The sight of crowds swelling on the streets of Bengal and Kolkata since the inauguration of the Durga Puja festival on Monday – the auspicious occasion of Sasthi according to the Hindu almanac – has panicked doctors with many fearing a rapid surge in Covid-19 cases in the coming weeks.
As many as 36,946 community Durga pujas are organised in Bengal. Of these, around 2500 are held in Kolkata.
HT talked to senior doctors and experts who said they were shocked to see people being taken over by a false sense of immunity, apparently arising out of the decline in active Covid-19 cases in the state since August coupled with mass vaccination.
“If the coronavirus is appearing to be under control right now then it is because of the character of viruses and natural history of diseases they spread, not because of medicines and vaccines. The virus is now coexisting with us. It is herd immunity that has brought down the intensity of the transmission. This mass violation of health protocols can trigger a fresh outbreak. I am surprised to see nobody is speaking up,” veteran virologist Dr Amitava Nandy told HT on Tuesday evening.
“The virus is being carried even by those who are vaccinated. They can become spreaders. Of the patients who came to my clinic with fever and symptoms of Covid-19 in recent weeks, around 40% were fully vaccinated. I know of many people who died after vaccination,” Dr Nandy added.
While hearing a public interest litigation demanding restriction on the festivities, the Calcutta high court on October 8 ordered that no more than 15 people can enter small pandals to perform puja provided they have received both the doses of Covid-19 vaccine and are wearing masks. For big pandals, the number is restricted to 30.
The court also said that no-entry zones have to be marked for common people around five metres of small pandals and 10 metres of the big ones. These do’s and don’ts were laid down by the high court last year when a similar petition was filed.
Relaxing some restrictions imposed in 2020, the bench allowed rituals such as anjali (mass recitation of holy scripts before the deity).
Even before the four-day puja began on Tuesday, millions of people thronged puja pandals in the state capital and district towns, ignoring social distancing norms, doctors said. A large section of revellers, including children, could be spotted without masks.
In sharp contrast to last October, when the rate of infection was peaking, the crowds were alarmingly large, doctors pointed out.
When the festival began on October 22 last year, 4157 new cases were recorded and 64 patients died on a single day, according to data provided by the West Bengal health department. Of these, 874 cases and 16 deaths were reported in Kolkata.
A year on, the picture is quite different. The number of new cases recorded in Bengal between October 9 and 11 ranged between 597 and 755 respectively, while deaths per day did not cross 15. On Monday, for example, 145 new cases and only one death were reported in Kolkata.
As many as 64.3 million of Bengal’s 101.9 million people were vaccinated till October 11. Of these people, 46.4 million have received their first dose while 17.9 million got both the shots, as per the official records.
Several forums of Bengal-based doctors have warned people against an imminent danger if health protocols are ignored. The state government has issued warnings although hotels and restaurants have been permitted to operate beyond 10 pm for 10 days. Vehicles have also been allowed to ply at night although local train services are still suspended.
The Joint Platform of Doctors, a forum of five organisations, has issued a statement saying Kerala witnessed a surge after the Onam festival and Bengal recorded a rise in infection rate when assembly polls were held in eight phases in April-May.
“The court has imposed restriction on entry into pandals and people will be forced to follow it. It is crowding on the streets that we are worried about. People neither wore masks nor maintained social distance during shopping for puja. If this continues, we will be thrown back to where we stood in March-April,” the statement said.
“The large turnouts have not gone unnoticed. Community puja organisers are following the court orders. Policemen and volunteers are warning people and persuading them to put on masks,” an officer from the south division of the Kolkata Police, who has been on duty since Monday night, said on condition of anonymity.
Some health experts feel that if there is a fresh outbreak then mass behaviour will be responsible for it.
“What can the government and police do when people are not conscious even after so many families have dissipated? Health protocols in a pandemic situation cannot be enforced without mass participation. Experts can only give advice,” Dr Kalyan Kar, head of surgery at a well-known private hospital in Kolkata, told HT.
Dr Nandy said as a Hindu he was anguished to see a religious ceremony being reduced to revelry in which rules can be broken at random. “Many doctors do not raise their voice because they do not want to antagonize political parties,” he said.
Since chief minister Mamata Banerjee, a patron of the festival, is also in charge of the health department, Trinamool Congress leaders did not want to comment on the record on the government’s decision to left certain restrictions.
Last year, the Calcutta high court ruled that the grant of ₹50,000 given by the state government to each of the 36,946 community clubs should not be spent on festivities. The money needs to be spent on masks, sanitisers and better community policing, the court ruled. This year, however, no separate guideline was set by the court.
“The government is keeping an eye on the situation. The police and civil administration have been asked to ensure that Covid protocols are maintained everywhere,” said a health department official who did not want to be quoted.