Punjab’s Fight Against COVID-19: Hopes, Fears and the Balancing Act

By Indervir Singh and Naresh Kumar | May 20, 2020

Punjab is one of the few states that has taken relatively early and more stringent measures to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. The early actions were quite understandable as it is one of the states that have the largest diaspora living in countries most affected by the virus. A large section of these persons of Indian origin (PIO) and non-resident Indians (NRIs) travel to Punjab almost every year between October and March.

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Punjab is one of the few states which have taken relatively early and more stringent measures to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. The early actions were quite understandable as it is one of the states that have the largest diaspora living in countries most affected by the virus. A large section of these persons of Indian origin (PIO) and non-resident Indians (NRIs) travel to Punjab almost every (or alternative) year. The number of PIOs and NRIs visiting Punjab is high between October and March. It is partly because people plan most of their ceremonies, like marriages, in winter. The winter is also preferred for visiting Punjab because the majority find it hard to cope with the scorching heat and frequent power cuts during summer. As per the statement of the Chief Minister (CM) of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, about 94,000 NRIs have come to India since COVID-19 started spreading and 30,000 were in home quarantine. Since the majority of these people had come from countries such as Italy which were highly affected by COVID-19, it became a matter of worry for the Punjab government.

The early phase: A cautious approach

The first fortnight of March can be considered the early phase in the fight against COVID-19. The Punjab government’s concern began rising in the first week of March when the fear of the virus led people to buy masks and sanitisers in large quantities, leading to the scarcity and consequently, the soaring of the prices of these items, significantly. The poultry industry was badly hit by the fake news that only those who eat non-vegetarian food would get COVID-19. The prices of poultry products reportedly dropped between 30 percent to 50 percent. Hotels saw about a 50 percent drop in occupancy as a huge number of people started cancelling their reservations. Public and private institutions, following the government advisories, asked their staff not to use biometric attendance. The Akal Takht Jathedar, one of the most influential religious leaders of the Sikhs, asked people to avoid mass gatherings and crowded regions. The CM of Punjab appreciated the statement and appealed to the people to celebrate the festival of Hola Mohalla by going to a local gurdwara instead of visiting Anandpur Sahib.1

In this atmosphere of mounting fear, the Punjab government was cautious in its approach as it was still accessing the situation and did not want to create large-scale panic. On March 6, the government declared COVID-19 an epidemic but later, claimed it to be just a precautionary advisory under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. At this point, India had started checking and quarantining people at the airports. As a result, NRIs were cancelling their trips. The NRI Sabha Punjab, which has about 23500 members, saw less than 450 of them turning up for the election of President (scheduled for March 7) and most of them cancelled their trip due to COVID-19 fear.

The fear at this point was mostly limited to a small share of the population which was relatively better informed. People in rural areas were less careful at this point. For example, the number of devotees that visited Anandpur Sahib during Hola Mohalla declined from ten lakh in the previous year to five lakh. However, there was little reduction in the number of devotees from the rural area. Jasbir Singh, manager at Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib, told media that it was mainly people from cities who stayed away.

On March 9, Punjab had its first positive case of COVID-19, a resident of Italy who had come to visit his family in Hoshiarpur. He was found to have COVID-19 symptoms at the Amritsar airport and was quarantined and later treated at the Government Medical College, Amritsar. With an increase in the number of suspected cases and the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11, the government started putting restrictions on economic activities. All teaching activities were suspended in the state on March 13, though without postponement of examinations. Cinema halls, gyms and swimming pools were shut down on March 14. Teachers and non-teaching staff in educational institutions were asked to continue to attend work and public transportation services remained functioning. There were talks about restricting certain religious activities, especially the closing of the Kartarpur Corridor. The Akal Takht had expressed its displeasure at such proposals. At that point, people had understood the need for precautions but were against large-scale restrictions.

Phase II: Before the lockdown

The second phase which started on March 14, lasted till March 22 with the announcement of the lockdown. This phase saw widespread panic among people and the government trying to contain both the spread and the fear of COVID-19. By the beginning of the third week of March, people were waking up to the danger of COVID-19 spreading as the number of cases in India was rising. The government came under criticism for not postponing examinations and asking teachers and non-teaching staff to continue going to educational institutions.

People were receiving a lot of information on COVID-19 from newspapers, news channels and other online sources. There was a wide sharing of messages on various social networking platforms. While authentic sources created awareness among people, fake messages circulated on social networks led to misinformation and fear. Even the most educated people shared fake remedies to prevent the infection. One such message claimed that keeping camphor and a few other substances in the pocket will kill any virus residing within a few feet of the person. Another message claimed that the virus only infects people who eat non-vegetarian food. The most problematic part of this was that the well-educated, including medical professionals and university teachers, too were sharing such unscientific and baseless reports. The state sought to keep people home while combating such misinformation and appealing to them to follow and share information from authentic sources.

During this time, the urban educated section of society had started taking basic precautions, like sanitizing hands after returning home from outside and before eating food. They were also trying to maintain a distance from those who showed symptoms of cough and fever. However, social norms and etiquette were making it difficult to take precautions. Social distancing and not shaking hands seemed rude. On March 17, Captain Amarinder Singh, the CM of Punjab, called COVID-19 a major disaster and predicted an economic slowdown. He underlined the need to change old habits, like shaking hands.

While people were figuring out how to deal with the crisis, Punjab had its first COVID-19 death in Shaheed Bhagat Singh (SBS) Nagar on March 18. The victim, a 70-year-old Sikh priest, had returned from Germany via Italy along with two of his companions on March 6. Against the government’s advisory to stay home, he went to attend the festival of Hola Mohalla in Anandpur Sahib on March 8. He was suspected to have come in contact with hundreds of people at the festival. After returning from Anandpur Sahib on March 10, he had visited the homes of his acquittances and relatives. He had come in direct contact of 94 people (this does not include people at the festival). Of these contacts, 21 were found to be COVID-19 positive. These include 14 family members of the deceased, two companions, three of his close relatives, the village Sarpanch and an acquaintance. His two companions had also come in contact with more than 50 people. The infected family members and acquaintances had come in contact with hundreds of others.

The government sealed 15 villages from where people had come in contact with any of the infected. All the primary contacts of the infected were traced. The government appealed to those who had attended Hola Mohalla to stay in home quarantine. During this time, the government found that 144 of the NRIs had given wrong addresses at the airport and were untraceable. The government asked the police to file a criminal case under the Indian Penal Code against those who violate the home quarantine orders.

The possibility of suspected COVID-19 patients roaming around caused widespread panic among people. People started sharing information on the first victim. They were angry at him for risking the lives of others. Soon, NRI bashing started as the majority of people were highly critical of NRIs for behaving irresponsibly. People saw them as COVID-19 super-spreaders. With increased fear, economic activity was further affected.

The state government acted quite promptly to prevent misinformation and contain fear. On March 20, the government suspended all public transportation, limited all gatherings to 20 persons and postponed the examinations. The state government ordered a complete lockdown in the state on March 22. Though most of the people in affected districts were cautious, the government found that people in districts with no cases and those residing in rural areas were still not careful. This led the government to order a curfew in the state from March 24.

People, in general, appreciated the quick actions of the state government and their open and transparent approach to information sharing during this phase. The government was, however, criticized for being underprepared to tackle the crisis. Punjab was not testing enough at this point. Many felt that the government should have been strict in its handling of the NRIs since the beginning. Overall, the government, up to this point, was doing a good job at managing the fear and tracing people who came in contact with the infected. Nonetheless, there was also a feeling that the government was reacting to the situation rather than planning to tackle the problem.

Phase III: The lockdown

The lockdown that primarily aimed to control the spread of infection had social implications too. The lockdown posed new challenges for society. For example, the average number of calls per day on the domestic violence helpline increased by 34 percent between March 20 and April 20. There was news of suicides by people due to the fear of COVID-19. The understanding of these social aspects requires more information than is currently available. Also, an in-depth study on this issue is beyond the scope of our present discussion. Therefore, we shall limit our discussion to the spread of infection and Punjab economy.

Lockdown and the spread of infection

The Prime Minister ordered a national lockdown of 21 days starting from March 25. Punjab was already under curfew since March 24. It decided to continue with these additional restrictions to minimize the movement of the people. The national lockdown helped Punjab in two ways. First, it restricted the arrival of NRIs and reduced the interstate movements of the people. Second, it provided a common framework to facilitate the urgent movement of the people. On the negative side, it prevented the state from starting economic activity (we shall come back to this point later).

One of the important decisions taken by the Punjab government was to deliver essential goods to people at their homes instead of giving relaxation in curfew. It significantly reduced the unnecessary movement of people. Staying at home was not easy for people. In the initial days, a large number of people were still coming out of their homes. To stop the movement of people, police started beating anyone who was found outside their homes. Initially, most of the people found such beating necessary and were fine with it. However, the police’s tactics came under criticism due to the excessive and unnecessary use of power in several cases. For example, people who were visiting hospitals were also unnecessarily harassed and sometimes, thrashed.

Due to mounting criticism, police’s actions were more moderate after the first week of curfew. In fact, the police were mostly lenient in districts with no COVID-19 cases. People in rural areas were moving within their villages without much problem. This leniency of the police also created the possibility of the spread of infection. The lockdown seemed to have helped Punjab in controlling the infection in the initial days (see Table 1 and Table 2). The doubling rate of COVID-19 cases had improved to three days on 24 March, and to 27 days on 30 March (the doubling rate is based on the three-day average of new cases). The government breathed a sigh of relief during this period as no case was reported among those who had attended the Hola Mohalla.

The doubling rate started coming down after March 31 and came down to 4 days on April 9. Many of these cases were linked to the lenient attitude of the police and district administration during the curfew. For example, the district of Patiala saw a sudden increase from just two COVID-19 cases to 49 cases within a week. Most of these cases were linked to a function organized during the curfew and an infected social worker who had visited other cities during this period. The social worker had distributed rations to about 800 families after returning from other cities. A book trader, who got the infection from the social worker, had further infected 13 persons including his family members.

Note: The doubling rate is based on the three-day average of new cases.

The district administration made every effort to trace each contact and test them. The testing capacity, though still low, had been somewhat improved by this time. The testing capacity of the labs in Patiala and Amritsar had increased from 40 per day to 400 per day by April 8. Given the rise in suspected cases, there was a need to increase it to a much higher level. The delay in increasing the testing capacity was the major weakness of Punjab’s fight against the pandemic. On April 10, Punjab had conducted just 116 tests per one million population compared to about 380 tests per million by Kerala. It was felt that a large number of asymptomatic cases may not have been tested due to this limitation. It was also, possibly, that the reason for the high number of deaths was the presence of comorbidities in these patients. For Punjab, the figure was 7.3 percent on April 10 compared to 3.3 percent for all India.

The cases started growing at a lower rate after April 9. Much of this success was due to the hard work of administration and healthcare workers to trace all those who may have come in contact with the confirmed cases. The doubling rate started increasing, reaching a peak of 30 days on April 21. Even though the rate was fluctuating, it remained high till April 28. After this, the rate of gain started coming down. It was partly due to a large number of new cases among Sikh pilgrims who had returned from Nanded, Maharashtra. More than 3700 pilgrims had been stranded at the Hazur Sahib Gurudwara in Nanded due to the sudden announcement of lockdown. Many among them were found to be infected after their return. The real source of infection was not known. None of the devotees had any symptoms while they were at the Gurudwara (all of them had undergone preliminary health check-ups at Nanded before boarding the buses). They were put into quarantine facilities which were already developed for this purpose. Some of the districts which had no cases before their arrival suddenly witnessed a spike in the number of cases. This led some people to criticise the pilgrims who returned from Nanded. Others defended them and reminded the critics that everyone has a right to return home.

People had also started taking fewer precautions after the first lockdown (it ended on April 14). Initially, they were hopeful that the situation would become normal after 21 days. There was some backlash against a few who were not staying home in the initial days. The extension of lockdown made them restless. They were not used to sitting at home the whole day. Also, their work was suffering. Many started feeling as if there is no end to this problem. Therefore, the rural areas and small towns with no cases saw much more movement.

The government’s rationale that people only need food was not based on the ground reality. The curfew was more about keeping people at home and did not prepare people for behavioural changes. It does not mean that people were not warned about the implications. The CM of Punjab, based on a report, told people that about 85 percent of Punjab will have this infection by mid-September if they are not careful. However, behaviour change requires training and information on how to perform their activities while taking precautions. People were figuring things out on their own and trying various things. For example, people were using potassium permanganate to clean vegetables and other items at home. There was hardly any effort by the government (state or centre) to inform people about the effectiveness or side effects of such methods. Lack of training and information means a large number of people were negligent and were getting infected.

Between April 29 and May 6, the number of confirmed cases had increased from 375 to 1526. It was a four-time increase in 7 days. The trend again reversed as the doubling rate witnessed an increase from two days on May 3 to 20 days on May 10. Overall, the lockdown seems to have helped in controlling the growth of the infection. The performance of Punjab, though inadequate in some respects, had been satisfactory. Punjab has also shown a satisfactory increase in its testing capacity by the first week of May.

The lockdown saw more and more people getting aware and taking precautions. People also started coming together to control the movement of people from outside to their villages or areas. Many villages in Punjab had started keeping records of movements in and out of the village. In Roper, 424 panchayats sealed villages on their own. The extent of precaution mostly depended on the number of reported cases in the block or district. Some of these precautions were also creating problems for people. For example, Gujjars, who earn their livelihood by selling milk, found themselves ostracised due to the fear of COVID-19. Many villages denied entry to them. It was only after the intervention of the Punjab government that this exclusion ended. The government, in this and many similar cases, was quick to act, which helped in maintaining peace during the lockdown.

Lockdown and Punjab’s economy

While the lockdown had some success in controlling infection, it had a devastating effect on its economy and people. The casual labour was perhaps most affected by the lockdown. Punjab government announced that each registered construction worker would be paid Rs 3000/- and it provided relief to about 3.18 lakh labourers. The migrant labourers were struggling for food but were not allowed to go back to their homes. Most of them did not have enough money to survive the lockdown. The government asked industrialists to take care of the needs of the migrant workers during the lockdown. It was the government’s timely intervention that Punjab did not face any serious issues in managing migrant workers as some other states did. However, they were only a small proportion of the total who were in dire need of help. The government had started distributing free food packets through its public distribution system (PDS). Common people and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also extended their hand for help. All efforts were made so that no one goes without food during this period and these were largely successful.

The lockdown has hit the industry and service sector most severely. Businesses, like hotels and restaurants, were already struggling to cope with the impact of the pandemic. The lockdown put almost all sectors under stress. Its unplanned nature led to even the closing down of essential operations. For example, the poultry farms were not getting bird feed due to the closing down of feed plants. With a feed just enough for a few days, the poultry industry asked the government to allow them to kill the birds. The industry expected a revenue loss of Rs 2000/- crore due to the lockdown (the calculation did not seem to have included the possible extension of the lockdown). The traders told the government that they may pay wages during the lockdown but that would erode their working capital and they would not survive without the government’s help post the lockdown (after April 14). They had requested the government for a relief package. With the extension of the lockdown, the losses started mounting. The period was most painful for marginal, small, and medium enterprises (MSME) which were suddenly faced with imminent mass extinction’.

After the first lockdown, some industries were allowed to open up under conditions like operating with just 50 percent of the workforce and providing accommodation to workers at the worksite or arranging transportation for them. Due to the attached conditions, most MSMEs found it hard to open up their businesses. Most of them did not have enough space to arrange the stay for workers. Arranging transportation was not a viable option for them due to the high cost involved. Many industries find it hard to operate with 50 percent workforce. Another major obstacle was the high uncertainty in the business. Due to falling income, a majority of people are not buying anything that they consider nonessential. Business owners were not sure if their products would be sold. Thus, only a small number of industries chose to start production. As per the news report of April 27, out of 2.5 lakh industrial units, only 3341 had resumed their production after the announcement of relaxations. Adding to their worries was the possibility of migrant workers going back to their home states. About 11 lakh migrant labourers are expected to leave Punjab in the coming days. There is little hope of their return in the near future.

The agricultural sector has, however, remained mostly unaffected. The sale of vegetables was allowed throughout the lockdown. The government had started planning the purchase of the rabi crop well in advance. The government had allowed the inter-district and inter-state movement of machinery and people for the smooth function of agricultural operations. All businesses required for the smooth conduct of agricultural operations were allowed so the harvesting and purchase of rabi crop was smooth.

The government finances also took a big hit due to the lockdown and it reported a loss of Rs. 3360 crore per month during this period. The revenue loss put the government in a difficult position. Even though the Central Government had allowed the state to borrow 60 percent more, it was not enough for the state. The state was asking for financial aid and clearance of goods and service tax (GST) dues. When it was clear that it may not get aid, the state asked to allow liquor sales (one of the major sources of revenue). Though the permission was initially denied, liquor sale was allowed after May 3. It gave some interim relief to the government, but the revenues are likely to stay low for many months. Therefore, there are attempts to start as many economic activities as possible. The CM of Punjab has asked the Centre to let states decide on the zoning of areas (based on the spread of the infection) as well as the activities that can be performed in a zone. In addition, the government is planning to cut down its expenditure (especially capital expenditure) to prevent a large deficit. The government seems to be doing fine for the time being. However, there seems to be huge uncertainty in this regard.

Success and failure of Punjab in its fight against COVID-19

Punjab has had moderate success in its fight against COVID-19. In terms of managing the spread of the virus, it was mostly successful in controlling a large-scale outbreak. The government was quite prompt in tracing the infection. Its performance in terms of promptness in upgrading the health infrastructure was satisfactory. Some proactive steps, like home delivery of necessary items, helped in controlling the spread. Also, the government was extremely successful and prompt in managing fear among people and taking necessary steps to prevent fake news from spreading. The CM of Punjab was at the forefront telling people to stay at home, maintain social distancing and adopt new habits to stay safe. He even made a video with a popular TikTok artist, Noorpreet Kaur (a five-year-old girl), on the importance of social distancing and wearing a mask.

The main failure of the government was in not readying people for how to go about their daily routine while taking precautions. It was partially due to the excessive interference of the central government. However, the state government is also responsible for not having a clear plan to restore normal life to whatever extent it is possible. Recently, there have been some attempts to start business operations. The major problem with these attempts is that the government is acting on the assumption that the businesses can be resumed without bringing back the normalcy in people’s lives. Each extension of the lockdown is lowering people’s expectations of an early revival. The challenges ahead seem to be much bigger than what Punjab has faced in the last two months.

The most disheartening aspect of the fight against COVID-19 is that education seems to have played little role in combating the crisis in Punjab. Many educated people, including doctors and university teachers, shared fake messages. Unlike Sweden, where education is proving to be an asset (see Swain, 2020), the lack of scientific temper among the educated is even more damaging as the less educated are likely to trust and follow their advice in safety matters. Some of them continued to spread fallacies even as these were debunked by experts. It may perhaps be the biggest failure of our education system.

Sources of Information: The information used in the article is based on the notifications of the Punjab government and news reports published in the Tribune, the Print, the Economic Times, the Hindu, and the Times of India. The information from the social networking accounts of the CM of Punjab and his interviews to various news channels was also used. The data on the total number of confirmed and new cases was taken from the Punjab government’s COVID-19 dashboard (https://​coro​na​.pun​jab​.gov​.in/) and https://​www​.covid19in​dia​.org.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/​s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Azim Premji University or Foundation. 


Indervir Singh, Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala

Naresh Kumar, Independent Researcher, Jaitu, Dist. Faridkot, Punjab


Swain, A. (2020) COVID-19 Strategy – The Swedish Model and Lessons for India, University Practice Connect, Azim Premji University. Available at: https://​prac​tice​con​nect​.azim​premji​u​ni​ver​si​ty​.edu​.in/​c​o​v​i​d​-​1​9​-​s​t​r​a​t​e​g​y​-​t​h​e​-​s​w​e​d​i​s​h​-​m​o​d​e​l​-​a​n​d​-​l​e​s​s​o​n​s​-​f​o​r​-​i​ndia/ (Accessed: 12 May 2020).

  1. The festival of Hola Mohalla was celebrated at Anandpur Sahib from March 5-10, 2020.↩︎