Blame game over pilgrims

Politicians bicker in Punjab as the State struggles to deal with the dramatic surge in COVID-19 infections following the return of devotees from a pligrimage to Gurudwara Hazur Sahib in Maharashtra.

Published : May 05, 2020 18:12 IST

Policemen noting down details of passengers travelling in a bus that carried people back to Punjab from Nanded in Maharashtra. The passengers were to be subjected to a mandatory 21-day quarantine.

Policemen noting down details of passengers travelling in a bus that carried people back to Punjab from Nanded in Maharashtra. The passengers were to be subjected to a mandatory 21-day quarantine.

The COVID-19 contagion is increasing at an alarming rate in Punjab following the return of Sikh devotees who had got stranded in Nanded in Maharashtra after the lockdown was announced. From May 1 to May 3, as an estimated 4,000 pilgrims flooded back into the State, the total number of positive COVID-19 cases jumped to 1,102 with 21 deaths. As of May 3, as many as 609 pilgrims who returned from Maharashtra had been found to be infected. The steepest spike was recorded on May 3: of the 331 cases recorded that day, 326 were pilgrims.

The spike sharpened the political blame game. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), principal opposition party in Punjab, accused the Amarinder Singh-led Congress government of negligent handling of the devotees’ transportation from Maharashtra. The Congress alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Centre was discriminating against opposition-ruled States.

The pilgrims had travelled to Nanded (Maharashtra) to pay obeisance at Gurudwara Hazur Sahib. The announcement of the lockdown on March 24 at four hours’ notice forced them to stay back at the shrine complex. In the absence of adequate space and amenities at the complex, social distancing norms presumably could not be followed.

The Punjab government initially recommended home quarantine for returnees who showed no symptoms on arrival. The situation changed after eight pilgrims in Tarn Taran and Kapurthala tested positive. The Home Department issued strict orders that all those who were arriving in Punjab would be first screened at a government facility and then allowed to go home only if they tested negative.

Much controversy has arisen regarding the mode of transport of the pilgrims and the difficulties they encountered at the government quarantine centres. SAD leader Bikram Singh Majithia demanded that Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu be sacked and alleged that the State government mismanaged the transportation of the pilgrims by not sticking to Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) guidelines; he pointed to the use of air-conditioned buses for the purpose. “The social distancing norm was not followed. The buses passed through red zones, and it was because of this mishandling that pilgrims who were in good health in Nanded for more than one month tested positive for COVID-19 on their return to Punjab,” Majithia said.

In response, Balbir Singh Sidhu alleged that Majithia was conducting a misleading propaganda and emphasised that the pilgrims contracted the disease during their stay at the Hazur Sahib Gurudwara and not on their way back to Punjab. He justified his claim citing the fact that some “sevadars” of the gurudwara had also tested positive. Sidhu also criticised Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur of SAD for her comment that the Centre had been generous with funds. He dared her to prevail on the Union government to clear the State’s Goods and Services Tax arrears amounting to Rs.4,400 crore. In a video message on his Facebook page, he said: “A sum of Rs.71 crore has been given to Punjab under the National Health Mission to fight the coronavirus. It comes to even less than Rs.3 crore per district. Besides that, we have not got a single penny from the Government of India in the fight against COVID-19”.

The opposition in the State criticised facilities at the quarantine centres as poor. Some senior people associated with Health Department who were running the administration of the hospitals where most suspected coronavirus patients have been quarantined agreed with the criticism. A source told Frontline : “You know the condition of government health facilities. Would you expect them to change overnight?”

Congress spokesperson Raman Balasubraminan, who is also the chairman of Ludhiana Improvement Trust, said there might have been irregularities in the beginning but claimed that the situation had since improved. “One cannot deny that there were some difficulties in the beginning given the sudden spurt in cases, but we acted fast. We have significantly upgraded the amenities at the quarantine centres,” he told this reporter. In view of the spiralling number of cases, the government has started a drive to increase the number of isolation centres. On May 2, 2,081 government schools were declared quarantine facilities until further orders in Patiala alone.

Inter-community efforts

Punjab has seen robust inter-community efforts to aid the overall preparations and action plan to deal with the pandemic. As in the rest of the country, civil society has come out strongly in support of efforts made by independent non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to ensure supply of food and other essentials to the poor. Volunteers of Voice of Amritsar (VoA), a prominent NGO that has handed over 50 PPE kits, 100 face shields and 10 litres of handsanitiser to the administration, said they got a tremendous response from the people, especially, small shopkeepers and grocers. VoA’s founding director, Rakesh Sharma, Professor in Surgery at the Government Medical College Amritsar and Convener of Special Coordination Committee on COVID-19, said that at least 10 of its staff secured travel permits in the first week of the lockdown and were instrumental in distributing food supplies and protective gear.

Sharma told this writer over the phone from Amritsar: “So far we have catered to over 10,000 families. People from all walks of life responded to our donation calls generously. Even shopkeepers would either give food essentials free of cost or give us extra quantities over what we purchased. Besides money, people also generously donated rations to our teams. We were able to raise enough funds to buy 50 thermal scanners worth Rs2.5 lakh to make up for any lack of medical equipment.”

Meanwhile, the Punjab government has criticised the Centre’s attitude towards States not ruled by the BJP. Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal said the Centre was not disbursing adequate funds for the battle against COVID-19. He said Punjab had got a meagre Rs.71 crore from the Centre. Sources in the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee told this writer that there had been correspondence between Amarinder Singh and the Prime Minister and Home Minister but nothing concrete seemed to have emerged.

Speaking to Frontline over the phone, Raman Balasubraminan said: “We clearly need a major package as we are dealing with a situation which is unknown and will have a trickle-down impact on all walks of life, particularly the economy. We ought to have an economic plan much in advance as COVID-19 is not an isolated incident but will have consequences on agriculture and industry. The Centre has announced a Rs1.7 lakh crore national plan, but as of now it seems most of that would be invested to bail out the poor. What about the service class and lower-middle bracket and middle bracket families who would be severely impacted by job losses?” He said Punjab’s unique situation warranted an urgent stimulus package. “In Punjab the service sector is growing by 11-12 per cent and that is more than the national average. So we do fear major layoffs in the days to come. The unorganised sector will also be hit hard. The Union government seems to have no clue, nor any sense of urgency to deal with what is coming,” he said.


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