Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said a “final decision” to extend the lockdown beyond April 14 , Prime Minister Narendra Modu had stated, would be taken on April 11 in consultation with the Chief Ministers. According to him, any bid to give a “communal touch” to the spread of COVID-19 from the Tablighi Jamaat centre in New Delhi would be “highly damaging” to the efforts to fight the pandemic. Excerpts from an email interview he gave to The Hindu on Thursday:
Do you favour continuing the current stringent lockdown after it ends at the midnight of April 14?
It all depends on how things stand at that time, but there is a general sense among various Chief Ministers that, given the current graph of the virus, the lockdown may need to be extended. The Prime Minister has said a final decision will be taken on April 11, in consultation with the Chief Ministers. My understanding is that stringent restrictions would need to be continued for some more time, in whatever form.
If not, what are the other kinds of curbs that can be put in place by Punjab and other States to deal with the pandemic?
Well, as I said, some restrictions would need to be put in place if we decide against extension of the curfew/lockdown. Apart from creating containment zones in the hotspots and sealing them, we need to ensure that strict social distancing is strictly implemented, which means not everyone can go to their offices/businesses/shops at the same time. We may need to open some more industries, but that would also depend on the safety protocols and the situation, as we go forward. In any case, COVID-19 is unlikely to disappear overnight, so whenever things improve the restrictions will have to be lifted in a staggered manner to ensure there is no overcrowding, safe distance continues to be maintained, people wear masks when going out.
There’s little doubt that the Tablighi centre in Nizamuddim added to the spread of the novel coronavirus in Delhi. But Hindutva elements are trying to give it a communal colour. What’s your view on this?
We are all facing an unprecedented crisis, which governments around the world are coming together to tackle. To give the matter a communal touch at this critical time is not only irresponsible but also highly damaging to our efforts to combat the pandemic. Of course, what happened in Nizamuddin was a disastrous and total failure of the Delhi government, which should not have allowed this to happen since the contagion had already started to spread. But the virus does not discriminate on the basis of religion. It is striking people around the world, irrespective of their caste or religion. Let us not divert ourselves from the main task — of fighting the virus and overcoming it — by making it a communal affair.
Are you satisfied with the quantum of assistance being provided to the States by the Centre?
Not at all. The Central government needs to understand that everything, from medical assistance to the people to setting up of necessary facilities and ensuring equipment, as well as managing the lockdown/curfew, has to be done by the States on the grounds. That needs a huge amount of resources, which the States do not have. In Punjab, for instance, we have not even received our pending GST arrears, despite our repeated requests and despite the fact that we have no other source of income right now, given that VAT and taxes have all dried up. The Centre has to pitch in. What they have given us so far is nowhere close to what we need. We have only received ₹296 crore against the MGNREGA account, ₹632 crore towards the Finance Commission grant. On account of disaster relief, we have received a meagre ₹225 crore. How do we manage with this? The GST sum pending with the Centre is ₹6,752.83 crore, which is the bulk amount pending with them. We need that urgently and we need a special economic package to tide over the immediate crisis and then to revive economy/industry in the post-COVID-19 scenario.
Do you see any discrimination being practised by the Centre between BJP and non-BJP-run States?
I do not know about other States, but we, in Punjab, have already raised our concerns with the Centre. This is really not the time to see who has got more or less, it’s about all the States getting what they need to combat the problem. It’s a national issue and, needs to be handled collectively with the Central government’s support. We are facing a severe financial crunch in Punjab, and I have raised the issue with the Prime Minister, the Union Home Minister and the Union Finance Minister. I have received a reply from the Union Finance Minister, and she has given positive indications about releasing our share of the GST soon.
Have you been able to provide personal protection gear to doctors and hospitals on COVID-19 duty?
Yes, we have provided protective gear at all government hospitals. We had purchased 15,000 PPE kits, and 14,000 have been distributed. We have ordered another 2 lakh kits to prepare for bigger exigencies. Of the 80,000 N95 masks, 60,000 have been distributed, while of the 42 lakh triple-layer masks purchased, 40 lakh have been distributed. We have ordered another 2 lakh N95 and 55 lakh triple-layer masks. Not just the doctors, we want to ensure that all our front-line warriors, including police personnel and sanitation workers, are fully protected.
Delhi has gone in for random testing. Will Punjab follow suit?
Definitely. Now that the ICMR has given permission for rapid testing, we will be starting that in a couple of days, as soon as we start getting the first set of kits from the Centre. We have ordered nearly 10 lakh such kits, and we expect the first bunch in the next two days. We will be focussing on the hotspots first and then maybe expand to other areas. As of now, hotspots have been seen in certain pockets of SBS Nagar, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Pathankot and Mansa districts, along with two areas of SAS Nagar. These areas have been put under containment, and strict restriction of movement in these areas has been done. Tracing of contacts of all the positive cases has been done, and all close and high-risk contacts have been tested.
Punjab has a large number of people living abroad. Have you been able to do contact-tracing of all those people who have come from abroad?
Approximately 95,000 persons were screened at international airports and land checkposts in the State before curfew. Self-declaration forms of all passengers were filled and all were examined. All passengers were home-quarantined, while five symptomatic persons were traced during screening and were admitted to isolation wards of hospitals. Subsequently, the Government of India shared a list of around 55,000 passengers with us — these were people who had arrived since January 2020. The passengers were home-quarantined, and posters have been pasted outside these houses and they are being tracked by the police. We have also appealed to all passengers who have come to Punjab to self-report to 112 helpline. A majority of the passengers have crossed the incubation period of 14 days of arrival. The district administration is monitoring the others still in home quarantine.
Given the scale and nature of COVID-19, do you think that it will linger for the months ahead?
The problem is we still don’t know much about COVID-19, and cannot say with any certainty how long it will continue to infect people or linger on thereafter. We are all grappling in the dark. It’s an unknown enemy, and until we are able to find out more about it, we can only do our best to check its further spread and take all possible preventive measures. That is what governments across the globe are doing, and we, India, continue to learn from the experience of those countries that are ahead of the curve in terms of its spread.