COVID-19: Punjab Faces Challenge of Coping With Thousands of Recently-Arrived NRIs

The state has appealed to the Central government for help but has received no response so far.

New Delhi: Days after the prime minister asked Indians to clang thalis or toll bells as a gesture to thank the doctors fighting COVID-19 across the country, villagers in Kaidupur and Lubhana Teku in Punjab on Thursday did the same, but to convey the message that the rural poor are starving for food and jobs.

“The rural poor are in serious crisis, with the little money already exhausted and they are at the mercy of the rich, on this fourth day of the curfew in Punjab,” social activist Sunita Rani of Kaidupur posted on social media and WhatsApp groups.

At the remote Kattu village in Barnala district, villagers opened the golak, where monetary contributions are made to the gurdwaras, and handed the money to their local police officer who assured them that the police were distributing rations during the ongoing curfew.

“There are 20 families of farm labourers who will sleep hungry in our village tonight,” said Tarsem Singh of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union from Khunde Halal village in Muktsar district. The union represents landless peasantry, and members are preparing lists of poor families who need immediate food supplies.

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“At Bhuttiwala village (in Multsar) there were about 50 families who could not get their cooking cylinders refilled  as they did not have money,” Tarsem said.

Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh has announced that “nobody will go hungry in the state”. The state administration has sent an appeal to over 12,000 village panchayats to provide the lists of “eight most needy poor families under each polling booth” in their villages, for which the a few crore have been allocated.

A medical challenge

The situation is also alarming in district hospitals. In the Bathinda district civil hospital, medical teams had been washing their hands with country liquor before a consignment of sanitisers arrived on Saturday.

“We are now washing our N-95 masks with sanitisers as no fresh stocks are coming in,” said a medical officer at the hospital on the condition of anonymity.

At the Amritsar Medical College, two residents were admitted to an isolation ward after they complained of COVID-19 symptoms while on duty.

The Resident Doctors’ Association at the Amritsar Medical College issued a public notice that they were “working in conditions that provide absolutely no protection against contracting the virus”. “There are no masks, gloves or sanitisers available, let alone Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) kits for those working in the emergency wards. But it is the lack of concern and the callous attitude of the administration that is appalling in the situation,” said the notice, headlined ‘To Whomsoever It May Concern’. “Something needs to be done and we beg you to hear us before it is too late,” it concluded.

‘No aid from Centre’

The Punjab government is faced with a Herculean task and the state’s health minister, Balbir Singh Sidhu, has sent an urgent letter to the Central government for emergency financial assistance of Rs 150 crore to aid the medical drive.

From specialists and paramedical workforce to ventilators, the demands were not fulfilled, the Punjab health minister told The Wire.

“It is a big challenge that we have never seen before, with 90,000 NRIs arriving into the state from the West, from countries like Italy. I had mentioned this also in my letter (to the Union health minister),” Sidhu said, adding that Punjab MPs had also called upon Harshvardhan in Delhi but there has been no help so far.

Watch: There’s a Trade-Off, Ensuring People Don’t Die from Lack of Supplies, or from COVID-19

The minister confirmed that the state’s focus was now on conducting tests on suspected COVID-19 patients. “Yes, we are on with testing and our priority will be those reporting the symptoms. Nearly 2,500 testing kits have arrived and our target is to procure 70,000 kits,” Sidhu said.

On the ground, the viral research and diagnostic laboratory (VRDL) of the Government Medical College, Amritsar is the epicentre for the state’s effort to carry out COVID-19 confirmatory tests, along with the PGIMER at Chandigarh.

As per the official media bulletin, the number of samples collected for the tests in the state suddenly escalated to 205 on March 25, from the previous day’s 87. Only two of those 205 samples were found positive.

Of the total 722 samples tested so far, 33 have tested positive, 346 negative and the results of 376 are awaited.

Punjab has so far reported one COVID-19 death.