NEW DELHI — Ever since the Delhi government marked her house with a quarantine sticker, S, a flight attendant, says that she has been harassed by her neighbours, who are lying about her having COVID-19 and demanding that she leave their locality.
A photo of the quarantine sticker with her personal details has been circulated on her locality’s Residential Welfare Association (RWA) WhatsApp group, she said, and a video in which she is identified by her name and falsely called COVID-19 positive is also doing the rounds.
While neighbours have approached the Delhi Police twice in two days to get her evicted, S, who lives with her younger brother, said that people have refused to come to her house to make essential deliveries like water.
“This drama started after the government put up that poster,” she said, referring to the sticker that says “Don’t visit” and bears her name, address and the time period of the quarantine.
“My safety and my image are under attack. People are saying that I’m corona-positive and humiliating me. One can’t live like this. Society will boycott you if they think you are corona-positive.”
S is among the many victims of public shaming and ostracising that is happening as the number of coronavirus cases are rising in India. Most of them are doctors, nurses and healthcare workers who are on the frontline of testing and treating patients as well as pilots and flight attendants who have serviced international flights that have made critical evacuations of Indians stranded abroad.
Under the Indian government guidelines, Indians who have traveled overseas or have come in contact with a COVID-19 patient, and are potential carriers of the disease, must quarantine themselves for 14 days even if they do not show any symptoms.
Governments in several states have been stamping “home quarantined” on those suspected of carrying the virus. The Election Commission has now also authorised state governments to stamp people with indelible ink, which is used for voting, but warned that it rubs out in three days when applied on the skin and not the nail.
The guidelines for quarantining were issued before Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday announced that most of India’s 1.2 billion people would have to stay indoors for 21 days to curb the spread of the deadly virus which has so far infected over 750 people and killed 19 in the country.
My safety and my image are under attack. People are saying that I’m corona-positive and humiliating me. One can’t live like this.
While the harassment of those seen as a risk has been widespread, the “Home Quarantine” stickers and stamps have made it easier for harassers to identify people to target.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal knew this might happen when he ordered that all homes under quarantine to be marked, while appealing to people not to ostracise and stigmatise their neighbours.
India is not the only country experiencing a whole new level of surveillance and government intrusion, which could very likely escalate as the crisis deepens. What countries like China and Israel are doing in the name of combating coronavirus is far more sophisticated and intrusive.
The Chinese government is monitoring people via facial recognition software and drones, and checking phone data to see how close they have come to a coronavirus patient. The Israeli government has allowed the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, to use digital spying technology and mass surveillance to track infected people and those who have come in contact with them.
These excesses around the world are likely to face little opposition because as — Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari puts it — the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Writing in The Financial Times this week, Harari says that many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life, even after the coronavirus storm passes and humankind survives. “Instead of building a surveillance regime, it is not too late to rebuild people’s trust in science, in public authorities and in the media,” he writes.
The author of the bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind writes that asking people to choose between privacy and health is a false choice, as he points out that countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have made some use of tracking applications to combat coronavirus, but they have relied on “extensive testing, on honest reporting, and on the willing cooperation of a well-informed public.”
Reetika Khera, who teaches economics at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and has for many years raised privacy concerns about India’s identification system — Aadhaar, said the long term plan had to be public education and awareness, not more state surveillance.
“Authoritarian regimes are looking for opportunities to normalise surveillance, and the coronavirus disease has given them an opportunity to say that such invasive behaviour is ‘legitimate.’ In fact, these tendencies have to be resisted, not just for this moment, but in the longer term,” Khera said.
“To those who say, but this (stickers/hand stamping) is necessary, I’d say, what if this were you,” she said.
The quarantine stickers, which have been put up governments in Delhi, Kerala, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Odisha many not be illegal, said Prasanna S, a civil liberties lawyer with expertise in privacy matters, but the state governments needs to say which Indian law allows for these measures.
“If it is The Epidemic Diseases Act or the National Disaster Management Act, or the Delhi Police Act, they should cite the source of that power. If we don’t know the source of power then we won’t know what the limitation is,” he said.
If we don’t know the source of power then we won’t know what the limitation is...
‘This is a life threatening situation’
The harassment, S said, started soon after the sticker saying her house was under quarantine was posted outside her house on Sunday.
After Modi announced the nationwide lockdown, S said that she sent her brother to buy some essential food times and when she opened the door to let him into the house, her neighbour complained to the police she was stepping out of the house despite having the coronavirus.
When the police phoned her, S said that she had tested negative when she disembarked after her last international flight and she had not stepped out of her house.
Her landlord, who phoned her next, said that her neighbours were forcing him to evict her.
“I was shocked,” she said. “He said that so many people are calling him and saying who is this ‘corona positive person’ and why is he not kicking me out? He was even getting calls from outside the locality.”
The man who delivers water to her house did not answer her phone calls. A few frantic calls later, her brother’s friend told them that the man had said both of them are “corona positive” and he did not want to go to their house.
Now when she goes to the balcony, S said that people gather and say, “Corona has come out, Corona has come out.”
“Right now, I can’t even stand on my own balcony. People keep coming and staring at me,” she said.
Right now, I can’t even stand on my own balcony. People keep coming and staring at me.
The neighbours, she said, went to the police a second time and asked them to tell her not to appear on the balcony, and demanded they take her to the hospital.
Her neighbours then revealed her personal information in the Residential Welfare Association (RWA) WhatsApp group.
“They clicked a photo of the quarantine poster with my name and address and circulated it,” she said. “This is what I’m feeling the worst about. Tomorrow, when Corona is over, anyone can come to my house and do anything. How do I feel safe now? How will I ever feel safe?”
“You know how unsafe India is for girls. You are telling the whole world my name and address,” she said. “ Forget corona, I’m wondering what will happen to me next. Forget corona, now anything could happen to me.”
Tomorrow, when Corona is over, anyone can come to my house and do anything. How do I feel safe now?
Her neighbours then made a video in which a man, who is wearing a handkerchief across his face, names her, says she is COVID-19 positive and reveals where she lives.
S said that she doesn’t even know the man who had made the video about her.
S said that neither she nor her younger brother had slept in two days.
“This is a life threatening situation,” she said.
Response to ostracisation
Ostracising and stigmatising is hurting the quarantined, doctors, paramedics and healthcare workers, but other than ministers expressing their anguish, little has been done to crackdown on such illegal behaviour.
A letter that the Resident Doctors’ Association of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi sent to Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Tuesday, said, “Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers involved in Covid care are being asked to vacate their rented homes and some have been even forcefully evicted from their temporary residence by landlords and house-owners due to the fear that those healthcare professionals make them susceptible to coronavirus infection.”
“Many doctors are now stranded on the roads with all their luggage, nowhere to go, across the country,” it said, urging the government to intervene.
The Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan and Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri have tweeted messages expressing their “anguish” and “distress” about the ostracisation of doctors and paramedics as well as aviation professionals.
PM Modi has said that he is “very pained” at the misbehaviour directed at those providing essential services.
So far, the Ministry of Home Affairs has directed states to act against anyone harassing people from India’s northeast states, who are facing a different kind of ostracisation because of how they look. They have been attacked with racist slurs like “coronavirus” and “corona” since the outbreak.
Only Kejriwal’s Delhi government has said that it will take “penal action” against landlords and house owners who evict doctors, paramedics and healthcare workers from their homes. Union Home Minister Amit Shah reportedly spoke to the Delhi Commissioner of Police and asked him to take strict action, but it is unclear whether similar directions have been given to the police in other states.
After the video that a flight attendant in Kolkata tweeted about her neighbors harassing and accusing the local constabulary of ignoring her complaint was widely circulated, the Kolkata Police Commissioner Anuj Sharma tweeted that action would be taken against persons who are discriminating against others and against police personnel who failed to discharge their duties.
The airline that she works for, S said, had been “supportive,” saying that it would intervene if the situation escalated any further. But the police, she said, were sympathetic at best, but had left her to own devices so far.
“They told me that even if we try these people will not listen so it is best that you ignore them,” she said.
(Editor’s note: The flight attendant has requested anonymity to avoid any further harassement).