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.