Covid-19 & Religious Gatherings: Strange Bedfellows

At the very outset, it is in good order to congratulate Mr Pushkar Dhami, the new Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, for his bold and rational decision of banning this year’s kaanwar yaatra due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Thanks to his foresightedness that other states like UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Delhi immediately followed him by banning Kanwar yatra. His was a wise decision of significant bearing for reasons galore.

First things first: millions of religious-minded people undertake Kaanwar yaatra to fetch sacred water from the Ganga at pilgrimage centres such as Haridwar, Gaumukh, and Gangotri in Uttarakhand and Sultanganj in Bihar. These Yatris (pilgrims) could obviously become the potential super-spreaders of the coronavirus across the country.

At least that’s what the past incidents warn us: at the beginning of the first wave in early March 2020, of about 4400 covid-19 positive cases in India, nearly a third were said to be related to the religious gathering at the Markaz, the Jammat headquarters in Delhi. Government reports indicate that more than 8000 people from across the country—including people from foreign countries that were known to be hotspot nations for Covid-19—visited the Markaz.

None of them were screened for the disease till the lockdown was announced on March 25. It was a chance encounter of Tamilanadu officials with the Thailand national at Coimbatore airport that triggered a search for people who visited Markaz and their contacts to screen for coronavirus. Being alerted by this incident, the panic-gripped States launched a massive search to identify all those who had visited Markaz and their contacts to quarantine them across as many as 15 Indian states so that at least further spreading could be arrested.

The whole episode raised serious questions about lack of alertness and transparency on the part of Central Government. It is worth recalling here what a silent observer of the whole episode said: “The governments have to demonstrate greater rationality than religious people”, for it commends that government cannot afford to satisfy religious demands at the cost of rationality and the overall safety of people.

Then came the second wave like a wild fire, overwhelming the health care system in the country. It was the Kumbhamela gatherings and the massive election rallies in five states besides, of course, peoples’ indifference towards covid-19 appropriate behaviour that were identified as the underlying causes for the deadly second wave. Bad policy decisions, poor surveillance and ignoring early warnings are also cited by experts as other reasons. There were frantic calls for hospital beds, medicines, oxygen, essential drugs and tests. The mayhem caused by the second wave is well summarised in the words of a surgeon of an effected district in Maharashtra “… What is worrying is that entire families are getting infected. This is a completely new trend”.

There appears to be yet another reason for emergence of deadly second wave: the report authored by Abhishek Anand, Justin Sandefur and Aravind Subramanian (former Economic Adviser to Government of India) states that the first wave “was also more lethal than is widely believed” and it is India’s inability to perceive the “scale of tragedy in real time” during the first wave that might have caused “the collective complacency that led to the horrors of the second wave”. Based on extrapolation of state-level civic registration from seven states, the report also opines that the Covid- related deaths in India might exceed the official figure by 3.4 mn. Although estimating Covid-deaths with statistical confidence may sound elusive, they need to be factored into future programmes that are meant for handling the pandemic.

Experts now opine that at the national level, the second wave is waning. But the heterogeneity at the local level, makes one wonder if India-wide trend of a sharp decline in active cases is now sustainable or not. Because of these variations, some experts are wondering if states like Kerala, Maharashtra and Delhi with R number hovering around 1 serve as a bellwether for the third wave.

That aside, the recent sero-survey report of ICMR reveals that one out of three Indians are vulnerable for Covid-19 attack, which means the overall vulnerability for the nation still remains very high. The important takeaway from these surveys are: Covid-appropriate behaviour is still the key defence against the pandemic, non-essential travel should be avoided, third-wave cannot be ruled-out, there being no difference between sero-prevalence in urban and rural areas, villages and cities are equally at risk, and there is no evidence to rule out reinfections and breakthrough infections.

Over it, as long as the virus circulates, it has the opportunity to further evolve — spinning off more transmissible variants. The IMA President, Dr Jayesh Lele, wrote a letter to government stating that “It is painful to note that in this crucial time [when] everyone needs to work for the mitigation of the third wave, in many parts of the country both government and public are complacent and engaged in mass gatherings without following Covid protocols”. It is this kind of human behaviour that aids virus circulation and even emergence of deadly variants.

All this cumulatively vindicates the significance of the banning Kanwar Yatra by the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand. This being the reality, we the citizens must understand: The Pandemic is not over. Let us not become part of the spread of coronavirus by wearing a mask indoors in public places, especially crowded places, and physical distancing. This commitment to public health adherence is all the more important in India, for 40% of our population is below the age of 17 which is not eligible for vaccination.

Simultaneously, government agencies are required to revitalise their genomic surveillance program so that we may have a better understanding about the properties of the variants, their clinical manifestations, diagnostic tests needed and treatment — simply put to better our containment measures. To conclude, let me quote what Dr C Lahariya advised: “…[if] people don’t follow Covid safety protocols, we only help virus spread faster”, which “will largely determine the fate of next wave”.


More by :  Gollamudi Radha Krishna Murty

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