How 23 People Contracted COVID-19 from Punjab’s First Fatality

"When 70-year-old Harman Dev Singh* (*name changed) came to us he did not reveal his travel history. He was extremely uncooperative. We kept asking, as his symptoms were in line with COVID-19, but he hid vital information from us for a good hour," Dr Sagun Sood Patel told The Quint, from the administration wing of Patel hospital where Dev was taken to hours before he died.

Out of the 33 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Punjab (as of 26 March) 23 contracted the virus after they came in contact with the 70-year-old granthi (priest), confirmed by Punjab's health authorities. These include 14 family members, three members of extended family, two aides including the local head of the gurudwara that Dev was a granthi at, two close contacts, the sarpanch of the village and his mother.

The Quint spoke to doctors where Dev went as well as the residents of his village, called Pathwala in Nawanshahr district, renamed Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar, which has been on lockdown since the news, to trace the unusual case of how one person could spread the disease to not one or two, but 23 others.

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How Pathwala village looks under the lockdown since the afternoon of 19 March, this is three days before PM Modi announced a national lockdown.

In our investigation, we found out who Dev was, how what he did had a big role in explaining the spread of the disease, why he was in Italy and how despite visiting two hospitals he became the source for 23 others being tested positive for Covid-19.

Who Was Dev?

Dev, a seventy-year-old man, lived his entire life in Pathwala village which has a population of about 3,000 people who mostly engage in agriculture. He lived with a big family which includes three sons, two daughters and three grand children.

He was a priest, a granthi, who spent almost his entire day at the local gurudwara called Sant Baba Ghanaiya Singh Ji Pathlawa, named after Baba Kanhaiya, who was a disciple of Guru Tegh Bahadur. It is safe to say that his life revolved around the gurudwara interspersed with travels to partake in religious congregations.

This is the Sant Baba Ghanaiya Singh Ji Pathlawa gurudwara in the village where the 70-year-old used to read the Guru Granth Sahib in.

Locals tell us that Dev had travelled to other countries for religious congregations, including Canada and US, but it was the first time he had gone to Germany after being invited by the Sikh community.

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'Dev Returned & Attended a Festival Attended by Lakhs'

Dev returned from the trip on 7 March. His symptoms started developing about seven to eight days after he returned. It was during these days that he attended the Holla Mohalla annual festival. It is celebrated around Holi in Anandpur Sahib, 55 kilometers from Pathlawa, where they exhibit their abilities to combat, engage in martial arts, use the bow and arrow, ride horses and other activities etc. "He stayed there for about three days and then returned to his village on 10 March," his neighbours, who did not want to be named, told us.

In the Holla Mohalla festival, lakhs of Sikhs participate to exhibit their abilities to combat, engage in martial arts, use the bow and arrow, ride horses and other activities.

The event was not cancelled by the Congress-led government in Punjab despite the fear of the spread of the deadly disease. Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh had only suggested that the festival could be celebrated by paying obeisance in various gurudwaras in small numbers.

But despite his suggestion, lakhs showed up. The administration said they made elaborate arrangements for the event of 8 March. About 2,800 police personnel and 51 senior officials were entrusted with the task of monitoring the law and order situation. Civil Surgeon Dr HN Sharma said 14 medical centres were set up to keep tabs on people suffering from cough and cold.

Despite best intentions, the administration could not track Dev's symptoms at the festival. While Dev returned, the head of the gurudwara, who was later tested positive as well, stayed on for six more days, indicating the possible spread in the scale of infection.

Martial arts of the Sikhs are exhibited during this day. Despite the threat of the spread of Covid-19, lakhs participated in the event.

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'He Tried to Hide Travel History'

It was only on 17 March that he finally went to Patel Multi Super Speciality Hospital in Jalandhar with symptoms of Covid-19.

"The patient was not co-operating from the beginning. We kept asking him about his travel history as his symptoms included coughing and breathlessness, and we had received strict instructions from the civil hospital, but he hid his travel history from us. It was only around 12 midnight, an hour later, that the four people who had accompanied him said that he had travelled to Germany and Italy. We asked him to get admitted but they began to panic. He refused to get admitted at our hospital. We asked them to go straight to the Jalandhar civil hospital and ourselves informed the authorities too, but we got to know that they never went there," Dr Sagun Sood Patel from the administration wing told The Quint.

Six hours later Dev had died at Banga civil hospital.

This is the hospital in Banga where Dev breathed his last. He arrived at this hospital, which is about 9 kilometers from Pathlawa village.

Dr Kavita Bhatia, senior medical officer of the civil hospital, said. "They came to our hospital at 6:15 am on 18 March morning and was declared dead by 6:40 am. He came in a state of a heart attack so there really was not much chance of his survival. During the examination his family told us that they never went to the Jalandhar civil hospital. We also learnt that he came from Italy, he had a layover there for 2 hours while returning from Germany. Once he became a coronavirus suspect we thought it important to test him. 19 March his results were out and he tested positive.”

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'Dev Lost His Wife Earlier This Year'

Earlier this year, while coronavirus deaths were surging across the world, the family suffered a huge loss when they lost their mother.

"Harman Dev Singh* lost his wife in February earlier this year and left after on 18 February to Germany for two weeks with the head saint of the local gurudwara. This is not his fault. It is not the fault of his family either. People need to stop attacking him for god's sake, he is dead," sarpanch of Punjab's Pathwala village in Nawanshahr district, Harpal Singh, came out in his defence – but he is not the only one. He spoke to The Quint from the district hospital where he has been placed under quarantine after being tested positive for COVID-19 himself.

It was at a religious meet at the sarpanch's home where he came in contact with Dev and thinks that’s how his mother and he contracted the disease. Singh tells us that Dev didn't talk much, was soft-spoken and was a pious man. "He was a respected person in the village and was close to the head saint of the gurudwara as well."

A visual from Raman Kumar’s terrace in Pathlawa village. He and his family has been in quarantine since 19 March.

"On 7 February, Dev's wife died. It's more tragic that she died the same day that their daughter was married off. She died hours after the wedding ceremony, the pheras, of their daughter had ended," Singh said adding that the family was still grieving their loss when Dev left for Germany.

Other than Singh, Raman Kumar and Jaskaran Singh, who both own shops in the village, said Singh was a good man. Raman said, "He never created trouble for anyone. One would see him at the hospital. Harmless and old, there was nothing about him that was threatening. It is a shock to us that our village has been shut down because of this. He should not be blamed," Kumar said.

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What Happened in Pathwala Village?

While more people come out in defence of Dev, feeling sorry for him and the loss of his family, The Quint found an extremely misleading Facebook post by the Sant Baba Ghanaiya Singh Ji Pathlawa from the night of 18 March. This is the same day Dev had died, hours before the reports confirmed that it was COVID-19.

In the post (screenshot attached) they said, “Don’t link Harman Dev Singh’s death with coronavirus. The blood report is yet to come.” So far so good. However the last line of the post reads, “You can come to gurudwara for darshan and please keep yourself safe.”

To tell people that the blood report is awaited is alright, but to go ahead and invite people to the gurudwara is irresponsible. The gurudwara which people are being asked to come and give darshan at, is where Dev would spend the better part of his day praying, even after he had returned from Germany.

Kumar, who owns a flour shop in the village and has lived there all his life, said, "Paranoid about how the locals were talking about Dev and the head priest of the gurudwara, everyone was constantly on the Facebook page for updates. The people who worked at the gurudwara were fearing they will be looked at as dirty and will be isolated. Which is why they put this post out. Some went while most were cautious." A day later, on 19 March, the blood reports were out and Dev had tested positive.

The worst fears of the villagers came true and all the rumours were put to rest.

The police came in and locked the village down the same afternoon. "We are not being allowed to go out. The police is standing at the entrance of the village. They come inside only for rounds once in a while but people are very scared themselves too. No one steps out and the village is a ghost town."

Provisions for food, milk and gas were made from that very day. "One has to go to the local panchayat and get everything at subsidised rates. All shops are shut, including mine."

Tracking Continues...

While shops maybe shut, testing is continuing in the village with 3,000-odd people.

While in Jalandhar's Patel hospital, where Dev had reluctantly revealed his travel history, five of the six medical staff who catered to him tested negative. The results of the sixth report is awaited. "But there are no symptoms so we are hoping she is also well," Dipender Patel from the hospital said. The Quint has learnt that the doctor who treated Dev at the civil hospital in Banga has also tested negative.

Ever since Dev tested positive, people continue to be tracked, quarantined and tested.

Dr Bhatia from the Banga hospital, where Dev died, said that they are trying hard to inspire confidence from the community and at the same time track those who may have been infected – an indication of how the number of people who may have contracted the virus could be more than 23.

A larger and more concerning signal of the health disaster that is awaiting Punjab is seen in the letter, dated 23 March, written by the state's home minister Balbir Singh Sidhu. In the letter written to India's health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, Sidhu says, "Punjab has the maximum number of NRIs in the country and this month only 90,000 of them have landed in the state. Many of them have symptoms of COVID-19 and are further spreading the disease through their contact/transmissions. The number of COVID-19 patients are going to raise alarmingly." He says, adding that the state will need additional funds of Rs 150 crore to defeat the disease.

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