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Monday, June 14, 2021

A health warning

Intensification of farmers’ protest carries risk of aggravating pandemic. Leaders of movement must heed this message.

By: Editorial |
Updated: May 25, 2021 7:54:12 am
The farmers began camping in the outskirts of Delhi when the first wave of the pandemic was past its peak.

The fight against the second wave of the pandemic has reached a critical stage. There are signs of the outbreak abating, in parts of the country including the National Capital Region and its neighbourhood. But since the pathogen is known to change trajectory, experts have rightly urged people to remain vigilant and avoid large gatherings that could turn into super spreader events. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the umbrella body of farmers’ unions, which is planning mobilisations to mark six months of the agitation against the Centre’s farm laws, must urgently heed this public health message. The SKM has announced “an intensification of struggle in the next phase, beginning with a national day of protest on May 26”. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it admits to “being deeply conscious of the risks of the pandemic”. But the risk of exposure to the contagion hasn’t yet made the outfit review its plans. That convoys of farmers have reportedly set off from Punjab and Haryana amid the still raging public health emergency is a matter of grave concern.

The farmers began camping in the outskirts of Delhi when the first wave of the pandemic was past its peak. They upped the ante in the next four months and did not backtrack even after the virus returned with a vengeance. By the Morcha’s own admission, some 470 farmers have lost their lives — it is not clear how many of those deaths were due to Covid. Any swelling of the ranks of the protesters now carries the risk of aggravating the health crisis, especially with the virus mutating into a more infectious variant. The agitating farmers risk harming not just themselves but carrying the contagion back to their villages and risking the lives of their family members, friends, neighbours and co-workers. This could present another set of challenges for the overworked doctors, nurses, healthcare professionals and testing and contact tracing teams.

In their letter to the PM, the Morcha leaders demanded that the government improve medical facilities and increase the pace of vaccination. There is no doubt that this must be done on a war footing. But an adversary like the novel coronavirus must be fought on several fronts. It’s incumbent on all to adopt the safety-first approach — whether it be the citizen, the government, or those who mobilise mass gatherings like organisers of the Tablighi Jamaat meet last year, or of the Kumbh Mela, or the leaders of the farmers’ protest. Leaders of Opposition parties may have legitimate political reasons to add their voice to the SKM agitation, but in this moment, they must also recognise the serious health challenge. In the past, the peaceful protest has drawn the admiration of even those who may not agree with its cause — after the January 26 violence, it also showed a commendable capacity for self-correction. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has pleaded with the farmer leaders not to go ahead with their agitation. The SKM should act on the public health warning.

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