Villages in Punjab boycott COVID-19 tests and hospital treatment due to fear, misinformation

03 September 2020
A health worker, in an enclosed booth, collects a nasal swab sample from a person for coronavirus testing at the Civil Hospital on 15 June 2020, in Amritsar. Many village panchayats in Punjab passed resolutions, in the last week of August, that refused to allow health workers to conduct tests and take anyone to hospitals.
Sameer Sehgal / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
A health worker, in an enclosed booth, collects a nasal swab sample from a person for coronavirus testing at the Civil Hospital on 15 June 2020, in Amritsar. Many village panchayats in Punjab passed resolutions, in the last week of August, that refused to allow health workers to conduct tests and take anyone to hospitals.
Sameer Sehgal / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

On 28 August, the panchayat of Smalsar village, in Punjab’s Moga district, passed a resolution that any resident who tested positive for COVID-19 will be entitled to isolation at home or at a designated common facility within the village. The resolution further stated that government health-teams would not be allowed to test any asymptomatic resident who did not wish to be tested and that government doctors would not be allowed to take COVID-19 patients away from the village. The resolution added that COVID-19 patients would be attended to and treated in the village, “in consultation with doctors.” The resolution was signed by the sarpanch Amarjit Singh. 

In the last week of August, like Smalsar, a number of villages in Punjab have passed similar resolutions. The villages have refused access to their residents by medical teams of the state’s health machinery, mandatory COVID-19 tests, and mandatory quarantine or treatment at government healthcare facilities. The actions were based on mistrust of the quarantine and treatment system. The resolutions alleged that non-COVID-19 patients have been hospitalised with COVID-19 patients. The residents of these villages told me about rumours on social media of COVID-19 care centres sending out large numbers of dead bodies and of patients’ organs being illegally harvested. The rumours even resulted in healthcare workers being attacked in several instances. 

Amarjit told me of his own personal loss as an instance of “foul play and medical negligence.” Amarjit’s wife Manjit Kaur died at the Guru Gobind Singh Medical College and Hospital in Faridkot, in the last week of July. He said she had a respiratory illness even before the novel coronavirus outbreak and had  been treated at a private hospital in Bhatinda, in June. According to Amarjit, she was perfectly healthy for a month till she experienced breathing trouble again. In late July, he took her to GGS Hospital. “She was forced to give a sample and was kept along with coronavirus positive patients the night we took her.” The next morning, he and his son were told that Manjit was being put on ventilator support and at around 4 pm, they were told that she was dead. “My wife was neither attended to nor given any medicines,” Amarjit claimed. He was also upset that the hospital would not allow him and his son to see her, despite their offer to pay for the personal protections kits that they would use. But what really hit him hard is that his wife might not have had COVID-19 at all. “The irony is that after her death, her report came out to be negative,” he said.  

Amarjit said that there were similar cases at the GGS hospital. He recalled a cancer patient, who had come to collect his medicines, but was admitted for COVID-19 and then died. He said after the man’s death there was an argument between the patient’s family and the doctors. According to Amarjit, the Smalsar panchayat, along with many others, had donated beds and linen for a quarantine facility when asked to do so by the government. “When government facilities as such do not have anything and patients are left unattended, why should we send our cases to a hospital?” he asked. The Smalsar panchayat earmarked a school for isolation of confirmed COVID-19 cases. It decided to bear the expenses of patients’ medicines and other needs and to have volunteers from the village take care of them.  

Jagtar Singh Tolewal, from the village Tolewal, in Sangrur district, echoed Amarjit’s worries about government hospitals’ lack of arrangements, even for basics such as food. He said he witnessed family members being denied information about a patient’s health at the Rajindra Hospital in Patiala. Jagtar also referred to rumours about COVID-19 patients whose organs were harvested illegally and who turned up dead. It is unclear where this rumour has originated. Tolewal village has also passed a resolution. “No police or administration officials can enter a village without informing the sarpanch as per the law,” Jagtar said. He added that the panchayat had made a public announcement that health teams were prohibited from entering the village and that villagers were ready to resist them if health officials ignored the announcement. Beant Singh, the sarpanch of Tolewal, said that any team that visited the village had to inform the panchayat. He also said that they were ready to follow all necessary protocols to treat COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms in the village itself.

Jatinder Kaur Tur is a senior journalist with two decades of experience with various national English-language dailies, including the Indian Express, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times and Deccan Chronicle.

Keywords: COVID-19 Punjab Panchayat
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