After Durga Puja, COVID cases rise in West Bengal

Print edition : November 19, 2021

Crowds thronging a community pandal during the Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata on October 14. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

The number of COVID cases has risen sharply in West Bengal after the Durga puja celebrations when people threw COVID-safety norms to the winds and the administration went easy on enforcement.

Just as the COVID situation appeared to be under control in West Bengal, the unrestrained merriment by pandal-hopping crowds during the Durga puja has led to a spike in coronavirus cases in the State, particularly in Kolkata. If people exercised exemplary discipline during the festivities last year and the government controlled the situation commendably, this year citizens displayed irresponsible behaviour and the administration seemed to lack interest in enforcing the COVID protocol. In fact, during the four days of festivities, it seemed as if the pandemic was over in West Bengal.

Until before the pujas, the number of daily new cases was below 800. In fact, on October 11, the day the festivities began, the State registered just 606 new cases; but five days after the pujas ended, the number of daily new cases went up sharply over 800, and on several days, almost reached 1,000. On October 28, the number of fresh cases stood at 990.

On October 10, the day before the festivities formally began, the number of active cases was 7,664; and by October 28, the number stood at 8,245. Kolkata recorded the highest number of cases (275), followed by North 24 Parganas (164), Howrah (83), South 24 Parganas (77) and Hooghly (75).

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That cases would rise in Kolkata was inevitable considering the lavish manner in which Durga puja was celebrated, inviting massive crowding in spite of restrictions placed by the Calcutta High Court and appeals by the State government to maintain the COVID protocol. The government lifted night curfew (between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.) for the period between October 10 and 20, thus encouraging all-night pandal-hopping. Elaborate pandal decorations drew huge crowds and COVID-safety norms were completely ignored in the festive frenzy. Many doctors at the time felt that it was imprudent on the part of the government to not try and encourage a low-key puja this time, given the prevalent pandemic. In some of the more sensational pandals, the rush of the crowd was such that it was almost physically dangerous. A near-stampede at a puja pandal modelled on the Burj Khalifa, the skyscraper in Dubai, at Sribhumi left three people, including a child, injured, and forced the police to shut down the pandal. With cases rising, the government brought back the night curfew soon after the pujas ended, but there is the fear that the damage may already have been done.

Punyabrata Gun, convener of the Joint Platform of Doctors, told Frontline: “The spike in the number of cases was expected. From a month before the pujas began, we have been appealing to both the State government and the people of Bengal to hold the festival with the same kind of restraint and discipline shown last year. But nobody listened. Night curfew was lifted and there was massive crowding in puja pandals; and the State government and political leaders added fuel to the enthusiasm of the masses. Today we are seeing the consequences. There may be a further rise in cases in the coming days because of the Kali puja and Diwali celebrations.”

Punyabrata Gun, however, feels that there is a chance that the situation will not become as bad as earlier apprehended. He said: “According to a study by the ICMR, a third wave may not take place in the form of a wave; instead one may witness rise in cases at local levels. Those areas where the second wave has not had much impact and where the number of vaccinated people is less may see a sharp spike.”

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According to doctors, the vaccinations have led to people dropping their guard. Kolkata-based physician Tamal Laha told Frontline: “People are tired of the lockdown, and they have been encouraged by the fall in the number of deaths. Many have been falsely led to believe that vaccines alone will make them invulnerable, and have not thought it necessary to wear masks and maintain COVID protocol.” In spite of the high rate of vaccination in West Bengal, the COVID cases have been on the rise since Durga puja. In fact, as of October 28, the State ranked third after Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra in the number of people vaccinated.

The total vaccination figure on October 28 stood at 7,45,57,337, with 2,05,99,095 having taken both the doses, and 5,39,58,242 having taken the first dose. However, many of those already vaccinated are being hospitalised with COVID. A senior management source in a well-known hospital chain in Kolkata told Frontline in the last week of October, “Of the 76 COVID patients admitted in our hospital, 19 are in the critical care unit. Of the 19 in critical care, 18 had received both the doses and only one person had received the first dose. In the general wards too most people are doubly vaccinated, or have received one dose of the vaccine…. But because of the vaccinations, the damage is not that much.” Even as the number of cases has been rising, the number of deaths has remained more or less the same. On October 1, 13 people died, and the death count stood at 18,819. On October 28 nine people died and the total death count stood at 19,114.

Increase in positivity rates

However, the source pointed out that, worryingly, the positivity rate was getting higher and said: “The positivity rate at our hospital is 8-10 per cent.” The positivity rate in the State on October 1 was 1.79 per cent; in just four weeks, it had increased to 2.18 per cent on October 28. Interestingly, many of the new cases have been mostly asymptomatic or displaying mild symptoms.

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Even after the pujas ended and the night curfew was restored, the revelry on the streets continued unabated. People continued to move around in crowded places without wearing masks, and eateries tried to stay open well into the curfew hour. It was only when cases began to rise that the police and the administration began to crack down on those violating COVID norms. It must also be kept in mind that for investment-starved West Bengal, the puja season is not just the most important religious and cultural yearly occasion, but also a huge opportunity to revive the economy. The main beneficiaries during this season are small businesses and traditional artists, who have been severely hit by the pandemic. Two consecutive years of low-key celebrations would be disastrous for many of them. A research carried out by Queen Mary University of London and IIT [Indian Institute of Technology] Kharagpur, titled, “Mapping the creative economy around Durga puja, 2019” has estimated the economic worth of the creative industries around the week-long festival at Rs.32,377 crore (excluding sponsorships)—2.58 per cent of the GDP of West Bengal in the fiscal year of 2019-2020.

Schools to reopen

Even as the COVID cases started increasing, the State government announced that schools and colleges would reopen for offline classes on November 16. In Bengal, educational institutions have been shut since March 2020. Making the announcement, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said, “Kali puja is on November 4, Bhaiphonta on November 6, Chhat puja on November 10-11, and Jagaddhatri puja on November 13. Start making arrangements for reopening of schools and colleges after that.” While many have welcomed this decision, there is apprehension among a large section of the people since children have not been vaccinated.