When the agitation began, the first wave of Covid-19 cases was on the wane.(HT file photo)
When the agitation began, the first wave of Covid-19 cases was on the wane.(HT file photo)

Covid lapses at farm stir may hit 4 states

Hundreds of thousands of farmers have camped outside Delhi since November last year in protest against three controversial central laws that aim to liberalise the farm economy.
UPDATED ON APR 09, 2021 06:58 AM IST

The ongoing farmer agitation on the outskirts of Delhi will continue despite a surge in Covid-19 cases in the country, senior leaders of the movement insisted, despite warnings from health experts and government officials that the thousands-strong protest could become a virus superspreader that impacts four states.

Some leaders of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) said they will ask farmers to adopt precautions such as masks but many farmers at the protest sites of Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur expressed disbelief about Covid-19 protocols, said farmers have “higher immunity”, and termed the virus a “government conspiracy”.

“Farmers have higher immunity. In our protests since last year, not a single Covid-19 case has happened. Why are only the farmers’ protests seen as a Covid risk? Why are questions never raised over mass election rallies being held in Bengal, Assam and Kerala?” asked Balbir Singh Rajewal, a key member of SKM.

Other leaders of the movement also said that events such as a march to Parliament in May and blocking of highways in April will continue as scheduled. Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) Dakaunda general secretary Sukhdev Singh, however, said that social distancing will be implemented at protest sites.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers have camped outside Delhi since November last year in protest against three controversial central laws that aim to liberalise the farm economy.

When the agitation began, the first wave of Covid-19 cases was on the wane. But over the past two weeks, cases have surged across India, which is firmly in the grip of the second national wave, and experts warn that the farm gatherings – where hundreds of families live in cheek-by-jowl trawlers on the highway and where scores of young men and women huddle together – is potentially an unchecked virus hot spot. “Gatherings are increasing the chance of transmitting the infection and that’s why they need to be avoided,” said Jugal Kishore, head of the community medicine department at Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi.

To be sure, the caution is not limited to farm events and extend to any high-density event such as religious events, or political rallies.

Travelling back and forth

The farm protests are unique because they pose a health risk to four states of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh as cultivators from all these regions have flocked to the Capital’s borders over the past six months to support the agitation, and keep going back and forth from the protest site to their homes.

“So far we have not encountered any Covid case at the protest site but we are concerned about those who visit Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi these days as they might pick up the virus from places outside the protest site,” said Swaiman Singh, a cardiologist from New Jersey who has been volunteering at the Tikri site. It was not clear, however, what level of testing was happening at the site, and whether asymptomatic cases may be going undetected.

Of particular concern is Punjab, which has recorded a big spike in cases and deaths in the past two weeks.

On Wednesday, the state posted 2,963 cases even as the government clamped night curfew and announced additional curbs, including a ban on political gatherings.

“We have a rotational basis for the protests. Ten fresh protestors come every week to relieve 10 people already taking part in the protests. This will continue,” Rajewal said, describing a system that, experts believe, underscores the heightened risk.

Punjab govt not worried

The Punjab government said it had no plans to check the ongoing stir. “There is hardly any rally being done by the farmers and if they are getting together at any place, they are doing it for the genuine demands against the three black laws. We cannot say anything to them as it’s a matter of their future generations,” said Punjab health and family welfare minister Balbir Singh Sidhu.

The state health department also maintained there was no direct link between the stir and rising Covid-19 cases. “Our analysis reveals that 70% of cases reported this year are from urban areas. Only 30% are from rural areas that are hubs of farmer protests,” said state Covid-19 nodal officer Dr Rajesh Bhaskar.

Health experts said that farmers may have escaped the scourge of the virus so far because the current surge was driven by urban areas. But they warned that the protest may become a hot spot, especially because testing in the villages was inadequate due to a boycott call given by farmer unions.

In Haryana, additional chief secretary, health, Rajiv Arora said the farmer gatherings were a cause for concern.

“The situation is under control in Jhajjar and Sonepat, the two Delhi bordering districts where the farmers have assembled in big numbers. But it is certainly a cause of concern. Such gatherings can lead to a wider and deeper spread of infection, particularly in light of the fact that a big number of agitating farmers come from Punjab where the infection and mortality rate is very high. The back-and-forth movement of farmers can also contribute to spread of contagion,’’ he said.

State nodal officer for Covid-19, Dr Dhruva Chaudhary, said any congregation – political, social or religious -- would cause a rise in cases.

“People neither appear for testing nor vaccination. If the virus is so dangerous, why did Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar address a condolence meet in memory of Rohtak MP Arvind’s father and why did deputy CM Dushyant Chautala hold a rally ahead of Holi in Palwal? Are the rules only for protesting farmers? We will continue our agitation until our demands are met,” said state secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, Balbir Singh Thakan

‘Higher immunity’

In Uttar Pradesh, where farm unions have organised a number of mahapanchayats – large rallies where tens of thousands of farmers participate – farmers said they were not worried. Large numbers of cultivators from the state’s western districts joined the protests in January after farm leader Rakesh Tikait’s emotional appeal.

At the headquarters of the BKU in Sisauli town of Muzaffarnagar district, also the birthplace of Tikait, farmers said their resolve to continue the protest was unshaken by the Covid-19 surge. “Our immune system is strong and virus poses no danger to us. The government shouldn’t think of enforcing curbs on us,” said Dheeraj Latoyan, a farm leader.

At the three protest sites on the Capital’s borders, the crowds have thinned from the peaks of December-January but thousands remain camped on the highway, and enthusiastic about the future course of the stir.

The majority of protesters don’t use masks or sanitisers, and the disbelief about the virus still persists. Several farmers said they do not need a Covid-19 testing facility.

“There is no such thing as coronavirus. The government is again doing the same as they did during last year to harass the poor. Their curbs and curfews won’t deter the spirits of protesters,” said Sukhbir Singh, a farmer from Moga.

Delhi government officials said they periodically set up Covid-19 test camps near the protest sites that are open to everyone. “We have also periodically set up help desks in the sites to encourage people to get vaccinated. We have ambulances reserved in the sites to help with any kind of emergency situation,” said a senior official.

Delhi police officials, meanwhile, said they are not taking any chances. Rajiv Ranjan, DCP (outer-north), under which the Singhu border falls, said all personnel deployed at the sites have received at least a single dose of vaccine. “Almost all the police and paramilitary personnel deployed at the border are vaccinated with at least one dose,” he said.

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