CONFIRMING the worst fears of the Punjab government, the number of coronavirus cases among the pilgrims who returned to the state from Nanded in Maharashtra over the past couple of days has now reached 183, accounting for 33.7% of the total COVID-19 cases in Punjab.
With 149 pilgrims testing positive Thursday, the state saw its biggest one-day spike in coronavirus cases, of 167, taking its total to 542.
With over 4,000 pilgrims from Punjab stuck in Nanded since March, there are apprehensions of a Tablighi Jamaat kind of situation, with a similar number at one of its gatherings in Delhi leading to hundreds of cases and contact-tracing across more than 15 states.
Akal Takht chief Giani Harpreet Singh expressed concern on Thursday that the pilgrims were being targeted. “I am afraid that the Sikh pilgrims are being vilified in the same way as were Tablighi Jamaat followers. It seems that the entire community is being targeted.”
Test reports of 577 pilgrims, out of the 3,525 who have returned to Punjab, have been received.
The Nanded administration on Thursday said it would conduct tests on all the pilgrims remaining there, plus the priests and sevadars at local gurdwaras. Nanded-Waghala Municipal Corporation Commissioner Sunil Lahane told The Indian Express, “Devotees from Punjab have almost left now. We are left with pilgrims from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. All the drivers returning from Punjab (after dropping the pilgrims) will also be tested.”
The pilgrims who had been staying in accommodations arranged by the gurdwaras hired either private vehicles or took buses organised by the Punjab government and the gurdwara administrations to return.
Over the past few days, apart from the pilgrims from Nanded, 153 students from Kota and 3,085 labourers from Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, have returned to Punjab.
The 149 pilgrims who tested positive Thursday belong to Amritsar (76), Ludhiana (38), Mohali (10), Tarn Taran (7), Kapurthala (6), Gurdaspur (3), Ropar (2), Sangrur (2) and Nawanshahr, Jalandhar, Patiala, Ferozepur and Moga (1 each).
Punjab, with 21 of its 22 districts reporting coronavirus cases (the only exception is Fazilka), has so far tested 21,205 people, and seen 20 deaths and 104 recoveries.
SGPC president Gobind Singh Longowal Thursday asked the Punjab government to use gurdwara inns to quarantine the pilgrims, instead of deras as planned. “We have everything ready in gurdwaras. We will make the pilgrims feel at home,” he said.
Urging that the pilgrims not be vilified, Longowal said, “They were stuck for more than a month and it was essential to bring them back. Some people are making hate comments on social media against the pilgrims… They have been following all the instructions from the first day. What is their mistake if some of them have tested positive for COVID-19 after taking all the precautions?”
Back in Nanded, authorities have sealed the premises where the pilgrims stayed, with District Collector Vipin Itankar asserting that they had screened everybody before they boarded the buses for Punjab. “The pilgrims were in Nanded for one-and-a-half months and none of them had shown any symptoms,” he said.
The district authorities said the pilgrims might have picked up the infection on the way, as they had passed through hotspot zones like Indore in Madhya Pradesh and Bhilwara in Rajasthan, and pointed out that the driver of one of the buses had also tested positive.
Nanded so far has only three cases of coronavirus.
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