected hundreds more en route.

They could be infecting thousands.

“Covid-19 is the most transmissible disease we have ever known,” renowned heart surgeon Dr Devi Shetty said on March 16.

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