Punjab Covid crisis: ‘Political parties must follow Covid guidelines before it’s too late…’

On March 26, in what is being called the second Covid wave in Punjab (after August-Sep 2020), state’s daily case count had crossed 3,000-mark for the first time ever. Punjab’s Principal Health Secretary Hussan Lal speaks to DIVYA GOYAL GOPAL on managing the current crisis.

The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Friday said that Punjab was still among the 8 states in the country that are showing a steep rise in daily Covid cases. Punjab accounts for 4.01 per cent of the total active cases in the country and is also among six states that account for 83.16 per cent of new Covid deaths in the country.

On March 26, in what is being called the second Covid wave in Punjab (after August-Sep 2020), state’s daily case count had crossed 3,000-mark for the first time ever. Punjab’s Principal Health Secretary Hussan Lal speaks to DIVYA GOYAL GOPAL on managing the current crisis.

Till Friday, Punjab has administered 9.87 lakh total doses of Covid vaccine since the countrywide drive started in January this year. The number is still very less compared to other states.

With time, vaccine hesitancy in Punjab is reducing. On Thursday (April 1), we administered nearly 80,000 doses in a day, the highest till now. From Monday onwards, our target will be at least a lakh doses in a day (7 lakh doses a week). We are also planning a massive, grassroot level campaign under Mission Fateh in every district to shun vaccine hesitancy among people and remove their myths.

Punjab is considered among the most progressive states in the country. What are the reasons behind vaccine hesitancy in the state?

There are two major reasons for vaccine hesitancy in Punjab. Sometimes, our strength becomes our weakness too. Punjabis are known for their carefree attitude and nature. But it proved catastrophic when our people also took Covid very casually.

The general attitude among Punjabis has been that corona doesn’t matter and it’s a normal flu that will go, so they don’t need to get vaccinated. This casual approach towards Covid has cost Punjab dearly. Secondly, since the first wave started in August last year, there has been too much of adverse publicity against the Health Department on social media platforms that people did not allow us to take samples for testing in rural areas.

The genesis of the current vaccination hesitancy lies in the negative social media campaign that had started last year and messages on WhatsApp were forwarded saying that Punjab Health Department staff will harvest organs in name of Covid and that they will mint money.

Such negative and derogatory social media campaign was witnessed only in Punjab and we could not contain Covid spread because people would not even come forward for testing and did not allow our teams to collect samples. And now, a similar campaign is ongoing against vaccine drive also as people have several apprehensions on the vaccines being safe or not.

Even in the first phase of vaccination drive for healthcare workers, the response was very tepid in Punjab. What were the reasons for
vaccine hesitancy among healthcare workers?

Most of our doctors took the lead and got themselves vaccinated, but the issue started after paramedical staff refused to get vaccinated.

Since medical professionals have more knowhow of how vaccinations work and how they are approved for mass use, the paramedical staff in Punjab had apprehensions that the vaccine was unsafe, it wasn’t properly tested and if the human trials of Covid vaccine were conducted hurriedly.

We conducted several meetings with their unions to convince them to get vaccinated but they started bargaining with us. They said that we have to accept their other demands and only then they will take the vaccine. However, we told them that vaccination is for their and their family’s safety because they meet infected patients on daily basis.

We told them that vaccination is for one’s own safety and other administrative demands can also be discussed later. It is their life, their family’s safety and wellbeing of entire population that matters the most right now. However, even then we were unable to cut much of ice with healthcare workers and they have been still reluctant to get the vaccine but with frontline workers and those above 45 years of age showing better response, now healthcare workers too have started coming forward and numbers have been improving.

Punjab is witnessing second Covid wave and elections are due next year. Political parties are holding rallies. Who is responsible for checking such gatherings?

Political parties must understand that they need to follow Covid guidelines before it’s too late. If they won’t follow guidelines, it will result into something stricter and more restrictions will have to be imposed. Health Department can only guide and issue protocol, it is for the police to enforce it.

After Maharashtra, the maximum daily deaths are being reported in Punjab. What is the reason?

Delayed arrival of patients at hospitals, when the disease has already reached its advanced stage, is the most important reason for the high case fatality rate (CFR) in Punjab. Early detection is the only way to save lives during pandemic and hence people should come forward and get themselves tested and vaccinated. In other states, there are long queues outside vaccination centres and in Punjab logon ko pakad pakad kar laana par raha hai.

There has been confusion over vaccine wastage in Punjab. Centre has been claiming that Punjab’s vaccine wastage is around 8 per cent, whereas state is saying figure is exaggerated.

Yes, there was some issue in uploading data on the portal due to which 3.5 lakh doses we provided to armed forces and to some private hospitals were not reflecting on their side. The matter is being sorted out. Our wastage for Covishield is 3 per cent and for Covaxin it is around 4 per cent approximately.

Clear cut instructions have been given to hospitals that a bottle containing ten doses has to be opened only when ten beneficiaries are present on the spot. A bottle once opened, can be used only till four hours and a sealed bottle expires after 6 months. Each dose is very precious and our effort is not to let even a single dose go waste.

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