A government-run hospital in Ahmedabad, the main city in the western Indian state of Gujarat, has been segregating coronavirus (Covid-19) patients based on their religion, as per an order from the government, Aljazeera reported.
This segregation practice has triggered accusations of 'apartheid' among many during the ongoing global crisis.
"Generally, there are separate wards for male and female patients. But here, we have made separate wards for Hindu and Muslim patients. It is a decision of the government and you can ask them," Dr Gunvant H Rathod, the medical superintendent of Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, told The Indian Express newspaper in its report on Wednesday.
USCIRF is concerned with reports of Hindu & Muslim patients separated into separate hospital wards in #Gujarat. Such actions only help to further increase ongoing stigmatization of Muslims in #India and exacerbate false rumors of Muslims spreading #COVID19 https://t.co/GXigs4w5na— USCIRF (@USCIRF) April 15, 2020
The principal secretary of health in the Gujarat government, Jayanti Ravi, did not respond for comments.
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However, the state Health Minister and Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel rejected the allegations saying, "Whatever is needed to give people the best possible treatment is being done," before hanging up abruptly.
The state's health department also put out an official statement, calling reports of separate wards for Muslims and Hindus "baseless".
"Patients are kept in different wards based on their medical condition, the severity of the symptoms and age, purely based on the advice of the treating doctors. Therefore, reports appearing in certain media are totally baseless and misleading," it said.
A report by the Indian Express, however, quoted a patient as saying, "On Sunday night, the names of 28 men admitted in the first ward (A-4) were called out. We were then shifted to another ward (C-4)."
"While we were not told why we were being shifted, all the names that were called out belonged to one community. We spoke to one staff member in our ward and he said this had been done for 'the comfort of both communities'."
Speaking to The Hindu newspaper a doctor said, "Certain patients from the majority community were not comfortable being in the same ward with patients of the minority community."
"After some patients complained, it was decided to segregate them on temporary basis," the doctor told the newspaper on condition of anonymity.
An Ahmedabad-based sociologist Ghanashyam Shah confirmed the rumours, speaking to Aljazeera, about the hospital segregating patients according to their religion symptomatic of apartheid saying "Absolutely."
"Knowing Gujarat, I am not surprised it has happened," he said.
"It is a very obvious kind of thing. The fake news propaganda around Muslims spreading the virus is probably rampant across India. But I can see it is visible in Gujarat."
He was making an allusion to a widespread Islamophobia fuelled by the coronavirus pandemic, especially after Tablighi Jamaat organised a congregation in New Delhi in March, which was later linked to hundreds of COVID-19 positive cases across the country, triggering a nationwide hunt to trace the attendees.
Tablighi Jamaat chief Maulana Saad Kandhalvi was also charged with "culpable homicide" on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned against any religious profiling of coronavirus patients by governments across the world.
"Having COVID-19 is not anybody's fault. Every case is a victim. It is very important that we do not profile the cases on the basis of racial, religious and ethnic lines," WHO's emergency programme director Mike Ryan had said.
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According to media reports, more than half of the nearly 500 cases of coronavirus in Ahmedabad have come from Muslim-majority neighbourhoods.
The city has long been a hotbed of communal divide, with separate localities marked for Hindus and Muslims.
In 2002, Ahmedabad was one of the main sites of state-wide religious violence, in which nearly 2,000 Muslims were killed, dozens of women raped, and thousands others displaced.
The violence followed the outbreak of a fire on a passenger train, in which 60 Hindu pilgrims were killed.
The Gujarat state is governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which also governs the country. Narendra Modi was the state's chief minister for nearly 13 straight years from 2001 before he became India's prime minister in 2014.