The number of Coronavirus cases in Punjab shot up to 14 on March 21st. More than half of these individuals were infected after coming in contact with a single international traveler, 70-year-old Baldev Singh, who refused to remain in self-isolation upon his return to the state. Singh died from heart failure on March 18th and was found to be Coronavirus positive only after his death.
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Baldev was a priest in a Gurudwara at Pathlawa village in Nawanshahr (renamed Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar) district and had gone to Germany and Italy in February. He returned to Delhi on March 6th. Along with two companions, he then attended the Hola Mohalla festival at Anandpur Sahib from March 8-10th. With lakhs of people in attendance, the annual Hola Mohalla is a major religious gathering in the Sikh calendar showcasing the Sikh martial tradition. As per health department sources, Singh had also visited other places and conducted religious ceremonies before presenting himself at Banga Civil Hospital on March 18th complaining of chest pain. Sources say that he was advised to go for self-isolation at the Delhi airport itself, but authorities in Punjab did not get the information on time and therefore were not able to ensure that he stuck to protocol.
As per a health department communiqué, Baldev Singh infected at least seven people – six of whom were family members. Baldev’s contact with hundreds of people at multiple places has raised fears of a spurt in Coronavirus cases in those places.
“We have sealed and sanitized his village as well as the entire Anandpur Sahib town,” said Punjab Commissioner Food and Drug Administration and Director Environment Kahan Singh Pannu. “The government is making all out efforts to track down other individuals who had come to the state earlier. Our teams have even taken up door to door visits.”
The Punjabi diaspora and international travellers have emerged as the major cause of concern for authorities in their effort to check the spread of Coronavirus in the state. Going by the case history of some patients, it became clear that the authorities, in the initial weeks of the corona breakout in China and Europe, had failed to ensure self-isolation or quarantine of a number of individuals coming in from countries with high incidence of coronavirus. About 165 arrivals are yet to be traced, authorities admit.
Typically, the Punjabi NRIs visit the state from November onwards to escape the winters in Europe and America. This year was no different in terms of NRI traffic, but many of them failed to comply with the home quarantine advice. “Now that international flights have been cancelled, we will not be facing this problem anymore,” said Pannu.
But tracking all arrivals is easier said than done, as is illustrated by the case of 69-year-old NRI woman, based in UK for the past three decades. She landed at Delhi airport on March 13th and had been staying at her relatives’ house in Mohali. She subsequently developed fever and cold and visited a private hospital in Mohali, where her samples were collected and sent to Chandigarh’s Post Graduate Institute for Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) for confirmation on March 20.
Health department officials said that the woman had gone back to her residence after giving the samples. The health department had to seek police help to get the woman and her family to hospital, virtually dragging them from their residence after the samples tested positive in PGI.
The woman has reportedly transmitted the infection to her cousin, a 74-year-old woman who tested positive on March 21. Mohali, in fact, saw three new cases on that day taking the overall count to four. Chandigarh has so far reported five cases starting with a 23-year old girl who had returned from UK and tested positive on March 18 but had infected three family members and a friend. She is also the cause behind the lone positive case in Panchkula. Another individual to test positive is a 42-year-old man who had returned from UK on March 12.
Apart from Nawanshahr and Mohali, fresh cases were also reported in Punjab from Barnala, Hoshiarpur and Amritsar on March 21.
As per Ropar Deputy Commissioner Sonali Giri, the contact tracing drive after Baldev’s Anandpur Sahib visit, found 105 people with flu-like symptoms. The drive, carried out on March 21-22, covered a total of 4100 houses. Though asymptomatic, all these residents are being monitored for the next 14 days. The Ropar deputy commissioner has received a list of 490 people who had earlier come from abroad whom the administration is trying to locate and quarantine. Other districts too have received similar lists.
Talking to Citizen Matters, Punjab Health Minister Balbir Sidhu said that the state was well prepared to handle Coronavirus cases. “We have the requisite bed capacity for quarantine and ventilators have been made available at hospitals across the state,” said Sidhu. “The government will permanently cancel the licenses of chemists found involved in profiteering while selling essential items”.
On the issue of Gurudwaras remaining open for devotees, he said that the state government was in touch with the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, which manages the Gururdwaras. “We have given them medical teams and we are ensuring that everyone is sanitised before entering the Gurudwara. We have requested people to pray at home and desist from crowding at Gurudwaras. Now, we do not see any large crowds even at Darbar Sahib,” Sidhu added.
Also, on March 22, Punjab became the second state after Rajasthan to announce a complete lockdown till March 31 to check the growing number of cases in the state.