Men beat the traditional drums to have organisers hire them to perform at Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata, 2018. Photo: Reuters.
Kolkata: For legions of Bengalis spread around the world, Devi Durga is Durgatinashini – the one who ends all suffering. But with only ten days to go for Durga Puja 2020 and India’s COVID-19 epidemic still at a high, experts warn that Bengal could experience an unprecedented public health disaster after the rituals if the strictest crowd-control and minimisation measures are not followed during the festival.
Durga Puja is the most important religious festival on the Bengali calendar, and is expected to happen from October 22 to 26 this year. To the uninitiated: The success of a barowari puja – a public ritual as opposed to a private one intended for a family – is defined by its ability to pull crowds. Lakhs of people descend on the streets on those days, in Kolkata as well as in every district, and move like waves in a vast sea of humanity from one pandal to the next. The number of visitors in the peak hours, generally between 6 pm and 11 pm, goes up to tens of thousands at a single pandal. Even if the attendance this year is 25% of the average, at pandals and on the streets, public health experts say the state could face a catastrophe.
On October 6, the Joint Forum of Doctors sent a strongly worded letter to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee warning against a “tsunami of COVID infections” after Durga Puja. The letter recalled how COVID-19 cases surged in Kerala after its Onam festival in September. Once lauded for its effective response to the epidemic, Kerala recorded the highest number of cases on a single day on October 7: 10,606.
“If we do not learn from these instances, and take precautionary measures to maintain health protocols … it can be suicidal,” the letter said. The West Bengal Doctors’ Forum and the Indian Medical Association have also commented on the state’s preparations for Durga Puja.
Preparations so far
The West Bengal government has issued a set of instructions for puja organisers this year, which CM Banerjee said had been endorsed by the state’s Global Advisory Council, headed by Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee. Perhaps the most important is that pandals this year will have to be open on at least three sides to allow for proper ventilation. The government has also prohibited the idol immersion carnival, a fixture of the festival, on Red Road. Masks and sanitisers are to be mandatory near every pandal. Clubs will have to deploy more volunteers to ensure physical distancing. And those conducting pujas have to secure permission from local officials online beforehand.
However, if a viral image from a popular footwear store in the city’s New Market area – choc-a-bloc with buyers – is anything to go by, it might be prudent to be wary.
Addressing puja organisers at a meeting in Kolkata on September 24, Banerjee announced a financial assistance of Rs 50,000 for each of the 37,000 puja committees across the state (for a total of Rs 185 crore). Civil society members have criticised this move in view of the state’s poor fiscal health. Then, in a bizarre moment, she added, “This year people can visit pandals from the night of Tritiya [at least two days earlier than normal] until the night of Ekadasi [one day later than normal]. We will put coronavirus in lockdown [sic] and hold Durga Puja. We are inviting everyone to join the festivities in open air.”
On Sunday, state chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhay addressed all district magistrates over video and asked them to increase the number of hospital beds and safe homes in every district.
Bengal’s COVID-19 numbers
However, Banerjee’s optimism is at odds with West Bengal’s COVID-19 response. On October 10, the state recorded its highest daily tally of new infections, at 3,591, plus 62 deaths. The number of daily new cases has remained steady around the 3,200 mark for a few weeks and then climbed upward – even as the national trend has been downward since September 19 or so.
The number of tests in the state has also remained stagnant for some weeks. According to data on the state government’s health portal, West Bengal had tested 47,537 samples on September 14 – but 42,441 on October 8, down 5,096 in about three weeks. As of October 11, the state government was conducting 40,567 tests per million population – far lower than the national average of 60,323.
(According to The Wire Science‘s COVID-19 Tracker, based on data collected by the Indian Council of Medical Research, or ICMR, from state health departments, West Bengal was conducting 32,712 tests per million population, with a test-positivity rate of 8%, as of October 3.)
In addition, almost all private hospitals in Kolkata and most of those located in other districts are near full occupancy. However, according to data uploaded daily to the health ministry website, state-run hospitals still have some vacancies. Times of India reported on October 11 that all major private hospitals along the E.M. Bypass Road – including AMRI, Peerless, Fortis, Medica, R.N. Tagore and Ruby Hospital – are running full.
Srijan Sengupta, an assistant professor of statistics at the University of North Carolina and a native of Kolkata, said that while the number of new infections in the state had ‘stabilised’ around the 3,200-3,500 per day mark, increased social contact before and during Durga Puja could lead to an Onam-like effect – that is, a small dip in the numbers during the festival followed by a steep rise after.
“During the 10-day Onam festival, the number of diagnosed cases actually dipped, possibly due to fewer people getting tested during the ongoing festivities,” Sengupta said. “However, over the five weeks after Onam, new infections skyrocketed to over 8,000 per day – a steep increase of 400% or more.”
He also cautioned that undetected infections during the Onam festival itself could have contributed to a “remarkable cascading effect” of new infections once revelries ended.
Puja and politics
The state is slated to go to the polls around May 2021. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise as the incumbent Trinamool Congress’s principal opposition, the polls are expected to be fought along communal lines. The BJP’s only chance of winning is by polarising the masses on the basis of religion and drawing Hindu votes in its favour.
In these circumstances, Banerjee will be unlikely to go tough on the state’s – if not the country’s – biggest Hindu festival, even if from a public health perspective it is in her best interests to do so. A big chunk of her critics see her as being pro-minority, so at the slightest opportunity they are likely to pounce on her if she curbs Durga Puja in any way. As Banerjee said during her September 24 meeting, “Vultures are sitting out there to blame us if we don’t allow the puja or if there is a spike in cases afterwards.”
And of course, populism has been the sine qua non of her politics. Taken together West Bengal seems poised to drop further on the rank-list of Indian states’ COVID-19 situation.
The Wire Science spoke to three healthcare professionals to assess the sort of risks a street festival of this size entails at the present moment for the state, and how we can address some problems at the grassroots level. They are Dr Kunal Sarkar, a cardiologist and senior vice-chairman, Medica Hospitals; Dr Pranab Chatterjee, former scientist at ICMR and a fellow at the department of international health, Johns Hopkins University; and Dr Bireswar Sinha, assistant director at the Society for Applied Studies, New Delhi. All three said public health should come before political opportunism.
Dr Sarkar also said the five-six days of the puja could be the most crucial in the state’s history. “Durga Puja is potentially catastrophic because its hallmark is crowd. And in this moment, a large crowd inside confined spaces in a humid atmosphere shouting at the top of its voice is a recipe for absolute disaster,” he elaborated.
“The virus will thrive in such a situation. The mask will be totally useless there because the confined spaces will be dense, aerosol-generating environments. In the last six months, there may not have been a more conducive environment for the virus to spread.”
He stressed on crowd minimisation measures. “Like online education, this should be the year for online devotion. And people who have to be present at the pandal for conducting the puja should be tested and screened.”
Dr Chatterjee also rooted for going online. “If something as viewer-driven as cricket or football matches can be held in empty stadiums, why not Durga Puja? If people are allowed to go out for pandal hopping, it is next to impossible to maintain the prescribed six-feet distancing on the streets, in vehicles and in pandals,” he said. “Secondly, the government should prepare itself to address an explosive outbreak by increasing the number of beds, isolation centres and oxygen supply, and stocking up on drugs.”
He also mentioned another crisis that could be waiting in the wings. If people from the state’s less affected districts come to Kolkata and adjacent areas, as visitors or to work at pandals, contract the novel coronavirus and then take it back home, new susceptible populations could be exposed to the virus, and the state case-load could jump even higher.
Can’t they just be tested? “A large number of civic police personnel and NCC cadets who have no training in infectious-disease outbreak management will be working as volunteers,” Dr Chatterjee said. “Can they be entrusted with the responsibility? And what happens if they are exposed to the virus? Will all volunteers be given PPE? Is it possible to work on the streets the whole night in a PPE? These are practical issues that need to be addressed.”
Speaking to The Wire Science, Dr Sinha echoed Sengupta’s parallels with the Onam festival in Kerala. West Bengal’s case fatality rate is 1.9% (against the national average of 1.5%). So “we have to accept the new normal – i.e. a virtual Durga Puja this year. The spirit of puja must be celebrated but with one’s family at home.”
To this end, he suggested the following measures: only essential puja-organising members to be present at pandals, with appropriate personal protection; live online streaming of puja; fewer than 50 people to be allowed at any time in a pandal; use of crowd management strategies, like earmarking specific pandals for specific neighbourhoods, and using a token system for visitors with pre-allotted visiting hours; and no person with fever, cough and/or cold to be allowed in the pandals.
Durga Puja in eastern India, particularly in West Bengal, is a social festival that cuts across religion, caste and economic lines. A virtual festival may be difficult to imagine, as hard as it may be to resist the temptation to step out and celebrate the occasion with other people. Then again, if these measures seem desperate, it may pay to remember that these are also desperate times, thanks to India’s – and especially West Bengal’s – COVID-19 epidemic.
Indradeep Bhattacharyya is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.