As Punjab continues its fight to curb the coronavirus pandemic, Suresh Kumar, Chief Principal Secretary to the Punjab Chief Minister, in an exclusive interviewto The Hindu’s Vikas Vasudeva, said his biggest concern was apprehended community spread during harvesting and procurement of wheat, and religious gatherings. Excerpts:
How prepared is Punjab to deal with COVID-19? What is your biggest concern right now and what is the strategy to deal with it?
Punjab is fully prepared to manage and contain COVID-19 , though it is a war against an unknown invisible enemy of mankind. Not much is known about this disease, but based on the experience of other countries and guidance from health professionals in the country and State, we are taking every possible measure to prepare and update our health systems by providing requisite men, material and other resources.
The IEC (Information, Education and Communication) campaign has been going on for over a month now to create awareness and apprise people of the desired precautions to prevent COVID-19. Our biggest concern is apprehended community spread during harvesting and procurement of wheat, and at religious gatherings. All gatherings, including religious gatherings, are prohibited in the State.
How imminent is the fear that Punjab will slip into the community transmission phase of the disease as COVID-19 cases continue to rise?
The apprehension of community spread is always there, though we have so far been able to prevent it. We have not had as big a problem as apprehended during the ‘Hola Mohalla’ festival in the second week of March. Baldev Singh, the State’s first COVID-19 patient, who lost his life, had attended the ‘Hola Mohalla’. Thereafter, we have taken every possible measure to check the spread of this disease, even though we had to isolate about 15 villages. We were also the first to announce lockdown and later to impose curfew in the State, which will continue till April 14.
The next six weeks of harvesting and procurement of wheat, and the Baisakhi festival, pose a serious challenge to the State administration. The government is making all possible arrangements to procure every grain of wheat produced in the State to save the farmers from any financial catastrophe, with full COVID-19-proof preparations, by increasing the number of purchase centres by 3,000 and staggering the procurement to six weeks instead of the normal three weeks.
Do you see the situation deteriorating fast and beyond control in the coming days?
It is difficult to say, but if all of us in the government, and the common man, remain disciplined and dedicated to our duties and responsibilities, and follow suggested preventive measures, including social distancing and adhering to norms of lockdown and curfew, it can surely be controlled effectively.
Considerable numbers of the State’s NRI population have returned over the past one month. Have all of them been traced? If not, how serious could be the consequences?
Most of the NRIs who came from other countries after February 15, 2020 have been traced and placed under home quarantine or isolation as per the protocol advised by the ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) and the guidelines issued by the State government. The government has also initiated the process to procure rapid testing kits as permitted now by the ICMR.
Many people from Punjab participated in the Tablighi Jamaat event in Nizamuddin. Has this derailed the State government’s efforts to contain the pandemic?
It has not derailed the arrangements as such, but it has certainly put unforeseen stress on the State’s resources and caused some avoidable damage in the country. It was clearly avoidable. Still, if all those who participated in this event could come forward and declare their travel details and contacts, the State government can very well trace, test and treat them. This will help to prevent spread of the coronavirus.
At a few hospitals, nurses and paramedical staff have protested that they have not been provided personal protective equipment (PPE). Please comment.
It can not be denied that health professionals and workers are performing their onerous duties very diligently, even at risk to their lives. The State Health Department has continuously made all efforts to procure required kits, masks and other equipment to fully secure their safety. Insurance cover of ₹50 lakh has also been arranged for them, but there always remain some inadequacies, which make some of these dedicated workers feeling insecure and threatened, as a result of which such situations do arise. The State government is, however, fully conscious and committed to protect and secure all its employees and officials, more importantly the health and sanitation workers, the police and other district-level officers of the departments of revenue, rural development, and food and civil supplies, who are doing a tremendous job in these trying times.
Wheat harvesting is all set to commence and farmers are worried on account of restrictions due to curfew, labour shortage, etc. What is the roadmap to help them out?
The harvesting of wheat is likely to begin shortly and procurement, though difficult, will be ensured under all circumstances. It may take a little longer than normal times. It has been decided to start the procurement from April 14 to May 31. It will be arranged in about 5,000 purchase centres, by appointment for every farmer on given days. Purchase centres will be provided with all arrangements required to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with full facilities for food, water, shelter and healthcare.
The farmers’ anxiety can be well understood but the State government is committed to ensuring that every grain produced by them is procured at the price announced by the Centre. We are also hoping that the Government of India will take some measures to incentivise staggered procurement, and minimise the losses, if any, of the farmers.