Covid-safe Gangasagar Mela: Is that actually possible?

Going ahead with the Gangasagar Mela, where thousands are expected to converge, doesn’t seem to be a sensible idea

Despite the warnings and precautionary protocols aimed at keeping the coronavirus spread in check, certain parts of India have been witnessing huge crowds and zero social distancing. The rallies taken out by various parties in poll-bound states were an example of how irresponsible people can be. Though many parties have, of late, decided to put off or cancel such large gatherings scheduled as part of election campaigns, the extent of damage already done is not small.

The latest we hear is about the Gangasagar Mela, which coincides with the Makar Sankranti. Every year, the religious fair hosts pilgrims and tourists arriving in large numbers to take a holy dip in the confluence of Ganga and Bay of Bengal, and offer prayers at the Kapil Muni Temple.

With Bengal already reeling under the onslaught of the surge in Covid-19 cases, it had turned out to be a matter of concern when the Mela was being planned this year too. The state already has more than 51000 active cases and the case positivity rate has been recorded as 26.34%. The number of people hospitalised is also seeing a steady and alarming rise.

Why can’t the Gangasagar Mela be stopped?

The state’s plan to go ahead with the conduct of the Mela has triggered much resistance from the part of doctors and healthcare workers. Armed with a Calcutta High Court order that the Gangasagar Mela may be conducted under strict Covid-19 prevention norms, the state is set to allow the fair that could a large number of people to converge, to be organised. Acting on an affidavit from the state government, the High Court had listed down a slew of must-dos to check the spread of the virus when the Gangasagar Mela gets underway.

It needs to be noted that there had been a call for cancellation of the event, but it doesn’t look like anyone is bothered. Though the court raised concerns over the virus spread when pilgrims converge in large numbers and take dips in the river, it was of the opinion that prevention of massive spread should be a priority if the event goes on as planned. The government, on its part, has been reiterating that the Sagar Island residents have already received both doses of the vaccine. It also has made it known that the test-positivity rate in the region was under control.

The West Bengal administration has also been exuding confidence that the annual pilgrimage this year would not see more than 5 lakh pilgrims. With the court directing the state to set in place a three-member committee comprising the leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly, chairman of West Bengal Human Rights Commission, and a representative of the state government, to ensure strict compliance of Covid-19 measures in the Sagar island, the state will have to do it while also making sure that the event does not turn out to be a virus spreader.

Why doesn’t anyone bother?

The committee has been asked to report any failure in compliance of protocols, and immediately recommend to the state government to stop entry into the island.  The government has been also advised to ensure wearing of masks, practice social distancing and use of sanitisers, besides setting up of testing centres at all entry points.

However, the Gangasagar Mela being given the go ahead, concerns about a massive spread of the virus have also risen manifold. Anyone who has been tracking the virus spread would know that the convergence of so many people is a serious risk. Doctors have been trying to drive home exactly this point, but all fears are being ignored by the powers that be. Health professionals are worried that the state’s measures may not be enough to control infections when such a massive gathering happens in the Gangasagar island.  They feel that the affidavit filed by the state on January 6 before the Calcutta High Court is nothing but an eyewash to make sure that the Mela goes on, virus woes or not!

There needs to be stricter norms where sense prevails over religious conclaves of this magnitude. First, it was the slew of election rallies, and now it’s the Mela that expects thousands to arrive at one single point. Covid-19 is already denting people’s lives and livelihood. And yet, no one seems to bother. Wonder why!

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