New Delhi: Two days after Amrinder landed at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport on 17 March 2020 from Newark Airport, USA, he received a visit from the police, who, he said, collected copies of his passport and a letter from a doctor at Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, stating that in case he developed Covid-19 symptoms he would agree to be tested.
Amrinder—who requested that his full name and profession be withheld—had shared his details with the airline and was in home quarantine. He found the police visit disconcerting.
“There was absolutely no need for it,” he said.
Amrinder learned from friends that the personal details of many other passengers had been leaked on WhatsApp. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “Government must understand the consequences of data leak. It may lead to stigmatising suspects in society.”
After India was put under a 21-day lockdown on 24 March 2020 to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus, many of those returning to India from foreign countries found themselves on a leaked Whatsapp list of 722 passengers.
Of these, 475 are Indian citizens, who returned to India at Delhi airport from countries affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The list included details of names, dates of birth, passport numbers, and addresses of the passengers who arrived from coronavirus-affected countries between 9 March and 20 March.
At a time when doctors, medical professionals and airlines workers including pilots and cabin crew face social ostracisation and harrassment within their residential complexes and discrimination and eviction from landlords, the leak of the supposedly confidential list from the custody of the government increases their anxiety, leaves them open to social stigma and invades their privacy.
‘We May Commit Mistakes At Times’
As state governments intensified efforts to contain the spread of the global pandemic, the Delhi government published a list of arriving international passengers who landed in Delhi between 15 February and 20 March this year. Such travellers were earlier asked to report to the authorities.
“Only a very few number of travellers reached out to us,” said a Delhi health department official. Hence, a team of officials, including medical staff and police personnel, took it upon themselves to reach out to travellers in person to advise them to stay under home quarantine.
In most cases, these personal visits were followed by the marking of their homes with a prominent sticker pasted on the wall that declared: “Do not visit. Home under quarantine.” The sticker also mentions the quarantine period and the number of family members asked to remain in isolation. It is signed by the district magistrate.
The question remains: Who leaked this list on social media?
“I am unaware about any list doing the rounds on social media,” said a Delhi government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media. “All passenger lists prepared by the Delhi government with the help of airline authorities are for official use. It's not for the purpose of publicly shaming individuals.”
“No official is supposed to disclose the identity of Covid-19 suspects,” said the official. But, he added, “These are unprecedented times. None of us was trained for a situation like this. We may commit mistakes at times but our intentions are to pull out people from this corona crisis.”
Similar reports of privacy violation with passenger lists doing the rounds on social media are emerging from Chandigarh and Bengaluru. In Mohali, the district administration published a list of 200 people, with addresses and phone numbers, under quarantine after arriving from countries affected by Covid-19. The Karnataka Government revealed a district-wise list of nearly 20,000 people and made phone numbers and addresses public, as Article14 reported in March 2020.
Stigmatising Potential Patients
The list contains the names of international passengers who are, on arrival, advised to self-isolate at home for 14 days in a bid to contain the spread of the virus. These passengers have not tested positive and, in all likelihood, will not ever develop symptoms.
But, releasing data in the public domain is “a gross violation” of patient rights, said R.V. Asokan, Indian Medical Association (IMA) secretary general. “Let it be any outbreak, the details of the patient or potential patient needs to be kept confidential,” he said. “No excuses can be entertained by stating it as ‘unprecedented times’.”
The IMA said it had “orally” expressed its concerns over privacy invasions to the government and sought action against the authorities responsible.
India has a history of stigmatisation of patients with diseases like HIV-AIDS and tuberculosis. Often, the stigma remains after the disease is cured, said Asokan.
“The IMA is of the firm view that the identity of the patient or a potential patient has to be kept confidential. It is utterly shocking that such lists are being released in public,” said Asokan. “Accountability needs to be fixed.”
In Rajasthan, where the details of 46 suspected victims of coronavirus were revealed by the state government, the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, an advocacy, protested to Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.
“We are afraid such lists being made public might breed wider stigma and deter people from reporting their illnesses and revealing their travel history for the fear of social intimidation,” the Abhiyan said in its letter to Gehlot.
Breach Of Privacy
The privacy breaches have had a series of consequences, as we said.
In a Central Bengaluru high-rise, for instance, a person under quarantine was taking the family dog out for a walk when he was accosted by other residents who insisted he was putting their lives at risk, The Federal, a website, reported on 27 March 2020.
Back in Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has in his press conferences repeatedly appealed to the people to not stigmatise families under home quarantine. On March 22, he tweeted: “Delhi govt is marking all homes with persons advised home quarantine. I appeal to all not to stigmatize such families. Please be empathetic and supportive towards them. The marking is aimed only at cautioning others for their own safety.”
Not everyone is pleased with the effort. Rahul, who has a travel history to Malaysia, expressed shock after his details were circulated on social media. “How could such personal details, which are only supposed to be maintained with the immigration office or the airlines, circulate so carelessly on social media?” he asked.
In early March, a Union Health Ministry advisory asked all incoming international passengers returning to India to undergo self-quarantine for 14 days.
Arshi, another passenger whose details were disclosed, landed at Delhi airport on March 13. “Before landing, passengers were asked to sign an undertaking declaring they would follow 14-days home quarantine. Also, a thermal test was conducted on landing,” she said, adding that she had received follow up calls from officials, inquiring if she had developed any symptoms.
“Unless the list is misused, I am not really concerned about it,” said Arshi. “It is important to keep track of all passengers who have travelled recently in the larger interest of society.”
Nikhil Pahwa, founder, Medianama, a website that report and analyses digital policy, said there was “absolutely no case” to make details of arriving passengers public even though the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 is yet to become a law.
“I do not understand what purpose this list serves when people are already under self-isolation,” said Pahwa. “This is certainly a breach of privacy.”
Violation Of Patient Rights
India has no specific law regarding the disclosure of medical records. Indian Medical Council regulations, however, oblige every medical professional to maintain physician-patient confidentiality.
But, “while a physician disclosing personal information about his or her patients could be held guilty of professional misconduct, this obligation does not extend to other persons responsible for processing patient data, either under the mandate of a state body or a body corporate,” write Nimisha Srinivas and Arpita Biswas in a 2012 paper.’
In the case of the leaked list, health experts are divided.
At times of a coronavirus pandemic it is not possible for medical professionals to abide by all ethics laid out by the Indian Medical Council, said Anil Gupta, Phd, at the Anugrah Narayan Magadh Medical College, Patna.
“When authorities and media are pressuring you for every detail, when the number of patients outnumber hospital capacities, how do you expect medical professionals to follow all ethics laid in the documents?” said Gupta.
“The definition of ‘patient’ is conflicting in the first place,” said Fuzail Rahman, resident doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. “People are undergoing self home quarantine,” said Rahman. “They have been given some health advice, and are asked to follow the same. I don’t think at this stage they could be considered ‘patients’ and the medical code of ethics applied.”
This story uses only the first names of passengers to protect identities.
Preciously on Article 14:
(Rohin Kumar and Alya Ekta are New Delhi-based freelance writers and members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)