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Covid: No God says ‘go to pandal’

Harsh Vardhan’s warning came against the backdrop of an infection spike in Kerala, blamed on the Onam festivities that concluded on September 2, and ahead of a series of festivals

G.S. Mudur New Delhi Published 12.10.20, 01:43 AM
Last year’s Durga Puja at Deshapriya Park in Calcutta.

Last year’s Durga Puja at Deshapriya Park in Calcutta. File picture

Union health minister Harsh Vardhan on Sunday exhorted people to avoid crowding during the coming festivals, cautioning about the risk of a Covid-19 surge and asserting that “no religion or God” asks people to observe practices that might endanger lives.

His warning came against the backdrop of an infection spike in Kerala, blamed on the Onam festivities that concluded on September 2, and ahead of a series of festivals such as Durga Puja, Navratri, Dussehra, Karva Chauth, Diwali, Kali Puja, Bhai Phonta, Chhath and Christmas.


Vardhan, responding via social media platforms to questions sent to him by members of the public, said he would encourage people to observe the festivals at home with their families and use masks and adhere to physical distancing if they go out.

“We need to be very cautious,” the minister said. “No religion or God says that you have to celebrate in an ostentatious way; that you have to visit pandals and temples and mosques to pray. These are extraordinary circumstances and they must draw extraordinary responses.”

Vardhan’s call came amid concern among health officials and medical experts that after a near-steady fall in daily new cases since September 16, crowding during festivals might trigger fresh surges.

The seven-day average of daily new infections fell from 97,894 cases on September 16 to 72,062 on October 10, a downward trend that has lasted more than three weeks and prompted speculation in medical circles whether India has passed its epidemic peak.

But Vardhan, echoing worries expressed by public health experts, cautioned that any deviation from appropriate Covid-season behaviour could push the infections upward again. “You can take this as my warning or my advice. This is the truth,” he said.

“There is no need to congregate in large numbers to prove your faith or your religion. If we do this, we may be heading for big trouble. Lord Krishna says, concentrate on your goal. Our goal is to finish this virus and save humanity.”

Health experts said the minister’s call was timely and much-needed, keeping in mind the sharp rise in daily new cases seen in Kerala from about a week after Onam.

Kerala’s seven-day average of daily new cases increased five-fold from 2,200 on September 8 to 11,755 on October 10.

“What happened in Kerala has a lesson for the rest of India — the moment the virus gets opportunities to spread among susceptible people, it will spread quickly,” said D.C.S. Reddy, a community medicine specialist in Lucknow.

Reddy, who is also a member of an epidemiology and surveillance group for Covid-19 under the Indian Council of Medical Research, said that while the nationwide dip was “pleasing”, surveys suggested that large proportions of populations across India were still susceptible.

A nationwide ICMR survey had suggested that 15 per cent of the people in urban slums, 8 per cent in non-slum urban areas, and 4 per cent in rural areas had been infected by August.

Many experts believe that the percentages have risen significantly since then, while stressing that substantial proportions of people across the country remain susceptible.

On October 10, the new cases detected in Kerala for the first time exceeded Maharashtra’s tally of 11,416. Maharashtra had till then consistently documented the highest numbers of daily new cases. Experts said it was still too early to determine whether Kerala would now take that position.

“Increases and decreases over one or two days might keep happening; the seven-day average is a good measure of change,” Reddy said.

“We have seen the seven-day average fall in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. But it is rising in Kerala. Nothing can protect people from this infection better than their own actions.”

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