Days before the death of Baldev Singh, who became the fourth Indian casualty to COVID-19 on 18 March, the 70-year-old attended the Hola Mohalla festival in the holy city of Anandpur Sahib, in Punjab’s Rupnagar district. The festival is an annual six-day Sikh event that is attended by lakhs of members of the community from across the country and the world every year. According to Rupnagar’s senior superintendent of police, Swapan Sharma, Baldev had returned from a two-week trip to Germany via Italy. He stayed in Anandpur Sahib for the festivities from 8 to 10 March, before taking a bus back home. He died six days later and tested positive for COVID-19 the next day. As of 21 March, Baldev had infected seven people—six family members and another person whom he came into contact—with the novel coronavirus, according to a media bulletin issued by the Punjab health department.
Baldev was a Granthi in the gurudwara at his village of Pathlawa, in the state’s Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar district. While he was at the village after returning from abroad, Baldev had performed path and distributed prasad to the devotees in Pathlawa, local residents told me. Baldev lived in a large joint family, and six of whom have tested positive at his village on 21 March. According to Ravi Inder Singh Makkar, the assistant public-relations officer of Nawanshahr—a municipal council in the Shahid Bhagat Singh Nagar district—the administration had taken 18 samples of close family relations and individuals who came into contact with Baldev Singh. Six of his family members were found to be positive, while the rest of the reports are yet to arrive, Makkar told me. The infected family members are his three sons, his daughter, his daughter-in-law and his granddaughter. The seventh person who tested positive was a resident of the Garhshankar city in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district, whom locals told me was a relative that Baldev had visited after returning from abroad.
With the latest set of cases, the number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases from Punjab has risen to 13. The Hola Mohalla is among the largest religious congregations in India. Sharma said between thirty five to forty lakh people normally attended the gathering in Anandpur Sahib, and that despite the ongoing public-health crisis, around twenty lakh people had still come for the festival. Given the scale of the gathering and the fact that Baldev is believed to have infected his family members, it appears likely that the number of infections in Punjab is likely to increase further.
The situation has also led to drastic measures by the Shahid Bhagat Singh Nagar district administration. On 20 March, Vinay Bublani, the district magistrate of Shahid Bhagat Singh Nagar issued prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, placing residents under home quarantine and appointing a district revenue officer as the nodal officer for enforcing the quarantine, along with a police team at his disposal. The order noted that it would “come into force with effect from 05:00 PM on 21.03.2020 and shall be effective for a period of sixty days up to 05:00 PM on 20.05.2020.” Moreover, residents of Garhshankar said that after the positive COVID-19 case from the area, the state police sealed some of the villages in Hoshiarpur that Baldev had visited.
Baldev’s case offers a glimpse into the Punjab’s political and religious authorities’ casual approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the very serious repercussions that will now likely follow. Once it emerged that Baldev died from COVID-19, the Rupnagar district administration swung into action, conducting a door-to-door survey to curb the spread of the virus. Yet, there was no such sense of caution or urgency before the death even as thousands of diaspora Sikhs returned to Punjab for the festival. From the Delhi and Punjab airport administrations, to the religious administrations, to the state government and political parties, everyone collectively failed to recognise the severity of the pandemic even as the death toll rose dramatically across the world.