Economic fallout will be extremely serious for Punjab and the nation: Punjab CM
The Punjab government stepped up efforts to check the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and clamped a curfew before the Centre declared a nationwide lockdown for the purpose. Amarinder Singh, the Punjab chief minister, spoke to Hindustan Times about these efforts and how he plans to deal with the impact of the lockdown on the state’s economy. Edited excerpts:
What impact is the Covid-19 outbreak likely to have on Punjab?
It is too early to give an assessment. Our efforts currently are focused on preventing the spread of the disease and ramping up the health infrastructure to meet any eventuality. I am monitoring the situation and we are prepared to handle any eventuality. The government machinery is fully engaged so that people are not inconvenienced. The impact of the outbreak is likely to be an extended one, though it is not possible to put any timeline. Also, I do not think any section of society will remain untouched by the crisis. But we, Punjabis, are resilient, and will undoubtedly come through this crisis.
Have you been able to figure out the broader spread and how do you plan to deal with it?
The situation is a very dynamic one and changing every day. As of now, there is no apparent community transmission. However, as the danger still looms, and we cannot rule out escalation in the coming days, we have geared ourselves fully. We have planned three levels of care centres. One, critical care, where all Covid-19 patients with HDU [High Dependence Units] and ICU [Intensive Care Units] requirement would go. Two, patients with mild symptoms would be admitted in isolation facilities created in government hospitals with total bed capacity of 5,000 . Three, in case of broad spread of Covid-19, hostel buildings of colleges would be converted into care centres. This plan would enable us to take care of over 25,000 positive patients at any given point.
What is your main worry as India is entering into a critical phase where we can either flatten the curve or see a sharp spike in cases?
Fortunately, we have not entered the Stage-3 of community transmission and hope we do not have to face such an eventuality. However, if a broader spread does occur, then the focus will have to be on flattening the curve so that there is no rush of positive patients to the hospitals and each patient is properly taken care of. The low number of positive cases in the last few days gives us cause for optimism. We have adopted more aggressive testing and more contact tracing strategy to put Covid-19 positive cases in isolation. We hope it will help prevent the situation from escalating.
How serious is the danger that Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and others who have returned recently from abroad pose?
When reports of the outbreak started coming in, we screened over 95,000 passengers who had arrived at the two international airports and two land ports at Wagah and Kartarpur Sahib. Subsequently, we received a list of 55,000 international passengers from the government of India. We have put these passengers under home quarantine of 14 days and are keeping a strong vigil. It is true all Covid-19 positive cases in Punjab have been traced back to persons with history of foreign travel. But it would be unfair to say that NRIs pose a special danger of Covid-19 because if we consider the percentage of persons, who came from abroad and showed its symptoms, then we will see that it is a very small percentage.
What is the impact of the lockdown on Punjab’s economy likely to be?
It is too early to predict anything, especially considering that we are still in the midst of the crisis. Right now, we are diverting all resources to coping with the problem and providing all possible support to our people. I have asked finance minister Manpreet Badal to draw up a detailed financial contingency plan to deal with the situation. But given the extent of the problem, the economic fallout is going to be extremely serious, and may take a long time to recover, not just for Punjab but the entire nation,and, in fact, the whole world.
Punjab is heavily dependent on migrant workers for harvesting and they are returning to their homes. What challenges do you forsee?
I have instructed all the departments that not a single migrant labourer should be out on the streets. Industry and brick kiln owners have been asked to shelter the migrants. Also, we are in talks with the Radha Saomi Satsang sect to help accommodate the migrant labourers in their Satsang Bhawans so that they can help out with the wheat harvesting that is due to begin in two weeks. The government has also made elaborate arrangements to provide food and shelter to those left in the lurch because of the sudden lockdown.
How has India’s response to the challenge been?
The nation has, by and large, responded very well. The challenge of locking down 1.3 billion people overnight was an extremely tough one, and naturally it was not possible to put in place foolproof systems. Yet, given the scale and enormity of the challenge, things have been largely smooth, barring the exodus of migrant labour from some states, which is also now being managed. In retrospect, one can of course think of many things that could and should have been done differently. But things are getting normalised and I am sure every state is doing everything in its power to manage its people while extending full support to the Centre.
What steps should the Centre take to help the states?
We have shared a detailed list of steps needed urgently to be taken by the Centre. These include immediate release of our the GST [Goods and Services Tax] compensation, payment of dues under MGNREGS [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme], deferment of industrial and agriculture/crop loan instalments by commercial banks, special insurance for police and sanitary workers in line with the one announced by the Centre for health workers and incentives for farmers to ensure staggered transport of wheat grain.
Does Punjab have the facilities for testing on a large scale as experts are calling for more and more testing?
When this problem started, we had testing facilities at PGIMER [Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh] with a capacity of 40 Covid-19 cases per day and then we got approval for testing facilities at GMCs [government medical colleges] at Patiala and Amritsar. GMC, Faridkot, will also get an approval very soon. In the next 3-4 days, we will increase the testing capacity to 850 cases per day. Regarding testing protocol, we have been broadly following the ICMR [Indian Council of Medical Research] guidelines, which allow very limited testing.