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.