Alowering of guard in the run up to and during Onam celebrations in Kerala is being seen as a factor that has driven a surge of Covid-19 cases in the coastal state at a time when most parts of the country are reporting a downward trend of new infections. Now, as the festival season is set to unfold across India, authorities are urging that all precautions should be continued with to avoid a fresh surge of cases.
WHAT HAS THE CENTRE SAID?
In a letter to the chief secretaries of all the states on August 28, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla noted that “the overall pandemic situation at the national level now appears to be largely stable, except for the localised spread of virus in few states”........
The daily count has ranged between 30,000-40,000 cases cumulatively for India since the middle of July, breaching the 40,000-mark on a few occasions. On August 25, the country’s Covid count of more than 46,000 cases (seven-day rolling average) was the first time in close to two weeks that daily numbers had gone above the 40,000 threshold. In fact, reports said that it was the first time since July 7, that the daily case count had gone past the 45,000 mark. With more than 31,000 cases, Kerala accounted for close to 68 per cent of the new cases recorded on August 25.
The blame for the state’s rising case numbers has been laid on the Onam festivities, which saw crowding in markets and at public spaces amid laxness in the observance of social distancing and other Covid-safety protocols.
In the wake of the Kerala surge and with the rest of the country heading into the 2021 festival season, the Union Home Secretary said that states are being “advised to take suitable measures to avoid large gatherings during the coming festive season and if required, impose local restrictions with a view to curb such large gatherings”.
“In all crowded places, Covid appropriate behaviour should be strictly enforced. We need to continue focus on the five-fold strategy i.e. Test-Track-Treat-Vaccination and adherence to Covid appropriate behaviour, for effective management of Covid-19,” Bhalla said in the letter, which also stated that Covid guidelines have now been extended till September 30.
WHAT ARE STATE GOVTS DOING?
The festivities in Kerala for Onam, which was celebrated on August 21, may have sent cases zooming at a time when the state was already en route to normalisation with more sectors allowed to unlock. Reports say that the jump in Covid numbers was predicted by experts with the Indian Medical Association saying that even one extra social visit by a family for the Onam festival could accelerate the spread of the disease.
Kerala’s experience would have made other states wary about the impact of festivals on Covid, especially at a time when experts have warned about India being hit by a third wave. The Union Home Secretary had noted that there is “a downward trend in enforcement” and asked states “to augment their enforcement efforts for effectively checking transmission of the disease”.
Maharashtra has for the second straight year banned the iconic Dahi handi celebrations for Janmashtami, which falls on August 30. Further, for next month’s Ganesh Chaturthi, one of the biggest festivals in the state, the state government has again issued guidelines to ensure that the festival will be celebrated in a low-key manner. For example, organisers have been asked to restrict the height of public Ganesh idols to 4 feet and said that pandals will only be allowed if they conform to Covid-19. To prevent overcrowding, the state government has recommended virtual darshan via TV and online platforms. Also, elaborate and packed processions for immersion of idols have been banned.
The West Bengal government had last year issued detailed instructions for Durga Puja celebrations, which are held with great fanfare across the state and in capital Kolkata, practically banning entry of the public into pandals. This year, several puja organisers, including ministers in the ruling Trinamool Congress, have said that celebrations will be much toned down in light of the Covid crisis.
WHAT HAD HAPPENED LAST YEAR?
While last year’s festival season was muted, there were also no vaccines then and a far lower proportion of the population had been infected by the novel coronavirus. The big ticket Dussehra and Diwali celebrations in 2020 had come in October and November, respectively, right after the first wave of cases in India had started subsiding. The peak of cases in the first wave had come in the middle of September, when the daily count had hovered around the 1-lakh mark. There was a sure decline by the middle of October, but authorities and people were still wary about going all out with festivities.
Cases had maintained a downward run till March and that had seen officials and the public alike drop their guard, only for the second wave to hit at the end of March. Peak daily cases in the second wave would breach the 4 lakh-mark while reports of health infrastructure buckling due to overcrowding at hospitals and the shortage of resources like oxygen showed how a premature dropping of precautions against the virus could lead to a sudden and dramatic worsening of the situation.
The holding of state elections and the green light to the Kumbh event in Haridwar were seen as ‘super-spreader’ events that had contributed to the surge.
WHAT IS DIFFERENT THIS YEAR?
Results of the fourth round of an all-India serological survey — which measures Covid-19 antibodies in the blood of respondents — done by the Indian Council of Medical Research has suggested that two out of every three Indians have contracted Covid-19 and recovered from the disease.
Compare that with the second sero survey, launched in August last year, that had showed a positivity rate of 6.6 per cent. The third survey, between December 2020 and January this year, found that more than a fifth of the people tested had contracted and recovered from Covid-19.
Warning against violating Covid norms during last year’s festival season, the then Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan had said “we are far from having achieved any kind of herd immunity, which necessitates that all of us should continue following Covid-appropriate behaviour”. While the latest sero survey numbers show that India may be in the herd immunity zone, the potential of the novel coronavirus to mutate to become more infectious and dodge vaccines means that experts are insisting that all precautions be maintained.
WHO Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan recently said that India may be entering a stage of endemicity with the virus, meaning that Covid-19 will continue to exist in the population but will not cause massive surges and severe symptoms. She had said that “it is very very feasible that the situation may continue like this with ups and downs in different parts of the country, particularly where there are more susceptible population, so those groups who were perhaps less affected by first and second waves or those areas with low levels of vaccine coverage, we could see peaks and troughs for the next several months”.
Thus, while the vaccination drive continues apace — the Centre has said that more than 50 per cent of the eligible population in India has received at least one dose of a vaccine — it is anticipated that fresh surges may yet occur. Which is why authorities would be against taking any chances during the festive season and are urging that all precautions be maintained.