Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh says dealing with COVID-19 is like "fighting a war" wherein an "unknown enemy" is making the battle more complicated and challenging every day.
Underlining the state's resolve to tide over the crisis, he says his government is leaving no stone unturned in procuring adequate life-saving equipment, including ventilators, PPE kits, N-95 masks and expanding bed capacity of isolation wards. The northern state has reported 79 coronavirus cases and seven deaths till Tuesday morning.
In an e-mail interview to PTI, Singh says the large number of non-resident Indian (NRI) population in the state makes it more vulnerable to the deadly disease.
"Another problem we are facing here in Punjab is the large number of NRIs and foreign returnees who have come to the state in the past one month or so. Tracking, tracing and following up on them is a massive task," he says.
He says the Punjab government has already announced that the passports of NRIs would be impounded if they failed to reveal their travel history.
"Most of the 95,000 passengers who arrived through Mohali and Amritsar airports before suspension of flights and the Attari-Wagah and Dera Baba Nanak land ports have been traced," he says.
"Subsequently, the Centre sent us a list of 55,000 people who arrived in Delhi and were quarantined. Contact tracing has also been completed in most cases, but there may be cases where people are hiding information, including their travel and contact history," Singh says.
The senior Congress leader says his government is procuring protective equipment for frontline workers, including doctors and other health staff, on a war footing.
"We are procuring equipment from wherever we can, but there is a shortage everywhere. We are getting indigenously made stuff speed-tested and produced. But it is not an easy job," he says.
On the state's preparedness on the healthcare front, Singh says the state will scale up the capacity of isolation beds to 20,000 in the next few days from the already operational 2,500 beds.
"We have already ordered 1.65 lakh PPE kits, of which nearly half have been received. Orders have also been placed for one lakh N-95 masks and 42 lakh triple layer masks, and more than half of them have been received," he says, adding private industry is also contributing by way of making PPE kits and N-95 masks. The government hospitals in the state currently have nearly 500 ventilators, he adds.
Singh, however, laments that the state does not have enough COVID-19 testing kits.
"And of course, there is the question of testing of people for the disease. We are told to test, test and test. But we do not have enough kits, though we are now using mobile vans for community testing in hot-spot areas. The central government has allowed rapid testing, but we need kits for that too," he says.
Adding to the woes is the economic impact of the disease, with Punjab anticipating a hit of Rs 5,000 crore in revenue by April-end. "As of now, things have not gone out of control in India, but the numbers are increasing every day. We have seen a spike (of cases) here in Punjab in the past few days," he says.
The chief minister says the COVID-19 crisis has hit the economy of the state with no revenue generation from VAT and other sources. Punjab was the first state in the country to clamp curfew last month.
"We have no revenue sources at all right now. Our GST arrear (Rs 6,752 crore) is also pending with the Centre. My finance minister tells me that by the end of April, we would be reeling under Rs 5,000 crore in losses. This is huge, and we have no means of making up for it," he says.
On the Centre's response towards the state's demand for a financial package and refund of Goods and Services Tax (GST) arrears, the Punjab chief minister says, "It is unfortunate that we are yet to get a positive response from the Centre. I am sure they are doing their best, given the gravity of the situation. But frankly, it is not enough to meet the challenge. They need to pump in more funds, and release our GST arrears immediately."
Asked about his assessment of the current situation in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Singh, an ex-armyman, says, "It is in many ways like fighting a war with one key difference. The enemy here is unknown, we cannot see it, nor do we really know what it is like. Naturally, this makes the battle all the more difficult and challenging."
"As of now, there is no vaccine or medicine for this. And we are hearing new things about COVID-19 every day. So it is really difficult to come out with a comprehensive strategy to fight this crisis, given that it is a continuously evolving one," he adds.
About preparations for wheat procurement, the CM says he has assured farmers that every grain would be procured, while ensuring adherence to the safety protocols.
"Harvesting and marketing will be staggered in such a manner that there will be no overcrowding at any place. We are working with 'Arhtiyas' (commission agents) and sheller owners to add 3,000 sheller yards this year. Coupons will be issued to farmers so that they do not come to the Mandis at the same time," he says.
"We have also requested the Centre to provide incentives to farmers to delay bringing the produce to the market so that the entire process gets staggered for over two months," he adds.