Since the beginning of March, with Bengaluru and the rest of Karnataka seeing a second wave of COVID-19 cases, health authorities have been conducting random tests in areas with high footfalls in the city. Epidemiologists and public health experts have been suggesting that a combination of randomised and systematic tests (based on symptoms and contact tracing) is the only way to keep infections in check.
But the absence of a standard operating procedure/ a circular or an order by a relevant authority has led to officials on the ground forcing and bullying a section of the public to get tested without their consent to meet their daily targets. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a zonal health officer who reports to the Chief Health Officer of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, said they have been instructed to send transit teams to railway stations, bus stations or other crowded places to conduct tests. âBut at no cost, can they force a person to get tested. The most that these teams can do is to try and convince the person to get tested but nothing more,â the officer told TNM. She added that each transit team has a target of testing 100 persons daily.
TNM spoke to a few persons who said that they were approached by BBMP officials and were coerced into testing. âI had been to National College ground to play frisbee with friends on March 21. And while on my way back at KR Market bus stand the police rounded us along with many others for COVID-19 test. I refused but I was told that it is mandatory so I was forced to get tested,â Siddharth Saldanha, a teacher, said.
In another incident, an ITI student Ramesh Tadkal said he was also bullied into getting tested. âI was in a hurry and had taken a COVID-19 test recently but the testers caught me at Majestic. I requested them to let me go as I was in a hurry but they threatened me saying that I will have to pay a fine of Rs 2,500 if I refuse. So, I had to get tested even if I didnât want to,â he said.
A couple of others TNM spoke to narrated the same experience of being forced to take the test.
In the wake of complaints of young persons being allegedly bullied into these tests, this TNM reporter visited the Majestic Bus Stand, the largest bus station in Bengaluru catering to both intra-state, interstate and intra-city buses.
This reporter spent several hours over a few days observing from a distance and it appeared that the teams selectively targeted students and people who visibly appeared to be from lower income groups. It was also learnt that although part of random tests, these testing teams are present from morning till noon every day at the Majestic bus station.
When this reporter started to walk towards one of the COVID-19 testing stands, he was stopped by a BBMP personnel who said, âTake the COVID-19 test.â When this reporter said he didn't want to get tested, the official in a bid to intimidate shouted, âYou have to get tested, we are telling you for your own good,â continuing to block his path. The reporter refused politely for the second time.
After this conversation when this reporter tried to walk away, another personnel part of the same team started shouting at the reporter in a disrespectful manner. She insisted that there was no way out without getting tested.
At this point, the reporter asked to see the Government Order that mandated him to get tested. The official not only refused to show any relevant order but warned the reporter not to âtalk too much.â Visibly furious the woman said he âhas no rights to ask them anythingâ because they were âsent by the governmentâ. The other male official resorted to threats by pointing to the police station and saying âYou want to see an order? Come, they will show you the order. This will cause you unnecessary difficulties.â
This reporter believing this to be a hollow threat walked to the police station, where the man proceeded to inform the police what had happened. The reporter then revealed that he is a journalist, the police official reasoned, âAs a media person, you should understand that the âgovernment is telling people to get testedâ and âthat is the orderâ. Another policeman further asked, âif the vaccine comes also you wonât take it?â The policemen insisted that this reporter âcooperatesâ with the officials.
What experts say
Experts point out ethical and legal problems with this approach of coerced random testing, they feel that this will not result in any intended public health goal either. Notably, on March 21, the Mumbai civic body had passed an order under the Epidemic Act to carry out antigen tests in all public places without getting the publicâs consent.
Dr Anant Bhan, bioethics and global health researcher, said this practice of coercive or forced testing is a violation of rights and there is no strong justification to test random travellers alone while not doing the same for big government offices and other busy areas.
âIf we need to get a good handle on the number of infections in a particular geographic area, this can also be done through outreach testing and after explaining the rationale,â he said.
He added, âIt's not clear what the reason to do forced random testing is on ordinary travelers in bus stations when the same policy would not be implemented in other spaces such as the Legislative Assembly, courts, municipal offices, especially with senior staff or functionaries.â
Dr Amar Jesani, editor of Indian Journal of Medical Ethics said fixing a number of intended target number of random tests will not yield the intended public health result. He said with no supervision this might lead to misuse of testing resources and officials on ground might collect samples from the most approachable person.
âGiving targets is a bureaucratic way of dealing with anything and the same is true for COVID-19. If targets are set, the testers will only be interested in meeting the target. So they will simply start testing those who are easy to catch on the roads. This is not beneficial to fight COVID-19 or the economy," he said
What officials say
When asked about this, Dr Trilok Chandra, senior IAS officer and Commissioner of Karnataka Health and Family Welfare Department, did not confirm if any specified order has been passed on forced testing. He insisted under the present pandemic conditions, the government has the right to carry out tests. âIs there any reason for a person not to get tested?â he asked.