The Washigtnon Post - 03.04.2020

(Joyce) #1

A14 eZ re the washington post.friday, april 3 , 2020

the coronavirus pandemic


NEW DELHI — The devotees
came by the thousands from all
corners of India and beyond, con-
verging on a large white complex
in a crowded quarter of Delhi to
share a message o f piety.
When they left in the first
weeks of March, they unknowing-
ly carried the coronavirus with
Gatherings last month at the
headquarters of a prominent
Muslim missionary group are
emerging as India’s first “super-
spreader” event, complicating ef-
forts to control rising infections in
this n ation of 1.3 billion people.
More than 400 confirmed cases
and at least 10 deaths across the
country — stretching from Ta mil
Nadu in the south to Kashmir in
the north — have been linked to
people who attended e vents at t he
Ta blighi Jamaat center near a his-
toric shrine in India’s capital.
The infections, which repre-
sent about a fifth of India’s total
cases, have sparked a frantic effort
to track down anyone who attend-
ed the recent meetings. In at least
two states, potential contacts are
being traced using mobile-phone
location data.
The outbreak also has pro-
voked a spasm of Islamophobia in
India, a Hindu-majority nation
that is home to 200 million Mus-
lims. In February, t he country wit-
nessed its deadliest sectarian
clashes in years after the govern-
ment’s pursuit of a controversial
citizenship law sparked violence.
As the pandemic continues,
people practicing their faith have
become unwitting but powerful
vectors in the spread of the virus.
A cultlike church helped fueled
the pandemic in South Korea. A
synagogue north of New York City
was at the center of an early out-
break. An evangelical congrega-
tion in France was the source of
hundreds of infections.
India banned a ll religious gath-

erings when it instituted a three-
week nationwide lockdown
March 25. But several states and
cities already had implemented
their own restrictions: Delhi, for
instance, prohibited all assem-
blies of more than 50 people
March 16.
The activities of Tablighi Ja-
maat have emerged as a particu-
larly potent vehicle for transmit-
ting the virus. Founded in India
nearly a century ago, the group
has as many as 80 million adher-
ents worldwide. It is built around
small bands of itinerant mission-
aries who urge fellow Muslims to
deepen their observance and
model their lives directly on the
ways of the prophet Muhammad.
The group eschews politics and
in theory operates without formal
record-keeping, said Barbara
Metcalf, a prominent historian of
South Asian Islam. It stresses

proselytizing and travel, produc-
ing a “state of vulnerability and
uncertainty in which one learns to
be dependent on God,” Metcalf
The Ta blighi Jamaat cases in
India may be linked to another
religious gathering held by the
same group in Malaysia. At the
end of February, 16,0 00 people
from numerous countries attend-
ed a multiday Ta blighi Jamaat
event at a mosque in Kuala Lum-
pur. That gathering was the
source of hundreds of coronavirus
cases in Malaysia and dozens
more i n Brunei, Cambodia, Singa-
pore, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Cas-
es have also emerged at a Tablighi
center in Pakistan.
By early March, missionaries
from several Southeast Asian
countries were in India. Nearly a ll
of them passed through the bus-
tling complex in Delhi’s storied

Nizamuddin district and then
traveled on to different parts of
India. Several of them later died,
including a Filipino man and six
Indonesians. One Indian who
went home to Kashmir after par-
ticipating in a three-day event at
the Delhi center also died.
Missionaries and devotees con-
tinued to arrive at the center even
after Delhi authorities banned
large gatherings. Then India sus-
pended all passenger trains
March 22, followed swiftly by the
countrywide l ockdown.
About 2,300 people were stuck
at the Ta blighi Jamaat headquar-
ters, unable to leave or travel. Ye t
the authorities took no action to
remove them until this week,
when all of those at the center
were shifted to quarantine facili-
ties o r hospitals.
“Everybody now wishes that
[activities] had been d iscontinued

earlier,” s aid Fuzail Ayyubi, a law-
yer representing the Delhi center,
adding that the group had com-
municated its situation to the au-
thorities and cooperated with the
“This is not the right time to
blame us or the government,”
Ayyubi said. “Everybody is stuck
in a situation mankind hasn’t seen
Local authorities across India
are racing t o contain the o utbreak,
sometimes using methods that
appear to be without precedent
here. In Kashmir, a restive Mus-
lim-majority region, the govern-
ment compiled a list of more than
800 residents who were present
earlier in March in Delhi, includ-
ing in the neighborhood where
the Ta blighi Jamaat center is lo-
The list was assembled with the
help of telecom companies after
an analysis of data from c ellphone
towers, call records and travel
itineraries, said a senior police
official in Srinagar, who spoke on
the condition of anonymity be-
cause he was not authorized to
discuss the matter with the media.
Three other officials and doc-
tors in Kashmir confirmed they
had received i nstructions t o check
on the health of the individuals
mentioned on the list. The Wash-
ington Post reviewed a copy and
contacted 10 p eople listed. All con-
firmed they had recently been ei-
ther near the Ta blighi Jamaat cen-
ter or in another Delhi neighbor-
hood f requented by Kashmiris.
Kashmir has been subject to a
broader crackdown since last Au-
gust, when India stripped the ter-
ritory of its autonomy and state-
hood. Rohit Kansal, the top bu-
reaucrat in Jammu and Kashmir,
did not confirm or deny that the
region was using cellphone data
in its effort to trace contacts. The
territory is “following a proactive
and aggressive policy of test and
trace,” he said.
In the southern state of Ta mil
Nadu, authorities say that about
1,100 residents traveled to the Ta -

blighi Jamaat headquarters in
March. Many of those have come
forward, and the state is using a
“multitude of methodologies,” i n-
cluding “clustering of cellphone
data,” t o trace people, said Beela
Rajesh, the state’s health secre-
The Indian government has ex-
pansive authority to require mo-
bile-phone operators to share
data. While the Supreme Court
ruled in favor of a right to privacy
in 2017, its legal contours remain
Indian officials a re increasingly
looking to cellphone data to help
enforce measures to control the
pandemic. Arvind Kejriwal, the
top elected official in the state of
Delhi, announced Wednesday
that the local government would
temporarily use cellphone data to
determine if more than 20,
people were violating orders to
quarantine t hemselves at h ome.
Some Indian Muslims worry
that the infections linked to the
missionary group will intensify
anti-Muslim rhetoric. The cases
can be used as “a convenient ex-
cuse for some to vilify Muslims
everywhere,” wrote Omar Abdul-
lah, a s enior politician in Kashmir.
One prime-time anchor referred
to the coronavirus cases as “a mur-
derous attack in the name of
faith,” a nd “ CoronaJihad” t rended
on social media.
The first-known Indian victim
of the outbreak at the Ta blighi
center was Mohammad Ashraf
Anim, a 65-year-old Kashmiri
businessman. He had traveled to
Delhi to take part in a special
three-day quarterly event for dev-
otees, said a person familiar with
his plans who spoke on the condi-
tion of anonymity. Anim returned
home to Kashmir and attended
prayers at a mosque the following
Friday. A few days later, he devel-
oped coronavirus-related symp-
toms. He d ied March 26.

irfan reported from srinagar.

India confronts its first virus ‘super-spreader,’ a Muslim missionary group

biplov bhuyan/hindustan times/getty images
In New Delhi, people who took part in a Tablighi Jamaat function last month prepare Tuesday to head
into quarantine. More than 400 coronavirus cases across India have been linked to the group.


JERUSALEM — Israel has turned
to the Mossad, its top spy agency,
to acquire ventilators and other
medical supplies from abroad as
the country races to handle a
coronavirus outbreak that threat-
ens to overwhelm its hospitals,
according to government officials
and Israeli media reports.
The Mossad has already flown
in millions of masks, swabs and
virus testing kits in recent days,
as well as a small number of
While Mossad officials have
confirmed for local media that
the equipment has been secured,
the agency has declined to say
where it is coming from, raising
speculation that agents could be
shopping in Arab countries or
other nations that lack diplomat-
ic relations with Israel.
One unidentified Mossad offi-
cial described a chaotic interna-
tional marketplace with govern-
ments from around the world
scrambling for the same short list
of suddenly hot commodities, in-
cluding ventilators, N95 respira-
tors and other protective gear.
Agents don’t hesitate to outbid,
or outwit, purchasers from other
nations, the official said on
“Uvda,” an investigative news

program on Israel’s Channel 12.
“We are utilizing our special
connections to win the race and
perhaps do what the whole world
is doing,” he said.
The Mossad, Israel’s national
intelligence agency, answers di-
rectly to Prime Minister Benja-
min Netanyahu. The prime min-
ister’s o ffice declined to comment
on the scope of the program
Thursday, other than to confirm
that he ordered the operation in
the middle of March.
An Israeli official said that as
the entire government shifted to
a crisis footing, senior leaders
tapped the Mossad to take a
leading role in procurement, not
because of the agency’s secret
agents but because of its logisti-
cal prowess. This official, who
spoke on the condition of ano-
nymity because of the sensitivity
of the subject, said Israel would
not divert supplies earmarked for
other countries.
Israel has reported more than
6,500 cases of covid-19, the dis-
ease caused by the coronavirus,
including more than 100 people
now in intensive care.
The country has a well-regard-
ed, but dangerously underfund-
ed, national health-care system.
The hospital network was already
struggling with one of the highest

occupancy rates of any developed
country when the outbreak be-
N ational security observers say
the Mossad’s speed, spy craft and
international networks would
make it good at identifying and
securing medical supplies.
“The Mossad doesn’t have lo-
gistical capacity, it has contacts
everywhere, including in the
Arab world,” s aid Yossi Melman, a
longtime observer of Israel’s in-

telligence community and a col-
umnist for Haaretz. Melman said
the Mossad would be able to find
ventilators for sale in the remot-
est corners of the world.
Governments around the
globe have been rushing to ac-
quire medical supplies from the
same dwindling global invento-
ries, pitting countries against
each other and leading to bidding
wars that have driven up prices as
demand soars.

“Two hundred countries, ex-
cept possibly for one or two, are
competing fiercely for this equip-
ment,” Netanyahu said in a
speech two weeks ago. “The state
of Israel is using all means at its
disposal — all means — in a
tremendous effort to make up the
The Mossad effort has report-
edly secured 25,000 N95 respira-
tory masks, 10 million surgical
masks and more than 20,
virus testing kits. It has also
obtained 27 ventilators, with an-
other 160 on the way, though that
represents only a small fraction
of what hospitals need.
The agency’s first foray into
buying supplies abroad was a
costly mistake, according to re-
ports, when the Mossad delivered
tens of thousands of unusable
virus testing kits. But officials
said the pace and quality of the
supply shipments have picked
Melman said he is uncomfort-
able with the mixing of cloak-
and-dagger with scrubs-and-nee-
dles, arguing that whatever deals
the spy agency makes now will
come due when the crisis is over.
“There are no freebies,” he said.
“Eventually, Mossad will have to
pay it back, who knows in what

Other Israeli agencies have
said t he intelligence agency is not
alone in its foreign shopping
A spokesman for the Israeli
military confirmed that it was
working with the Mossad and
other agencies to acquire medical
equipment and other supplies
from abroad. The military also
declined to say where and how
the goods are obtained.
A diplomatic official said the
Foreign Ministry has bought sup-
plies in North America, South
America, Asia and Europe, r e-
moving the typical bureaucratic
barriers to get deliveries in the
The official, who was not au-
thorized to be named, said the
government purchasing effort is
coordinated from a command
center where Mossad officials
join staffers from the Defense
and Foreign Affairs ministries,
working off a Health Ministry
wish list.
Israel is also ramping up do-
mestic production, with the
army’s elite 81st Technological
Unit now making ventilators and
protective gear. One plant pivot-
ed from making tank parts and
body armor to medical goggles
and sanitizing sprayers.

Israel’s Mossad securing medical s upplies from unnamed locations abroad

ahmad gharabli/agence France-presse/getty images
Paramedics with Israel’s Magen David Adom (Red Shield of David)
national emergency medical service prepare to test a man for the
coronavirus Thursday at a drive-through site in East Jerusalem.

biostatistics at t he University of
Iceland who is providing
modeling and f orecasting
assistance to the c ountry’s
response team. A nd b ecause of
Iceland’s small s ize, data is
centralized, not spread out o ver
50 states as i t is in the United
Iceland’s latest p rediction
model suggests that 1 ,700 p eople
will be diagnosed with covid-19 in
the c ountry but t hat the number
could reach as high as 2,800 in a
much worse scenario, a nd t hat
hospitals will probably b e most
burdened in mid-April.
In t he meantime, scientists and
medical professionals in Iceland
plan to keep t esting, i solating and
keeping track o f cases, which t hey
can n ow m ore easily i dentify.
Curious to know if he has
already b een exposed to the virus,
Aspelund, who hasn’t f elt sick,
signed up for an appointment t o
be tested t hrough deCODE o n
“I’m going to be a data p oint,”
he said, “in a hopefully negative
test finding.”

genetic information that
researchers c an use to trace the
virus’s geographic spread.
Kristjana A sbjornsdottir, an
acting assistant professor o f
epidemiology at t he University of
Washington, said that t he
widespread t esting i n Iceland
means “ the numbers [Iceland
has] are probably quite reflective
of t he t rue epidemic.”
That h as allowed Iceland to
make informed d ecisions a bout
what a proportional response to
the outbreak l ooks like, she said, a
response that h as been aided by
Icelandic government o fficials
who have “taken their cue from
public health authorities instead
of the other way around.”
Some businesses have c losed,
but Iceland’s s chools w ere o nly
partially c losed in r esponse to the
pandemic. While social
distancing h as been encouraged,
small g roups can still meet.
The country’s small population
has s trong s ocial networks t hat
make navigating society at a t ime
of crisis l ess c omplicated t han in
larger countries, noted Thor
Aspelund, a professor o f

0.34 p ercent of the t otal
population. (My colleagues wrote
last week that the United States
has ramped up i ts t esting i n
recent w eeks but still lags b ehind
many other countries i n tests per
“It looks to us now t hat we have
this relatively under control i n
Iceland,” Kari S tefansson, chief
executive o f deCODE G enetics,
told To day’s WorldView. “ We a re
clearly optimistic and we will
continue to screen. We a re
increasing the effort.”
The deCODE t esting i n Iceland
is free, b ut Stefansson said the
data collection isn’t c onsidered
completely random, b ecause
individuals still o pt in to the s wab
and “ those who respond are most
likely t o be those who a re m ore
concerned than the r est of the
Still, the r esults have provided
some interesting d ata. Of those
who tested positive, Stefansson
said, about half were
asymptomatic at t he t ime of t heir
testing, t hough t hey could have
developed symptoms later on.
The tests have also r evealed

can b e. They d o not need t o have
recently traveled a broad o r have
come into contact with anyone
diagnosed with the virus. They
don’t e ven need t o show any
The initiative has d rawn
thousands o f people f rom the
general p opulation in for t esting.
Between s wabs carried out f ree by
deCODE a nd t hose c onducted at
Icelandic hospitals f or those
showing symptoms, a bout 19,5 00
people — more than 5 p ercent of
the c ountry’s total population —
had b een tested for the v irus a s of
Wednesday. More t han 1,2 00
cases had b een confirmed, and
two people h ad died. More than
7,800 others w ere i n quarantine,
and m ore than half of t hose who
had b een diagnosed with t he
virus were already in quarantine
at t he time of t heir d iagnosis,
according to official government
As a p oint o f comparison, t he
United S tates h ad conducted
more than 1.1 million t ests as of
Wednesday, a ccording to the
COVID Tracking Project, which
would amount to t esting roughly

insights that will not only h elp
the c ountry handle its own
outbreak more efficiently, but
also help researchers elsewhere.
In l ate February, Iceland
confirmed its first case of the
virus: a patient w ho h ad recently
returned h ome after a trip to
Italy. Over the next s everal weeks,
as the pandemic s eeped i nto
communities a round the world,
other cases b egan to pop u p
across the island, home to a bout
364 ,000 people.
Icelandic officials quickly
embarked o n an ambitious
contact-tracing initiative t hat
helped i dentify and i solate
individuals who had come into
contact w ith p eople diagnosed
with the v irus — and urged t hem
into isolation.
Meanwhile, the R eykjavik-
based d eCODE Genetics, a
subsidiary of U.S.-based
biotechnology company Amgen,
teamed up with the c ountry’s
public health officials to rapidly
expand t he c ountry’s testing
Now, a nyone i n Iceland w ho
wants to be t ested for coronavirus

In c oronavirus h ot
spots a round the
globe, hospitals
are so
with sick patients
that they’re
running out of l ifesaving
supplies. And in many places,
testing for t he virus has been
reserved for people who meet
specific medical and travel-
related c riteria.
But o ne of t he challenges that
has m ade t he pandemic s o
difficult to control i s that r esearch
increasingly suggests a large
number of people infected with
the v irus m ay s how no symptoms
— as many as 25 percent,
according to U.S. o fficials. That
means t hat in places w ith l imited
testing, d octors a nd scientists
know they are missing people
who are infected w ith t he virus —
and m ay b e spreading it to o thers.
So what if a nyone could be
That’s w hat scientists i n
Iceland are now t rying to make
happen — a nd t hey hope t heir
approach could yield i mportant

A coronavirus test for anyone who wants one? In Iceland, it’s possible.

T oday’s


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