18/03/2020 11:51 AM IST

Coronavirus: Population 30 Million, Ventilators 314, Punjab Braces For COVID-19

Punjab Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu explains how the state with a large and mobile expatriate population is preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Punjab Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu

CHANDIGARH — Thousands of Punjabis from across the world return to India every winter, turning airports in Punjab, Chandigarh and nearby cities like Delhi into busy nodes for this annual migration. 

This year, some of the state’s large expatriate population could prove to be unwitting carriers for the COVID-19, or coronavirus, pandemic sweeping across the globe.

Yet Punjab has tested only 110 people thus far. 

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In an interview with HuffPost India, Punjab health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu  shares his concern as to how the “fearless” (read reckless) Punjabis are taking the pandemic lightly and are not coming forward to get tested voluntarily. 

Despite such a large NRI population, why has Punjab tested only 110 people for coronavirus? 

As prescribed by the union government, we are testing only those people who either have a travel history from any coronavirus affected countries or have been found symptomatic. At present, we have screened 3754 people, 2200 were home quarantined, 96 people were found suspected, 110 were tested for the coronavirus, out of which one was found positive.

South Korea, whose population is less than that of Tamil Nadu has conducted tests of over 2.5 lakh people so far as compared to India which has only conducted 7000 tests. Do you think India has underestimated the coronavirus threat? 

Yes. Especially Punjabis known to be fearless are taking the threat very lightly. So far, the number of people who have come forward for voluntary testing in the state are negligible. We  have to even scare the symptomatic people to get them tested. While there is no threat of the coronavirus spreading across communities at present, the situation may turn hostile any time. 

How serious is the coronavirus concern in Punjab? 

Presently, 335 passengers with travel history from the COVID-19 affected countries are untraceable in the state.  We are unable to track them as the union government is sharing only the passport number of the passengers and not their current address or contact numbers. Through the state enforcement agencies, we could find some addresses but the houses were either found  locked or the people have flown back to their countries of residence. I have written to the Government of India and the Airport Authority of India (AAI) to help us in tracking them to their respective countries of residence. 

During the scrutiny, we also identified some passengers who after the travel ban had travelled to Punjab from coronavirus affected countries but diverted their flights through some other countries to hide their origin of travel. To identify more such passengers,  we also began to track those who had arrived in Punjab through a domestic flight or travelled by road. We have recently begun to screen the passengers of domestic flights as well. 

Department of Information and Public Relations, Punjab
The group of seven Cabinet ministers (GoMs) formed by Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh holding a review meting at Chandigarh on Wednesday.

Is the state well-equipped in terms of health infrastructure to deal with Corona exigency? 

There is definitely a need to upgrade the health infrastructure both in the rural and urban areas. For example, we have only got 24 ventilators working in all our 22 district hospitals and three medical colleges. The private sector has  assured us another 290 ventilators in case of any exigency. But this is not enough. Also, we need to buy specialised masks, testing kits and need to establish special quarantine and isolation wards for which the state government has sanctioned Rs 5 crores as disaster fund. 

Do you think with just 314 ventilators, you will be able to contain any community spread of the Corona pandemic in a population of over 3 crores? 

Not every coronavirus patient will require a ventilator. We are monitoring the situation very closely and did not find signs of any community spread. Also, the incubation period of the majority of the suspected patients in the state is about to get over on March 18. So, I don’t feel that there is any reason to worry in Punjab.  

What are the coronavirus testing facilities in Punjab? 

Presently we have three testing labs in Punjab each at the Amritsar and Patiala Medical College and another at the PostGraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research Chandigarh (PGIMER). Since, we have restricted the testing only to passengers with travel history, there is not much load on these testing centres. 

We only have 24 ventilators working in all our 22 district hospitals and three medical colleges. The private sector has  assured us another 290 ventilators in case of any exigency. But this is not enough.Balbir Singh Sidhu, Punjab Health Minister

What major precautions has the government taken to contain the pandemic? 

The state government has formed a group of ministers which are closely monitoring the situation in Punjab. Also we are holding mock drills in various localities and holding announcements in village gurudwaras.  Also, we are in a process to establish isolation wards in each district and are running awareness drives through our teachers, Asha workers and other health workers at block and village levels. Most importantly, we have even extended the retirement date of our health officials and paramedical staff by six months who were due to retire on March 31 this year.

Our officials are in continuous touch with the authorities of the International Health Division under the Ministry of health which is monitoring the situation at the global level. Also they are connected through the Airport link officials on each airport and are updating the information on every suspected and symptomatic passenger found anywhere.