Tamil Nadu Lockdown Diary: 'People talk as if COVID-19 came from Melapalayam, not China'; Muslims struggle with health systems steeped in prejudice
The experiences of many Muslims in Tamil Nadu in accessing healthcare revealed a system that repeatedly revealed its biases against them.
Editor's note: This multimedia series documents the mechanics of how 12 districts in Tamil Nadu worked during the COVID-19 lockdown; told through the stories of healthcare workers, sanitary workers, district officials, other essential workers, administrators, locals and patients. The series resulted from three weeks of travel through the state.
Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak began in India, news channels across the country started caricaturing Muslims from the Tablighi Jamaat as wilful defaulters who were traveling across the country to spread the disease. In Tamil Nadu, such propaganda meant that the principle of 'Noiyoddan poradungal, noiyyalioddan alla’ (fight the disease, not the patient) was thrown to the winds.
The above principle, incidentally, is the opening line one hears on making a phone call in the state. However, on the ground, the experiences of many Muslims in accessing healthcare revealed a system that was steeped in prejudice. This was in direct contradiction to the exhortations made by international organisations such as the World Health Organisation to use strategies which do not further alienate society from those who are victims of the virus.
Muslims in Tamil Nadu have a very different perception of Tablighi Jamaat from the one that has been largely splashed across TV channels. A college student said in a lighter vein, “When I realise that a Tablighi Jamaat person is approaching me, I try to escape.” This is because, he explained, Tablighi Jamaat leaders usually try to point out how Muslims are erring in what is expected from them. “It is like a school teacher giving you a lecture. At times, we are okay with the lecture but at times, we also run from the lecture,” he said as his friend laughed along.
Elaborating further, he added, “Among us, we know there are certain Muslims who will be very aggressive in taking on people who wrong us. Like Muslims in Popular Front of India (PFI) or the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam. You can say they are very politically vocal. But there are others who do not interfere with anything that is to do with the administration, state or politics. People from the Tablighi Jamaat are like that. They lead a simple lifestyle, and mind their own business, which is to talk to us Muslims about Islam and how we should stick to the various tenets of Islam. They are paavam (harmless) people."
When SM Mansoor and SK Abdul Khader received a call from the local police on 29 March, it was the first time that they were told that they could have COVID-19 . They were part of a group of 16 who had travelled back from Delhi to Melapalalyam, a Muslim neighbourhood in Tirunelveli. They were asked to report for a test to the Melapalayam general hospital. All of them did so within an hour, only to be told that they are being shifted to another facility. "They didn’t inform us that we were being taken away or that we’ll be isolated. We would’ve carried our things and would have been prepared,” says Abdul Khader. Melapalayam, meanwhile, was completely shut down on the orders of the District Collector Shilpa Prakash Satish. The DC also ordered a stop to all vehicular movement to and from Melapalayam. The locality was completely barricaded.
In the days to follow, 103 people were traced as contacts whom the 16 from Melapalayam had been in touch with. They were quarantined and tested. Out of these, sixteen tested positive. Mansoor said, “All of us were asymptomatic. We wanted to see some test results which said that we were positive but we weren’t provided with any. In any case, a total of 32 tested positive. Why was an entire locality with more than 3 lakh people shut down for that?”
This is what is baffling. The house of Abdul Khader, which is where this reporter interviewed him, is an independent building. So is the case with all other houses in Mansoor’s street. There are no common toilets. The 15 others were also living in similar settings, in other streets of Melapalayam. Particular streets where the 16 lived could have been turned into containment zones. But why was an entire area declared as being out of bounds? A female relative of the 16, who was also tested, questions how the media can repeatedly refer to an area as a ‘corona hub’, when only 32 in a population of more than 3 lakhs tested positive.
The repercussions of this kind of profiling were immediate. For instance, private hospitals turned away nine Muslim women from Melapalayam who had deliveries lined up in April. The women had been visiting these hospitals till March. This reporter accessed audio recordings where relatives of some of these women plead with the doctors from these hospitals to be allowed admission, only to be told they have been explicitly instructed by the district administration not to accept any patients from Melapalayam. The district administration denies having given any such orders. Even though some of the patients' relatives say that they knew nobody from the people who travelled back from Delhi, and they could be tested for COVID 19 before being admitted, the doctors refused to engage with them. At least two were downright rude, and indirectly Islamophobic.
The ordeals that these nine women faced were similar. They travelled first to the hospital where they were getting their routine check up and had been assigned a date for delivery. When they were turned away from there, they tried a few more private hospitals. Some had no option left but to finally go to Tirunelveli Medical College Hospital (TMCH), a government facility at Highground.
Rizwana, 21, from North Thaika Street in Melapalayam was reluctant to get herself admitted at TMCH Highground as she previously had bad experiences at this hospital. “Nobody cares about you there. The place is also not very well kept and this was my first pregnancy,” she explained. But with no options left, she admitted herself at TMCH Highground on 31 March. “As soon as I told them I am from Melapalayam, I could sense everybody just freeze. I stood outside the Labour Ward as much as I could, as I didn’t want to antagonise anybody,” says Rizwana. After this, she had a caesarian section done. “When I regained consciousness, I realised I was outside the operation theatre and not in a ward, or a room. None of them wanted to approach me. It took them three hours to even move me from there,” says Rizwana.
Rizwana was put in a room temporarily after which she was moved to the old GH building, where the COVID-19 positive patients were also housed. Women from Melapalayam, who had just finished their delivery, were allotted a separate room in the same GH building. “There was nobody to attend to us. Even when they had to, they didn’t even touch us or check on the stitches, as they are supposed to. They would stand at a distance and yell”, said Rizwana. On the fifth day after her delivery, Rizwana was instructed to remove her urine bag by herself. “The nurse stood at the entrance and threw a syringe at me, telling me to pierce the drip with it. The syringe fell on the floor. I hadn’t gotten off the bed till then. With my stitches, without knowing what I was doing, I used my feet to pick up the syringe and pierced it into the urine bag. And then yanked the drip out,” Rizwana says. It didn’t stop there. The nurses also instructed her to remove the bandage around her stitches. Rizwana tried doing that but when it hurt, she refused. After this, Rizwana’s family spoke to a few leaders and asked them to intervene at the hospital. Only after this did a doctor attend to Rizwana.
Witness to all of this was Nasreen Fathima, who had also recently delivered a baby and was in the same room as Rizwana. She was denied admission at Annai Velankanni Hospital after which she was admitted at Highground GH. “I saw Rizwana struggle with her urine drip by herself. Some nurses were good but most of them weren’t. They spoke to all of us very harshly and kept yelling at us,” says Nasreen. “The room was dirty, there were constant long power cuts, the fans weren’t working and the bathroom didn’t even have a light. And there was nobody to attend to us,” says Nasreen.
Jevariya, 24, also was turned away from CSI Annapackiyam Mission Hospital on 11 April, her due date. This is when a few leaders, including Nasreen’s father Sheikh Mohammad, a meat trader and a local leader, came together and spoke to the authorities of Crescent Hospital, situated in Melapalayam itself. After this, most expecting women from Melapalayam were accommodated at Crescent Hospital. Sabita Begum, 26, who was turned away from Madhubala Hospital and Karuniya Health Centre, questions how the administration can completely ignore the medical needs of such a big population. “Why did we have to fend for ourselves? With all that pain, I went from hospital to hospital for eight hours. Who is to be held accountable for this?”, she asked.
While the Muslim community of Melapalayam was able to figure out a temporary solution for expecting mothers, those with serious medical problems were left in the lurch. Like Peer Muhammad, a liver cancer patient and a resident of Melapalayam.
Muhammad used to travel to Regional Cancer Centre (RCC), Thiruvananthapuram for treatment since he was diagnosed with the condition. After the nationwide lockdown came into place on 25 March, RCC sent him a mail, directing him to the nearest government facility for chemotherapy. Muhammad first attempted to access the facility on 30 March, a day after Melapalayam was shut down. His son Muhammad Ibrahim says that they were made to wait in the sun, and were not allowed inside. After a half a day of waiting, Ibrahim took him back home. When Muhammad’s condition further deteriorated, his family attempted to access chemo again on 22 April, without luck. A video of Peer Muhammad shot on the same day shows him in an extremely precarious condition. Five days later, he died.
Naseer, a health worker from Melapalayam Medical Society working with COVID 19 patients and patients with non-communicable diseases says that the state of affairs at TMCH Highground have marginally improved in the past few weeks. “There were some administrative changes within the institution, after which the response has been better. Private hospitals are also starting to behave, after we amped up pressure on them,” he says.
Arabi Gnaniyar, an ambulance driver who saw patients from Melapayalam struggling with accessing medical care, said, “Everybody thinks Melapalayam is where coronavirus is spreading from. I’ve travelled across Tirunelveli and the adjoining villages. People are speaking as if COVID-19 originated from Melapalayam, not China.”
He further recalled, “As soon as Melapalayam was cordoned off, patients who were already admitted at hospitals were also asked to leave. An elderly Muslim woman was discharged from an ICU, even though it had been three days since she had been there. Both her sons are in Dubai and pleaded with me to try and get her admitted at any hospital. But I couldn’t. She died two days later.”
What SM Mansoor fails to understand is why a convoluted plot was derived from something as simple as a yearly religious exercise. “The plans for travel in March were made many many months in advance. Why then have we been treated like this? As soon as we were told to report for a test, we did so in less than an hour. Our families complied with what was asked for. Yet, the local media and the administration branded us as ‘ Coronavirus carriers’. People from this entire neighbourhood were treated inhumanely. Why?” questions Mansoor. Small-time businesses from Melapalayam, like those doing AC repairs and household work, told this reporter that people are turning them away from work if they disclose that they are residents of Melapalayam.
Khader also pointed to how he didn’t have to face stigma from neighbours as he stays in a Muslim locality. “But my cousin, on the other hand, lives in an area where the majority is non-Muslim. When he was taken for a test, immediately, the media carried videos of him being taken in an ambulance. The area was turned into a containment zone. Such measures were taken by the government across Tamil Nadu. But in how many such cases were the individuals told that they, as Muslims, are the cause for the spread and if they leave the area, the area will no longer be affected?”
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