The first week of the national lockdown passed off peacefully in Assam and north-eastern states without a single positive case being reported. But the next three days saw a sudden spurt in positive cases, as news of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Nizamuddin in Delhi hit the national headlines. Panic gripped the state when on March 31st, the government announced that a 52-year-old Muslim cleric, a diabetic and cancer patient, had tested positive at the Silchar Medical College. The cleric, who runs a Madrassa at Badarpur in southern Assam’s Karimganj district, 300 km from Guwahati, had travelled to Delhi and had visited Nizamuddin and the Jama Masjid.
According to Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, the cleric “attended the Tablighi Jamaat at Nizamuddin Markaz and returned to Guwahati on March 11th. He came in contact with three persons in Guwahati from whom we have collected samples. On March 12th, he went to Badarpur from Guwahati with another person who later tested positive. In contact tracing we found five primary contacts whose test results are awaited. All persons, even if they test negative, will be kept on quarantine for the mandatory 14 days.”
Not long after, Sarma’s warning on April 1st that the number of cases in Assam would soon be in ‘double digits’ came true. More people tested positive, mainly among those who had returned to Assam after attending the Nizamuddin event. Sarma said that they had got a list of 547 such persons, but have been unable to trace 117 of them as either their phones are off or their family members are not cooperating.
“In initial investigation, 68 people are still to arrive in Assam,” said Sarma. The latest count of positive patients as on April 3 evening stood at 24, a number that is likely to go up as more test results come in. “We have collected samples of 196 people which we have sent to five testing labs. Positive cases in the screening test, we will send to NIV, Pune,” Sarma said.
It is clear that Assam might be entering a critical stage in the spread of the virus. But Sarma assured that “we have prepared well in advance. Assam has 9000 PPE, 80 thousand N85 masks and we have got donations worth Rs 9 crore from public for corona fund.” Currently, Assam has five testing centres, 2769 quarantine beds, 435 ICU Beds and 206 ventilators. Three medical colleges have been dedicated for COVID-19 patients and all 33 district hospitals have made separate arrangement for COVID patients.
Meanwhile, the railways has shared the passenger manifest of the return journey of all those who had travelled from Delhi to Assam after the Tablighi event, and a massive contact tracing exercise is on, government sources said. Positive cases have been reported from Nalbari, Golaghat and Morigaon districts. On the evening of April 2nd, eight cases from Golaghat district tested positive in Jorhat medical college.
Other northeastern states
On April 2nd, Arunachal Pradesh reported its first positive case. The person too had returned from the Tablighi Jammat Markaz, as had the person who tested positive in Manipur.
This is the second positive case in Manipur. A 23-year-old girl student, who returned from the UK, had earlier tested positive and her family members have been quarantined. Authorities are tracing others who may have come in contact with her. The second case from the region was a 50-year-old man from Mizoram who was tested at the Guwahati Medical College Hospital on March 25th. Contact tracing of the man’s family and friends is on. Till these cases came to light, these states had been the sole region in the country which had not reported any positive case. Now, cases are sprouting all over, largely related to the Nizamuddin event.
All the northeastern states are maintaining a strict lock down as students, professionals and workers from different parts of the country and abroad have returned home in large numbers.
These states have limited resources for testing, isolation and treatment. Manipur now has two dedicated hospitals for COVID, with one testing centre. Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram each have one dedicated hospital but no testing centres. Tripura has two dedicated hospitals and one testing centre while Sikkim has one dedicated hospital and no testing centre. All these states are dependent on North Bengal Medical College for testing.
And though this region has a strong army and paramilitary presence, none of the states have asked for para military or army help till now. The army, however, is maintaining strict protocol in maintaining quarantine and social distancing.