Season of festivals

Reopening Drama

By Dr S. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

West Bengal High Court has directed the State Government to treat all Durga Puja pandals as “no-entry zones”. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has also urged devotees to watch pujas “virtually”. In the present stage of combining locking and unlocking normal life in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic, temple festivals have emerged as a big issue.
In Maharashtra, a war of words has broken out between the Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari over re-opening temples in this festival season when decision has been taken to re-open markets and shops, restaurants and hotels, liquor shops and bars, and theatres and entertainment parks. It is reported in the press that Koshyari, in his letter to the Thackeray forwarding representations to reopen temples that were closed during lockdown asked him if he, a “votary of Hindutva” had “turned secular”. Opinions differ on this question.
“No religion or God says that you have to celebrate in an ostentatious way, that you have to visit pandals, temples, and mosques to pray”, said Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan and called for extra vigil with reference to the uproar in Maharashtra over keeping temples shut. He warned that the country may head for “big trouble” if precautionary guidelines to prevent spread of COVID -19 are not followed.
The pandemic has released a political drama in the phase of relaxation of lockdown restrictions – a development not witnessed in the phase of clamping lockdown. All States are contributing to this re-opening tamasha ignoring the continuing seriousness of the pandemic. Currently, we are undergoing economic compulsions to resume our usual activities while continuing our fight against the pandemic.
When and how a country should “unlock” are best known to concerned nations. WHO has warned all countries against premature lifting of lockdown as it would spark resurgence and cause “even more severe, longer-term damage to the economy than what exists as a result of lockdowns”. It has now cautioned against any relaxation of response actions as festival season and winter would only aggravate the situation.
Cumulative COVID-19 positivity rate in India is below 8% now. But, Kerala, where unlocking started earlier than in other States, has seen sudden increase in cases drawing nation’s attention to the danger of early relaxation of lockdown.
Harsh Vardhan has said that certain districts in some States are also witnessing community transmission in densely populated localities. Avoiding large gatherings has become the standard instruction to all, but the first to be broken.
Second wave of COVID-19 is turning out to be more destructive in Europe with top five countries in terms of total cases – Russia, Spain, France, UK, and Italy – reporting record number of new cases every day in the last one month. Some have even re-imposed lockdown and shutdown.
Pandemic has divided country’s population into two groups – one comprising the over-cautious and health conscious people, and the other including opposite types and the economically poorer who cannot afford the precautions.
Less informed citizens are eagerly awaiting unlock instructions which to them mean first and foremost more freedom of movement. No permanent lesson seems to have been absorbed by people on personal and domestic hygienic practices or on social behaviour in groups or congregations.
Unlocking temples is as much a technical question as lockdown to be decided by knowledgeable persons on the basis of data on the prevalence of the disease and certain scientific calculations regarding risk involved in unlocking. It cannot be decided by secular-communal standpoints or political pressures and popular demand or made an election issue. Temple lockdown is no insult to gods and goddesses.
“Until a vaccine against COVID-19 becomes available, it is essential that people follow safety precautions when they are outdoors and avoid crowded places for Deepavali shopping” – a typical advice from health secretaries and medical personnel who have to deal with certain inevitable consequences of lifting lockdown in the festival season is on test. Such an advice should not be necessary for people with normal intelligence and with a certain sense of responsibility. Precautions in public places are not much expensive but require understanding of the situation and will to follow directives. A massive awareness campaign calling for use of masks, maintaining safe distance, and washing hands at regular intervals to sensitize people over the dangers of the epidemic is being launched by the government.
Crowded markets remain a concern for authorities because of flagrant violation of social restrictions. Collecting fines from violators has proved to be no solution. This was seen in Koyambedu wholesale market in Chennai which was for some time shifted elsewhere as the place became COVID-19 hotspot. Its reopening is greeted within a day with 50 new cases among traders of the market. Traders’ association is rather keen on downplaying the risk.
The scene is repeated across India in all major markets in all cities and towns and in fairs and mandis in villages. They are spontaneous crowds going on their business or enjoying the liberty of unlocking phase. Festival shoppers crowd market areas with little space to breathe posing health risk to themselves, and other shoppers, shop employees, and people residing in the area. Pictures of crowding at re-opening nullifies the effect of lockdown observed for months.
The country faces the difficult problem of balancing health protection, economic safety, and social cooperation for various restrictions. The need to protect jobs and livelihoods lost or curtailed under lockdown with the need to prevent the resurgence of the epidemic with renewed vigor is faced in all countries.
On the whole, India seems to have done well in educating people on the need for limited activities and adopting alternatives to their routines, but groupism, political enmities, and communal hatred are encouraged to distract attention from fighting the common enemy of all in the Coronavirus.
Unlock strategies are different in different countries and even between States within a country. They are based on certain parameters of the pandemic and of the state of the economy. Most important is said to be Ro – the basic reproduction number which represents the magnitude of the epidemic in a place. Ro shows the number of social infections caused by an infected person during his/her infection period. If the number is more than one, the person may infect more than one on average which may increase escalation of the virus. This has happened in the case of COVID-19 pandemic. Ro has to be brought to less than one to contain the disease.
Unlock steps must invariably follow the pulse of the economy and society and cannot be taken on the basis of demands and pressures or notions of comparative or equal rights. It is a technical matter to be decided by medical experts and administrators taking into consideration all possible outcome of unlocking and cannot be decided as an emotional issue.
In case unlocking fails and necessitates re-imposition of lockdown, people’s resentment is likely to grow more and make lockdown a failure. The situation is complicated due to lack of the spirit of cooperation among people often fanned by social-political differences, even during a national health emergency. Unity should not be difficult to find as a vaccine to prevent Coronavirus.— INFA