How disinformation and the farm laws created a trust deficit on COVID-19 in Punjab

Residents of Maloya village in Chandigarh protest the farm laws in January 2021. The farm ordinances were first promulgated in June 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic. Ravi Kumar / Hindustan Times
30 July, 2021

Along with protesting the three farm laws passed in September last year, rural Punjab is fighting another battle—the struggle to trust the political establishment and the state’s medical infrastructure in the context of COVID-19. The manner in which the central government introduced the farm ordinances in June 2020, during the spread of the first wave of the pandemic, created a complex cocktail of suspicion and distrust in Punjab. The government’s decision to introduce the farm ordinances during the lockdown and the prime minister Narendra Modi’s messaging on COVID-19—including appeals to light candles and bang vessels—led people to question the government’s intentions and the pandemic itself.

“We know the government wants us dead, if not by COVID then by the suicidal farm laws,” Gurmeet Kaur, a resident of Mattran village in Punjab’s Sangrur district told me. “How can we trust Modi who had asked the nation last year to light candles and ring bells to fight the virus? We in the villages are not illiterate.” Gurmeet is a homemaker who looks after the cattle at her home. She added that the ongoing farmers’ movement against the farm laws has created greater awareness in the village, and that people are skeptical of everything that they are told by the union or state government. “The disease exists, but the government’s response is a deception in broad daylight,” she said. She referred to how the Punjab government sold vaccines to private hospitals at more than double the price. Referring to the Punjab chief minister, she added, “Captain Amarinder sold the vaccines to private hospitals. Why? We are not going to get vaccinated because we are the ones being fleeced of our lives and our money.”

When I spoke to her in October 2020, Gurmeet further told me that public sentiment against government-run medical care facilities had started to reach such heights that medical staff had to approach villages with police parties. Gurmeet added that Sangrur’s residents were never given clear information on what to expect before and after testing, while in treatment, and after vaccination. “We saw people suffering in quarantine and then dying alone last year,” she said. “This year also, I heard that a man in the nearby village of Nadaampur got sick after getting vaccinated and then died. I think he got corona from the vaccination.” Paramjit Kaur, a resident of Jartauli, Ludhiana told me the same story about a person dying after getting the vaccination. She has also decided not to get vaccinated.

Since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, a particular kind of misinformation came from the top of the government and party leaders—whether it was Modi himself asking people to light candles or BJP leaders such as Pragya Thakur claiming that drinking cow urine can protect people from COVID-19. In my travels across several villages in Punjab, I found that this damaged the already crumbling faith people had in the government and the health system, and led people to believe in alternate information on the virus. Between September 2020 and March 2021, I visited more than 15 villages spanning the districts of Sangrur, Patiala, Ludhiana, Barnala and Jalandhar. During my reporting after March 2021, I also spoke to people from the other villages in Sangrur, Patiala, Ludhiana and Amritsar districts. Residents told me that they wanted to believe that the disease was there, but the government’s responses and messaging forced them to second guess the existence of the virus itself.  I also visited the sites of farmer protests at Tikri and Singhu along the Delhi borders, and in the Sangrur, Patiala and Jalandhar districts in Punjab.  “Although we do not understand science as such, we know this much that no disease can be cured by lighting candles or drinking cow urine,” Charan Singh, a farm protestor told me at a protest site at the Sangrur Railway Station in October 2020. “We, in villages, take our serious patients to the doctors. Modi fabricated the disease to pass the laws.”

Between September 2020 and February 2021, I heard three kinds of rumors rampant at both the farmer protest sites and villages I visited in rural Punjab. The first was that the government had invented the disease and that it was an outright lie. The second was that COVID-19 is real, but the threat it posed was minimal. Farmers I spoke to told me that it was only another kind of flu, and that the government was exaggerating its seriousness to pass the farm laws and control people. The third was that the pandemic was a conspiracy by western institutions and capitalist countries, and that Modi was acting on their behalf. Several people I spoke to at protest sites and in Punjab villages during those months seemed to believe in at least one of these theories.

“We saw people dying in Italy and then in America, and we thought Modi was using a foreign disease as an excuse to shut us in our own houses and pass various laws unconstitutionally,” Harinder Bindu, the state president of the women’s wing of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), told me. “Either the government was outrightly incompetent in understanding what lay ahead of us or the disease was not as serious. We initially saw it was a ploy by the government to snatch our land and livelihood. We decided to defy them.”

I spoke to Pyara Lal Garg, the former dean of medical sciences at Panjab University, in Chandigarh. He has worked as a state coordinator with the All India People’s Science Network in Punjab. “Even illiterate people had faith in modern medicine before Modi came to power,” he said. “It is this current government who has brought science to its knees and everyone is made to believe that they are scientists and their lives are in their own hands. People in villages believed in science at first, but they resorted to superstitions only when a qualified doctor was not able to help the ailing family member or when a family couldn’t afford the treatment. The central and state governments have dismantled the trust in the public healthcare.”

In April 2020, a month into the pandemic, several villages in Punjab imposed curbs at the village entrance and barred strangers from entering. However, as cases in India increased,  villages started to pass resolutions against the government-sponsored medical checks and boycott COVID-19 tests. Instead of communicating and channeling the right information to the people, the administration resorted to police action. In my conversations with residents of Punjab, I found that pictures of police beating those who were leaving their homes and the mass exodus of migrant labourers alienated people. The introduction of the farm ordinances in June 2020 further shifted public sentiments against the government.

The resulting information vacuum was filled with hoaxes, conspiracy theories and rumors. Even medical practitioners I spoke to in Sangrur and Patiala districts dismissed the disease as a different form of typhoid, though they were unwilling to speak on record. Residents too echoed these views. I visited Mattran village in Sangrur district after recovering from COVID-19 in September 2020. I asked Chamkaur Singh, a resident of the village, about the prevalence of the virus in the village. “There is no corona sister, it’s a typhoid,” he said. “You are literate, you should know better than us.” Even after I told him about my own experience, he still insisted that it was typhoid. I also talked to Avtar Singh, a resident of Mandaur in Patiala district. Eight of his family members had COVID-19 symptoms. “We saw a doctor. He asked us not to test for corona but for typhoid,” Avtar told me. “He gave us medicine for typhoid.” The family later recovered from the disease.

Amar Azad is a popular figure on Punjab’s media channels. According to his LinkedIn profile, he was formerly a state medical officer with the Punjab government and is currently an SMO at the National Aids Control Organisation, a division of the ministry of health and family welfare. Since April last year, he has been claiming that COVID-19 is a simple flu and that vaccination is unnecessary. His opinions have aired on Punjabi television stations such as News 18, ProPunjab, OnAIR and Unmute. According to him, the initial guidelines on COVID-19 came from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in America and World Health Organization. He believes the virus was concocted by the wealthy nations to create a new world order to rule the poorer nations forever. I looked at one of his interviews on ProPunjab, published on Facebook. It has over three lakh views. He is just one example of many others who have successfully seeped into the rural mindset and have convinced people that COVID-19 is a lie.

Garg blamed the lack of communication and information from the government. “Medical practitioners in rural areas believed it to be typhoid because the state infrastructure was never used to bring them at par with the current knowledge on the virus,” he said. “These are murders on the hands of the central and state government.”

In July 2020, the WHO published a brief report on Kerala’s COVID-19 response. It mentioned risk communication and community engagement as one of seven key policy learnings. Another noteworthy takeaway was the inclusion of psychologists and psychiatrists in providing mental-health support to state residents. A correspondent for The Hindu from Kerala told me on the condition of anonymity that the Kerala government won over the trust of the people by being transparent. “The chief minister has been holding daily press conferences since March 2020,” he said. “State government policies are communicated, and he answers COVID-19 related questions of the public. He has been doing it through success and failure of the response.” The union government and the government of Punjab could have followed a similar model.

The information deficit was further compounded by the lack of a robust medical infrastructure, qualified personnel and the knowledge of best practices. Suchha Singh, a resident of Butari village in Amritsar district, who also participated in the farm protests, lost two of his sisters, aged 69 and 65 years old respectively, to COVID-19 in April 2021. His elder sister was admitted to a private hospital in Amritsar. “The hospital did not tell us that she was a corona patient,” he said. “We kept meeting her in the ICU,”—intensive care unit—“and my other sister stayed with her to take care of her. They kept her in an ICU with other non-corona patients.” He added, “We got to know that she was diagnosed with COVID-19 when we decided to take her to the army hospital in Jalandhar.” He said the private hospital handed the family a positive report while relieving the patient. Subsequently, the doctor at the army hospital asked the family to wear masks and personal protective equipment kits while visiting the patient. On April 7, Succha’s elder sister passed away.

Two days later, his younger sister also tested positive. Succha said that on 8 April, they tried to get his younger sister tested at the civil hospital in Baba Bakala, a town near their village. However, the hospital did not have testing kits. They tried another private facility on 9 April, where she tested positive and was isolated at home. On 11 April, she developed a high fever. The family called a government doctor who also has a private practice in the area. He asked them to get a CT scan done. For two days, the family went from one private facility to another trying to get a scan, but they could not get one in the town. They then travelled to Amritsar. “We took her to civil hospital Amritsar when she complained of a severe headache,” Suchha said. “Her oxygen at home was 97. At the hospital, it came down to 65.” Succha’s younger sister passed away on 18 April. After two weeks of mourning, Succha went back to the protest site at Singhu. He had tested himself for COVID-19 and was found to be negative. “I am 60 years old but I did not get vaccinated,” he added. “I asked the union leadership to get us vaccinated. I trust this place, but I am not yet willing to go to any facility in Punjab to get an injection. I have lost faith.”

Subheg Singh runs Punjab Club, a 370-member strong volunteer organisation that started helping COVID-19 patients find beds and hospitals in Punjab after the second wave. “The state helpline number 104 was not working initially,” he said. “We talked to the administration and they denied that it had any fault.” He said that there are several government medical officers working with the organisation as volunteers. According to Subheg, these officers told him that there was a severe lack of ventilators in districts such as Gurdaspur and Mansa. They added that those ventilators that had previously been in these districts had been donated to places like Ludhiana. Subheg told me that this was because hospitals in Gurdaspur did not have qualified doctors to use the ventilators.

Garg has been collecting data on the rural health infrastructure in Punjab. According to him, there are 1,186 dispensaries in Punjab of which only 246 are in cities; 516 primary health centers of which 426 are in rural areas; 160 community health centers of which 87 are in rural areas. “This network of medical care has been made useless by the state government over the years by not filling the qualified positions, and in fact eliminating them,” Garg told me.

Since September 2020, I have spoken to people at various levels at different sites of the farmers’ protest. While several protesters earlier denied the existence of the disease, there have been gradual improvements in how the union leaders and the union cadre perceive the virus, especially following the second wave in April this year. The foremost is an acceptance of the disease and the second is embracing guidelines for protection against the virus. In December 2020, Avtar Singh, a resident of Mohali, a city in Mohali district, opened the Kisan Majdoor Ekta Hospital at the Singhu border. Doctors from Punjab and Delhi take turns to volunteer at the hospital. “Masks are mandatory inside our facility,” he told me in May this year. “Anyone who exhibits COVID-19 symptoms is checked and is sent back home safely. We talk to the responsible village members back home who then isolate the patient.” However, the hospital does not have a COVID-19 testing facility.

At the Tikri border protest site, Swaiman Singh, a doctor and a heart specialist, runs a COVID-19 testing facility. “We send out the mask and symptoms-related information to the protesters,” he told me. He added that he wrote to the Haryana and Delhi government requesting that protestors be vaccinates against COVID-19. “We encourage protesters to get vaccinated in their villages and then come to the border protests,” he told me.

Since early April, protestors have regularly sanitised the protest sites at the Tikri and Singhu borders and ensured that their surroundings remain clean. I spoke to Ravneet Singh Brar, a full-time worker of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Kadian). “We work tirelessly to make our cadre aware that they must get vaccinated before getting to the protest sites,” he said. He added that he had also written to the Sonipat district administration, under whose jurisdiction the Singhu border protest site falls. He had asked them to conduct a vaccination drive at the protest site. Similarly, Bindu also told me that their cadre are given ample information from the stage to wear masks outside and near the stage, and that a basic kit of medicines, sanitiser and Vitamin C is handed out to people.

The BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) held a three-day rally between 28 and 30 May in Patiala to protest the state government’s ineffective COVID-19 containment measures. People sat in the assigned circles that were drawn on the ground, each six-feet apart. “We have instructed them to take their own water and food with them,” Sandeep Singh, a member of BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) told me. “We want to minimise any contact at the rally. Nobody is allowed to remove their masks. People will go there in three batches, one batch a day.”

The same meticulous planning was mirrored at the Tikri protest when I visited in May 2021. Pargat Singh, a protester from Mattran told me that they follow strict guidelines at the protest sites. “We maintain physical distance when we move away from our trolleys,” he said. “I keep a sanitiser in my pocket and I wear a mask when I go towards the stage.” Pargat, however, has not been vaccinated yet. Mattran village has a population of around 1,200 and no one is vaccinated except for the village headman and residents who are in government service. Some distrust in the government remains. “We do not trust the government. I watched a YouTube video where they were saying that a chip is inserted inside the body and everyone who gets vaccinated will die within one year,” Pargat told me.

In the second week of June 2021, I visited Gurudwara Patalpuri Sahib in Rupnagar district. At the gurdwara Sikhs immerse the ashes of their deceased loved ones in the Sutlej river. Both sides of the Gurudwara complex are flanked by shops that sell head coverings. I asked one of the shop workers about the number of people visiting the Gurudwara. “We used to get around 400 people on a normal day,” he said. “Since April, my estimate is about 900 to 1,000 people per day.” The langar hall at the gurudwara, where free food is served to people, brimmed with bereaved family members. People stood in a long line to register the name of the deceased person. At the far end of the complex, the Sutlej flowed rapidly. A small bridge had been constructed, and instructions directed people to throw the ashes from the bridge into the running water. A pile of donated clothes covered one side of the bridge. Some people crossed the bridge to get down to the river bank. Families sat on steps on both sides of the river. Within twenty minutes, I witnessed twenty families saying goodbyes to what remained of their loved ones. A worker reminded people to leave so they could make space for other families.

“The deaths in the villages have opened our eyes to the harsh reality of not just the disease but also of the state health department,” Bindu told me. “Our union has decided to take every precaution to protect our people in the villages. The only thing in our control is prevention. If we fail in prevention, we die.”

If lessons had been learnt after the first wave in 2020, and better information disseminated, the second wave could have been less fatal. In April, the case fatality rate in Punjab stood at 2.45 percent, which was more than double the national CFR of 1.12 percent. While media reports suggested that people arrived late to hospitals, in my reporting it became increasingly clear that it was the government that had failed to build a trustworthy system to help people recognise the seriousness of the disease.

A certain skepticism of the BJP government has been prevalent in Punjab for several years. The government’s demonetisation move in November 2016, the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019 and passing of Citizenship Amendment Bill in December 2019 heralded a period of unpopularity for the BJP in Punjab. When the first cases of COVID-19 began to be detected in India, protests against the CAA were still ongoing. The Front Against Fascist Attacks is an organisation of nine left-wing groups in Punjab. In early 2020, they were going to the villages of Punjab to protest against the CAA. They had planned a big protest in Ludhiana on 25 March 2020. They cancelled the event because the nationwide lockdown came into effect the day before. “We were very skeptical of the BJP government. Since we are a collection of many organisations under one umbrella, we couldn’t make a consensus if the disease existed,” Jaipal Singh, a member of FAFA, told me. “After the lockdown our initial protests were mostly done by putting black flags on rooftops.” The farmers’ unions of the same nine groups are also a part of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee. The members of FAFA then started to meet online. But the introduction of the farm bills in June 2020 forced them out of their houses. “It became absolutely necessary to defy the oppressive measures while following COVID-safety norms,” Jaipal said

Jamhoori Kisan Sabha, BKU (Ekta Dakaunda), BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) and PKU were among the farmer unions that organised in-person meetings to mobilise the farmers. “July, August and September we were out and about,” Jaipal said. “We wore masks. However, we noticed people in the villages in denial of the disease. I see it as a huge trust deficit for which the BJP government is to blame partly.”

However, the a few farmer union leaders admitted to me that they had been partially ignorant of the devastation COVID-19 would cause last year. “We denied the existence of the disease last year,” Sukhdarshan Natt, a leader of the Punjab Kisan Union told me. “This year is different. It is here and will remain for a long time. We take precautions and we run awareness campaigns in the camp. We have learnt from the deaths that had happened in Delhi.” Several protestors said that there was no real choice between guarding against COVID-19 and protesting the farm laws. Natt added, “The people who are sitting here are marginal and small farmers. Almost all are under debt. We want the government to take the laws back so that we all can go home. For our protesters here, death is definite, if not by COVID, then by the oppressive laws.”