In the absence of a prescribed protocols around quarantining, concerns surface about stigmatisation and breach of privacy

Prerna Katiyar & Venkat Anant

Priyaji, a primary school teacher who lives in Delhi’s Mayur Vihar neighbourhood, is active on her society Whatsapp group. When she spotted an official posting a quarantinewarning sticker at a neighbour’s door recently, she promptly clicked a photo and circulated on the group, with the warning note: “Yeh saare positive honge. Bhool ke bhi inke ghar matt jana kabhi (All of these must be positive cases. Don’t ever make the mistake of visiting them).

With a large number of people across India going under quarantine due to suspected exposure to SARS-CoV-2 virus, information about their identity is leaking or getting deliberately published through official channels or neighbourhood Whatsapp groups, raising concerns about breach of privacy and stigmatisation. On the flip side, authorities say such identification is necessary as many are not taking quarantining seriously, and are stepping out, potentially imperiling others.

The problem is exacerbated because many are conflating those under quarantine with positive cases. There are also instances of Whatsapp messages going viral purportedly with identifying information of those who have tested positive.

“Home quarantine is a precautionary measure. It does not mean that all inmates are COVID positive. In fact, looking at our records, in 80-90% cases, there are chances of them being negative,” Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) director Dr Rajnikanth Srivastava told ET.

On Thursday, a user-generated Google Map of Bengaluru’s home-quarantined residents was doing the rounds. The map itself was based on data that was made public by the Karnataka government a few days ago, and circulated vigorously among WhatsApp groups belonging to the city’s many resident welfare associations in apartment complexes. The details included home addresses of those quarantined.

The move has not gone down well with those quarantined at home, with some expressing fear of ostracisation and harassment from other residents within their respective communities, as they try and complete their mandatory 14-day period. One person under quarantine told ET that making the data public was “unfair since it had addresses of those under home quarantine and observation”.

The Karnataka government, however, defends this practice saying the limited purpose of making the data public was to create social pressure on people. “We need to bring this discipline so that they (home quarantined people) take it seriously. These are perfectly healthy people who aren’t cooperating with the quarantine,” said an official from the Karnataka government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Those in the central government have taken a sterner view, saying this practice of making confidential patient data public must not be encouraged. “Such maps or data are meant for internal uses for the department, not for the general public to know. There are strict privacy guidelines in other instances,” said an official from the ministry of electronics and information technology (Meity). “Public shaming should not be allowed.”

Sharing of such information will run afould of the law, Supreme Court senior advocate Menaka Guruswamy said. “The Delhi list which I received from my colony WhatsApp group has names, addresses, passport details, date of birth—it has everything… Such sensitive information being leaked is of concern due to data theft issues and vigilantism, amongst others. Leaking it also violates privacy protections of the Constitution. Sharing sensitive information that exposes the owner to harm may also violate the Information Technology Act,”

In Delhi, DCP-North East Ved Prakash Surya says the police is not just sensitizing people under quarantine through regular announcements but also the neighbourhood. “While social stigmatisation of those under quarantined can’t be ruled out, we are also getting complaints from neighbours about people under home quarantine stepping out at times,” says Surya. “At the same time, everyone must understand that those under quarantine for 14 days are under a lot of stress and should not be seen as outcasts.”

“Public disclosure must not be made by pro-active disclosure on websites. This is putting people at grave risk to their personal safety, social ostracism which is impacting their ability to secure basic amenities and services,” said Apar Gupta, executive director at Internet Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group that works on privacy, among other issues. “The Central government must urgently issue guidelines under section 2 of the Epidemics Disease Act to mitigate this as many state governments are in violation of the law. At the same time, you may notice the state government of Orissa has issued an order on March 21 to restrict such public disclosures.”

In Delhi, surveillance teams led by district magistrates are visiting houses where people have to be quarantined. They put a poster on the gate that mentions the name, address, number of persons, period of quarantine as well as a stern message in capital lettering: DO NOT VISIT. HOME UNDER QUARANTINE. In Delhi, such teams are visiting some 45,000 people with recent overseas travel history. “We not just paste the poster but also meet the neighbours and the local police station telling them to keep a watch on the house,” Shashi Kaushal, District Commissioner (North-East), tells ET.There are 11such teams for 11districts of Delhi. “There is nothing wrong in writing that no one should visit this house, as this will stop the spread of the virus,” says Kaushal, while adding that there is no question of their team members leaking the names of those tested positive.

The problem was flagged by the WHO in a situation report early February. “In the case of COVID-19, there are an increasing number of reports of public stigmatization against people from areas affected by the epidemic. Unfortunately, this means that people are being labelled, stereotyped, separated, and/or experience loss of status and discrimination because of a potential negative affiliation with the disease.”

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