New Delhi: Farmers protesting at the Delhi-Haryana border, huddled in tractor-trolleys without wearing masks, as part of their agitation against the central government’s farm laws have triggered concerns of a further spread of the novel coronavirus in the national capital.
With such a large gathering of farmers, many of them aged above 60 years, camping at the border without following any Covid safety protocol, there are fears that the protest site could turn into a hotspot.
The use of water cannons by the police to disperse the protestors last week amid dipping temperatures has only increased the threat of Covid spread.
This comes at a time when Delhi is witnessing its third Covid wave. As of Monday, it had recorded a total of 57,03,74 cases with 9,174 deaths. On Tuesday, the national capital recorded the second highest daily cases — 3,726 — in the country, second only to Maharashtra, according to the health ministry data.
Farmers, however, said the Covid concern is being raised to blunt their protest, adding the virus won’t kill them but the Modi government’s “black laws” will.
Experts, meanwhile, said the government should have taken steps to ensure that the agitation didn’t result in such large gatherings.
Rajesh Bhushan, Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, refused to comment on the matter saying law and order decisions are taken by local authorities.
ThePrint reached Delhi government’s Director General of Health Services Nutan Mundeja and Health Secretary Vikram Dev Dutt through phone calls, text messages and email, but received no response.
5 farmers sleeping in each tractor-trolley
At the Singhu border, the tractor-trolleys the farmers drove to Delhi for the protest, have now become their makeshift homes. Mattresses have been laid out inside these vehicles and at least 4-5 farmers, some times more than that, sleep in each of these vehicles.
Makeshift kitchens have also been set up, either inside these vehicles or just outside. There are makeshift toilets too for women, but water taps are few and far, making hand-washing difficult, which is an important hygiene practice to keep Covid at bay.
‘Where was Covid during Bihar polls?’
There is little social distancing at the protest site amid the pandemic, but the farmers ThePrint spoke to claimed there was no Covid threat.
“We have been protesting for over 7 months now. There hasn’t been a single case of Covid anywhere at any of our protest sites across Punjab. Neither has any protestor been infected nor has anyone died of Covid,” said Sukhdev Kokari, general secretary, Bharatiya Kisan Union Ekta Ugrahan.
Farmer leaders also said Covid has largely been transmitted from the cities to villages, making the farmers less at risk of contracting the infection.
“Covid has mostly been transmitted from people in cities to towns and villages. So people from these villages have not come to Delhi with Covid. Still, we are trying to enforce hand-washing and making them understand the importance of continued hand-washing amid the pandemic,” said Satyavan, working group member, All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee.
The farmers also said the Centre’s three farm laws pose a greater threat to their lives than Covid could.
“We are not scared of Covid. Farmers are used to toiling in the fields and our immunity is strong. Covid won’t kill us, but Modi’s black laws will,” said Harpal Singh, state organisation committee, Bharatiya Kisan Union, Haryana.
“Covid is only a conspiracy by Modi to not allow our protest. We are not scared of Covid or Modi,” said Singh.
The farmers also said the threat of Covid is being raised to blunt their protest.
“Why talk of Covid threat only at the farmers’ protest and not at election rallies? Where was Covid when Bihar election rallies were taking place? Did Covid also get scared of Modi there?” Kokari asked.
Since the clashes last Friday, the police and the protestors have been camping on two sides of the border — separated by barricades. These barbed wire barricades at the border ironically have a huge banner bearing the Delhi Disaster Management Authority’s Covid advisory against large public gatherings.
No response from police
Asked about steps being taken to ensure Covid-appropriate behaviour at the border, Delhi Police PRO Eish Singhal, who is also the DCP of New Delhi district, said: “Due to the Covid protocols, we haven’t allowed the protest here at Ramlila Maidan and Jantar Mantar, which comes under my jurisdiction.”
About enforcing Covid norms at the border, Singhal said: “Please contact the area DCP.”
Singhu border comes under the jurisdiction of Outer Delhi DCP Gaurav Sharma. ThePrint reached him through phone calls and text messages for a response, but didn’t receive any till the publication of this report.
Experts raise alarm
Health experts said there’s a need to protect the farmers from becoming victims of the virus.
“Large public gatherings, for any reason, are a matter of serious public health concern at a time when Covid is showing a surge in the north Indian winter. Ideally, the causes for the agitation should have been speedily and sympathetically addressed without a mass agitation being stirred up,” said a senior public health expert, who did not want to be named.
“Even now, a speedy resolution should be earnestly attempted. Protection from exposure to cold and the use of masks are minimal needs under the circumstances. Each passing day, the danger increases,” he added.
Experts also said the use of tear gas shells and water cannons in the midst of a respiratory disease pandemic also goes against common sense.
“Common sense would say yes that tear gas and water cannons should not be used in the middle of a pandemic. But there has been little regard for data and epidemiology. You just need one infected case over there for the disease to spread,” said Dr Lalit Kant, former head of epidemiology and infectious diseases at the Indian Council of Medical Research.
Use of tear gas and water cannons also increase transmission risk as protestors were seen coughing and spitting everywhere last Friday.
“Use of water cannons and tear gas can aggravate the chances of contracting Covid as coughing also causes droplet transmission,” said Dr Anant Bhan, researcher in global health and bioethics.
Experts also pointed to the increased risk of transmission through sloganeering.
“Protesters are living in close proximity and also shouting slogans. When people are shouting, they are able to throw the virus at longer distances. This has also been seen in places with community singing where infection has spread,” Dr Kant added.
Bhan said the same concerns exist with political rallies where there are large gatherings of people.
“In the case of these protests, crowd-control measures are key along with making them understand the importance of social distance. That’s also part of policing. You may not be able to stop their protest, but they should be told not to be in close quarters. This should be ensured with the leadership of the protest. If coming from the police may seem confrontational, maybe health department workers need to be deployed to ensure social distancing is enforced,” he added.