Delhi: Pilgrims who returned from Nanded in Maharashtra continued to push the Covid-19 count in Punjab on Monday, accounting for almost two-thirds of the positive cases in the state.
Out of 2,200 returnees whose test reports have been received so far, 796, or say 36%, are positive. These numbers are likely to go up as test results of another 2,000 Sikh pilgrims are awaited. But things could get far worse than anticipated initially as no one is sure about the extent to which these returnees spread the infection. As they started reaching Punjab, 700 pilgrims were sent to their native places for ‘home quarantine’ after basic screening that included thermal scanning.
In Amritsar and Ludhiana districts alone, 179 and 174 pilgrims were advised ‘home quarantine’ respectively. Jagjit Singh of Ghular Village said his father Kuldeep Singh’s paranoia saved the family from getting infected.“He locked himself in another room and told the family to maintain distance from him. It was only a day later that the health official took him to hospital where he tested positive,” he said.
Both districts have seen a spike in positive cases. In Ludhiana, the district administration sealed five villages near Samrala and Machhiwara as a preventive measure. The state government started tracing and testing the pilgrims from Nanded only after three of them tested positive in Tarn Taran district on April 27. The health authorities have put 1,500 persons, mostly family members and close acquaintances who the returnees met on reaching home, in quarantine, but few of them have been tested so far.
However, they are still to check the contacts of these pilgrims even there is strong suspicion that some of them interacted with several persons. “Our entire focus has been to test the pilgrims. The process may take another couple of days” a senior official said. Also, 120 drivers of government buses and private vehicles that ferried these pilgrims back have been kept in isolation and their department is waiting for their tests reports. A total of 4,169 people returned to the state from the Hazur Sahib gurdwara in Nanded in the past week.
There are also reports that a few labourers from Punjab who were working in cotton factories in Maharashtra had also joined the pilgrims at the gurdwara and came back with them.
CONFUSION OVER SOURCE OF VIRUS
Though they have pushed the state’s tally of positive cases, these pilgrims as well as health authorities are clueless about the possible source of infection even after a week. A number of ailing pilgrims have, however, said that there were not tested at Nanded and no social distancing norms were followed in buses deployed for their evacuation.
One of them said the buses were packed to capacity during the long journey from Nanded to Punjab. Another 32-year-old patient, who is currently at the Covid-19 facility in Bathinda, said most devotees and volunteers at the shrine never used to wear masks and there was no way of knowing if they were unwell. “During the entire journey, the AC was off but there were 38 persons on the bus,” he said.
A 65-year-old devotee from a village in Bathinda said he had cough for about 15 days at the shrine but no medical advice was given to him. “A team of doctors used to visit the gurdwara sarai every five days, but no samples were taken. On the way back, the AC was on throughout and we stopped at 3-4 places. I don’t know where I contracted the virus,” he said.
Despite there being no clarity on the source of infection, the governments of Maharashtra and Punjab are blaming each other. Maharashtra’s PWD minister Ashok Chavan, while categorically denying that pilgrims contracted the virus at Nanded, raised suspicion on the drivers of the Punjab government buses sent to ferry the pilgrims. In response, Punjab health minister Balbir Siidhu said he was more than sure that pilgrims got infected in Nanded, citing the positive cases there. More than 10 cooks of the gurdwara have also found positive,” he said. His ministerial colleague, transport minister Razia Sultana, said the Maharashtra government had permitted the pilgrims to leave Nanded even before the buses of Punjab government reached.
No social distancing at the Naded shrine and during the journey back home
Most pilgrims travelled in air-conditioned buses, which multiplies the chances of spreading the virus
Pilgrims of initial batches were sent home and called back only after positive cases started surfacing.