As the number of coronavirus cases surged across the country, particularly in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, and lately Bihar and Karnataka, Punjab seemed to have a better grip on the situation. Slowly, rather disconcertingly, this seems to be changing. After the spread of the dreaded disease beyond the major cities of Ludhiana, Jallandhar and Amritsar to the relatively less-tapped areas of Sangrur, Patiala, Gurdaspur,Tarn Taran, Fatehgarh Sahib and Mogaover the last fortnight, the State is now looking at a late surge of the disease. By July 20, the caseload had gone up to 10,510 with 411 fresh cases recorded over the past 24 hours. Worse, the number of mortalities rose by eight, taking the toll to 262.
While the highest numbers continued to be reported from Ludhiana, which brought up more than 18 per cent of the caseload, the figures notched up by places like Patiala and Sangrur caused greater concern. The two cities’ reported numbers were on the lower side until the last week of June. But there was a surge in cases, coinciding with the early arrival of the monsoon. Data released by the State’s health department showed 921 confirmed cases from Patiala and another 733 from Sangrur; cases in Patiala had doubled in a week.
Dr Rajesh Ghumman, who is based in Patiala, said: “I have been observing from the early days of the pandemic that people here seem to be driven by economic factors. For the purpose of business, people are travelling between cities and rural areas and not maintaining physical distancing when away from police watch. Recently, a 62-year-old man from Amritsar passed away after coming back from Gurdaspur where he had gone for business purposes. So, the cases are piling up in parts where hitherto we had very few cases. Now, in a place like Patiala, and even other cities like Jallandhar and Ludhiana, there is a real prospect of hospitals running out of beds. I am afraid that in the days to come, if the trend of a surge continues, the State will have no option but to insist on home isolation for those with mild symptoms or asymptomatic patients.”
The surge has indeed forced the State authorities to impose quarantine measures. Unsurprisingly, the highest number of quarantine cases were reported from Patiala with nearly 30,000 patients under quarantine in the district. This was more than the combined figures of Ludhiana and Jallandhar at 13,463 and 10,959 respectively.
Dr Ghumman said: “The quarantine can work only if the people cooperate. At the moment, people are living under the illusion of things being normal merely because the lockdown is lifted. It is practically impossible for the state to provide 24-hour medical support. The initiative has to come from the private sector.”
The sudden surge is attributed to increased intra-State travel following the easing of lockdown restrictions. Punjab has just turned down a proposal for a 56-hour weekend curfew in cities, beginning on Friday at 10 p.m. and ending on Monday at 6 a.m. Equally critically, people have been lax about following safety measures such as wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing. Last week, local newspapers from Mohali reported a wedding in a micro-containment zone which was attended by over 100 guests in Patiala; very few of those attending it wore masks or maintained physical distancing. Similar pictures have hit the social media about the streets in Amritsar, Ludhiana and Patiala with people going about their business as usual without observing safety regulations. This has forced the State to form technical committees with representatives of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on each committee.
Not much seems to be changing on the ground, though. Professor Rajesh Gill, a sociologist from Panjab University, advocates strict government supervision in the fight against COVID-19. She said: “People are not observing social distancing norms or wearing masks here. After the easing of the lockdown restrictions, they have started believing everything is normal. So, they are moving around without any precautions. Punjabi culture is such that people are in close proximity with each other all the time. They sit close to each other, they eat together. It is the same across the State, whether one is in a big city or in a smaller town. Recently, we had a marriage where 200 guests were invited. As there is a restriction allowing only 50 guests, the host booked four halls for his guests and organised a lavish wedding. We see even on morning walks people wear perfume but no mask! In smaller places, they have their baithak s in the evening with men sitting together.”
Things were different when the lockdown was first imposed in March. In the first few weeks, not many cases of COVID norms being flouted were reported from Punjab. Prof. Gill said: “It was because the government was very strict at that time. The media also played their part. People were given physical punishment for defying lockdown rules. People stayed indoors. Now, after being indoors for three months or so, people want to live it up. They are not too concerned about even the possible risk to life. It is not just the poor or people from the lower-income groups. You can see prosperous people, the well-educated segment, defying COVID norms, not wearing masks on the road, in the market. The government will have to instil a sense of fear again.”
The government, on its part, has again started a campaign to click pictures of those out walking in the morning without masks. They are also charged a fine of Rs.500.Prof. Gill said: “The fine is not a deterrent for many. But the photographs are printed in newspapers and circulated on social media. That is an embarrassment.”
The measure, however effective, may not be enough in the current situation. Prof. Chaman Lal, a seasoned academic who has been virtually quarantined in Patiala over the past four months, said: “There are academics raising their voice for observing protocol on university campuses. The senior citizens listen to them. But much more needs to be done. My daughter insists I work from home, do webinars, etc. But not everybody lives on the campus. And people need to abide by norms everywhere, on the road, at home or in their offices.”