Sunday, Dec 10, 2023

Omicron Scare | Will Gangasagar Mela In Bengal Be A 'Kumbh' Deja Vu?

Omicron Scare | Will Gangasagar Mela In Bengal Be A 'Kumbh' Deja Vu?

During the second wave, Kumbh Mela was called a 'super-spreader event'. Cut to 2022, will Gangasagar Mela be a mistake the country has been trying to evade?

Devotees taking a holy dip at the Gangasagar Mela in 2021. PTI

With daily Covid-19 cases crossing 6,000 in West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is yet to take a decision that may curtail the Ganagasagar Mela, scheduled on January 14 and January 15. The Mela, which is one of the biggest religious confluences of the east, attracts lakhs of people taking a dip in the Ganges, in Sagardwip, South 24 Paraganas.

As India records more than 30,000 daily coronavirus cases, Gangasagar Mela has now become the centre of intense debate.

Amid fresh restrictions being imposed in the state, the event is arousing fear among people, as various state governments grapple to curb the spread of the highly infectious Omicron strain.

Speaking to a local newspaper, West Bengal Chief Secretary Harikrishna Dwivedi said that they were working out the details, on how to hold the fair while maintaining health protocols.

During her recent visit to the Mela grounds, Banerjee held an administrative meeting to review the covid situation as lakhs of pilgrims are scheduled to throng to the Sagar Island in the coming week.

When asked, if the government is planning to cancel the event, Banerjee said, “This is not a government festival, it is a public event. People come from different parts of the country. How will I stop people who come from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar?”

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The event could be a scary Kumbh Mela deja vu. No lessons learnt?

"Were there any restrictions imposed during Kumbh Mela (during Covid-19)?" said Banerjee, refusing to impose any strict restrictions on the holy confluence. Drawing a parallel with Kumbh, she had earlier said, "Gangasagar Mela will not be called off".  

When India was facing the brunt of the deadly second wave, that took millions of lives, lakhs of pilgrims gathered on the shores of the Ganges in the Himalayan town of Haridwar to celebrate that the illustrious Kumbh Mela in 2021. The festival was observed at a time when India surpassed Brazil to become the second-worst hit country.

Following the event, over 2,000 people were reported to have tested positive, including dozens of eminent seers. With the event drawing to an end, and amid growing fears that Kumbh returnees could infect others as hospitals were running out of beds, state governments made a 14-day mandatory quarantine for people who had taken part in the festival. In the past fortnight, headlines were all about Kumbh returnees testing positive.

Vindicating the event, the then Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat, who had earlier said that “faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus”, was among the several devotees who were seen participating in the event, while tossing the Covid guidelines.

That was back in 2021 when Kumbh Mela was widely called a “super-spreader event”. Cut to 2022, when the looming third wave is once again creating growing angst of history repeating itself, Mamata Banerjee seems to rerun the mistakes the country has been trying to evade to save lives.

The concern of vote bank policy leading to the reluctance to call off the event, surprisingly, outweighs the cost of several lives. And once more, with the outbreak of the Covid crisis, there will be an outbreak of disruptive political blame game, where leaders and policymakers refuse to own up to the erroneous decisions they have taken while commoners continue to suffer and die.

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Doctor appeals to call off Gangasagar Mela

The Calcutta High Court is scheduled to hear a PIL on January 5 for cancelling the Gangasagar Mela. The PIL was filed by Abhinandan Mondal, a doctor by profession, on Monday in view of the prolific rise of coronavirus cases in the state.

West Bengal on Monday reported more than 6,000 Covid-19 cases, a sharp rise from 500 on December 27, 2021.

Covid guidelines to be followed in Gangasagar Mela. Does it help? 

The Mamata government has put new measures in place ahead of the mass gathering at the religious confluence.

As per the new restrictions, there will be e-snan and online registration for those who cannot take part in the physical event. The South 24 Parganas administration will be hiring drones to sprinkle the holy water and there will be covid test centres at all the entry points of Sagar Island. All the pilgrims will be screened and four dedicated Covid hospitals have been set up to handle possible cases. These hospitals have a capacity of 500 beds, reports Indian Express.

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As many as seven quarantine centres will be set up for people who would come in direct contact with Covid patients during the Mela. These centres will have 435 beds. Separate pilgrim sheds are also being set up, the report adds.

A dedicated rapid response team will be posted at the Mela to handle any emergency while specialist Medical Officers will be kept ready at the headquarters.

Besides air and water ambulances, the Mela will have separate ambulances for Covid and non-Covid patients respectively. Dedicated cremation and burial grounds have been set aside for the safe disposal of bodies.

However, the several restrictions fail to curb the panic among experts and politicians, who fear that the following weeks will see Covid cases shooting sky-high in the state.  Shouldn't the government be dedicating time to managing the Covid situation rather than organising festivals, and creating another 'super-spreader'?  

The Mela comes at a time when Kolkata saw a large crowd in Park Street on Christmas creating panic among healthcare and frontline workers, as they urge citizens to stay at home in the wake of the rapid spreading Omicron variant causing the third wave in India.