While the start of 2020 saw the people of Punjab rally in support of government’s call to back measures to fight Covid-19, but as the year progressed, the messaging – both from the state and Union governments – seemed to have lost its credibility with the masses in the state.
Support from fight against Covid
As soon as first lockdown was imposed in last week of March, government’s Covid-19 awareness drive got huge response from common public. In fact, Punjab Police took it as an opportunity to improve its image by playing corona warriors. More than health department, it was the Punjab Police that was making headlines in state for fight against Covid-19 during the initial days.
Public support for ‘corona warrior’ police seemed unconditional, with even some disturbing videos of police beating Covid guidelines violators finding justification on social media. However, Punjab CM Amarinder Singh had to issue a warning to such policemen on March 26 after some human rights activists raised objections.
Police also won sympathy from masses after hand of its cop Harjit Singh was chopped off by Nihangs outside a vegetable market in Patiala. Harjit was allegedly attempting to stop the Nihangs who had allegedly entered the vegetable market without official Corona pass.
This was a time when, Punjabi singers, including Sidhu Mossewala, came out in support of #Main_Vi_Harjit_Singh campaign that was started by Punjab DGP Dinkar Gupta. Sidhu Mossewala also accompanied Punjab Police to homes of some doctors to celebrate their birthdays amid lockdown.
How the support fizzled
While Punjab government and state police were being appreciated for their role during Covid-19, some mistakes were also made which hurt the propaganda in the long run.
Punjab Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu repeatedly blamed Punjabi NRIs behind the reasons for spread of Covid-19 in Punjab. Punjab DGP even retweeted a song by Sidhu Mossewala — ‘Gurbaksh Gwacha’ — in which he openly blamed and defamed a Sikh priest, who was first to die of Covid-19 in Punjab.
This open vilification of Covid-19 victims by government led to several suspected Covid-19 patients hiding their identity and symptoms due to social stigma created by government propaganda.
While SGPC and Akal Takht Jathedar had asked Sikhs to follow government instructions including celebrating Baisakhi at homes, but the campaign against Tablighi Jamaat by some sections of the media found a parallel in Punjab as many questioned the return of Sikh pilgrims from Nanded Sahib in Maharashtra after being stuck there due to the first phase of lockdown.
This finally made Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh object to alleged vilification of Sikh pilgrims.
“There was an attempted to vilify the entire Muslim community by citing the case of Tablighi Jamaat, now there is a campaign to present Huzur Sahib as an epicentre of Coronavirus to malign the Sikh community. This is a conspiracy… This is unacceptable as Sikh pilgrims have conducted themselves most responsibly and were absolutely fine while they were staying in the gurdwara. It is surprising that many of them have tested positive on their return to Punjab. This, in fact, leads us to even question the veracity of the coronavirus tests,” he had said.
Return of Sikh pilgrims also damaged the genuine government awareness drive against Covid-19 as a section of the community saw it as an alleged conspiracy to defame minorities.
Covid-19 positive Sikh pilgrims remained mostly asymptomatic and went to their villages after recovering. It further created a wrong perception in masses that Covid-19 was a “hoax”. The rumours related to this proved to be a big dent to government messaging.
Farm bills and Covid-19
At the time when people started dismissing Covid-19 as some sort of a hoax aided by social media forwards, the Union government’s move to issue the ordinance over three farm laws in first week of June further added to the air of scepticism.
Farmer unions told people that Covid-19 was just an excuse to not allow protest against the farm bills. Unions claimed that Covid-19 and farm bills were a conspiracy to allow big MNCs to capture agriculture land. It was the time when people had already started questioning government over Covid-19 not only due to wrong perceptions but also alleged poor health facilities. Farmer unions used this distrust for Punjab government against Centre to convince that people that fight against agri laws should take precedence over any pandemic regulations.
Though the Congress government in Punjab was opposing farm bills, however, it did not succeed in presenting the fight against farm bills and Covid-19 as different equally important battles.
Farmer unions’ conspiracy theory hit home with common masses despite the campaign run by state and central governments to spread awareness over Covid-19 and farm bills separately.
Initially, Punjab Police also booked some farmer activists for flouting Covid-19 norms to protest against farm bills. However, it only fuelled the anger and slowly protest became a norm in Punjab when world was fighting Covid-19.
Soon after political parties including ruling Congress in Punjab also organised such public gatherings.
The big gathering of rural crowd also made urban population to question Covid-19 protocols and slowly both came together to oppose farm laws.
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