Given how some epidemiologists and other experts see a strong connection between super-spreader events/situations and the risk of Covid-19 contagion, the Calcutta High Court (HC) has done well to ban the entry of people into pandals in the state this Durga Puja. The High Court methodically struck down the contention of the state government that it would be able to ensure measures such as distancing, mask-wearing and use of sanitisers in the 3,000 pandals in Kolkata—and 31,000 in the rest of the state—given inadequate police and expected volunteer strength. The court also noted that though the guidelines that the state government and the police had drafted were “exemplary”, there was no blueprint on implementation. Against this ‘cup and the lip’ scenario, leaders of the ruling party talking about ‘Puja as normal’—chief minister Mamata Banerjee, while exhorting people to maintain Covid-19 avoidance protocols, had said that “the goddess had a large family” and Puja can’t happen within the confines of the four walls—would have ensured the festival would have become a super-spreader event.
The additional restriction, no-entry barricades 10 metres around large pandals and 5 metres around smaller ones, also makes sense if it deters crowds from thronging the pandal periphery. But, the need is to first ascertain that this won’t obstruct the normal flow of traffic, causing the very crowding it was supposed to prevent. Allowing entry to only listed organisers and priests, etc, will make both monitoring and contact tracing, in case infection is reported later, easier.
The Calcutta HC order, indeed, can form the template of observing of festivals till the time the Covid-19 situation in the country is successfully brought under control. Several studies and data-analyses underline the super-spreader role of community gatherings, especially indoors—a London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine analysis of data from 1,500 super-spreader events show that the overwhelming majority of these were indoor events; pandals, with their covered, poorly ventilated structures, could be considered ‘indoor’ venues. This is not to say that there is no threat from congregating outdoors. As the post-Ganesh Chaturthi spurt in infections in Maharashtra—the festival is a largely a pandal-outdoors mix one, like Durga Puja—and the Onam-related one in Kerala show, festivals observed as a community carry serious transmission risks. Despite muted celebrations, daily infections in Mumbai rose at 1.21% between September 3 and 17 (the fortnight following Ganesh Chaturthi) compared to 0.87% daily in the fortnight to September 3 (this year, the festival was observed from August 22 to September2). This was similar to the highs reached in July, immediately after the graded ‘unlocking’ began. For Maharashtra, the corresponding comparison was 2.2% versus 1.9%. Similarly, a joint study by IIT-Hyderabad and IIT-Kanpur, shows that, after Onam, infection probability in the state shot up to 32%, after months of having remained under control. There is considerable anecdotal—schools in Israel and the US—and research evidence cautioning against congregating, especially in contexts where distancing etc are not possible. States like Gujarat, where the government has banned community garba during the navratris but has strangely allowed community prayers and other events, need to take a cue from the Calcutta High Court order.
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