West Bengal: Puja in the time of pandemic

West Bengal stares at a possible surge in COVID cases after the Durga Puja celebrations, but Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is confident that she will “lock down COVID”.

Published : Oct 28, 2020 06:00 IST

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee paints the eyes of the goddess at a community puja pandal in Kolkata on October 12.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee paints the eyes of the goddess at a community puja pandal in Kolkata on October 12.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in West Bengal, the State is preparing for its five-day Durga Puja festival, raising serious concern among doctors of a huge spike in the number of cases after the celebrations are over. The Joint Platform of Doctors and the West Bengal Doctors’ Forum have written to the State government drawing attention to the imminent danger. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, however, announced that the State would go ahead with the celebrations, albeit with some restrictions. “We will lock down COVID,” Mamata Banerjee said.

Amid the worsening COVID situation, doctors are fairly unanimous in their opinion that the State’s health-care infrastructure is far from adequate to handle an exacerbation of the pandemic. There are already over 3,500 cases a day, and the average daily COVID death toll is 60. As of October 12, 2,98,389 people had tested positive; the number included 3,583 new cases that day. The number of active cases stood at 30,972. The total deaths so far number 5,742 (including 60 on October 12). The discharge rate stood at 87.84 per cent. The total number of samples tested, as of October 12, was 37,33,656, with the rate of testing per million of the population standing at 41,485. The total number of dedicated COVID-19 hospitals is 92 − 37 government hospitals and 55 private establishments requisitioned by the government. The total number of beds earmarked for COVID is 12,715.

According to Punyabrata Gun, convener of the West Bengal Doctors’ Forum, the number of cases in Kolkata began to rise after Mahalaya and Vishwakarma Puja (both were on September 17). “We saw how Kerala had managed to bring the spread of COVID under control. Yet, following relaxations during Onam [August 22 to September 2], the number of cases went up by 750 per cent. Similarly, in Bengal, the number of cases in Kolkata was on the decline, though it was increasing in the districts. But after Mahalaya and Vishwakarma Puja, it started increasing in Kolkata as well,” he told Frontline .

Also read: COVID-19 Update | Assam: Caution to the wind

The government has set down guidelines for the festival through an official memo. The pandals have to be “spacious and should be kept open from all sides”; all visitors must wear masks and use sanitisers; there should an adequate number of volunteers in the pandals to ensure that visitors are following COVID protocol; the organisers must ensure that COVID protocol is followed during rituals such as “anjali” (flower offering to the goddess by worshippers led by the priest chanting mantras) and “sindoor khela” (ritual of married women smearing the goddess and each other with vermilion on the last day); cultural programmes that are usually held as part of the celebrations should not take place this year; and inaugurations and immersion ceremonies should be low-key.

The government also announced that the annual “Carnival” at the end of the Puja, first introduced by Mamata Banerjee, will not take place this year. “This time we are not risking the Puja Carnival. Next year we will double the celebration,” she said. The emphasis this year will be on electronic and social media. Even the judging of the puja pandal themes (a competition to reward the best pandals has become an annual ritual in the State) will be mostly held online. “This year we will inspect the pujas virtually and announce the prizes virtually too,” said Mamata Banerjee. The government also announced a 50 per cent increase in the number of COVID beds in hospitals ahead of the festival.

The medical community, however, has doubts about how successful these measures will turn out to be. Punyabrata Gun said: “We wonder if these announcements will really work if there is no proper mechanism to enforce them.” The Chief Minister has announced that the community pujas will be open to the public from “Tritiya” (the third day of the nine-day period), thus stretching the puja celebrations from the traditional five days to nine days. Usually the festival gets under way on the sixth day. “From Tritiya to Ekadashi [the day after Dashami] people will be allowed to go and visit pandals from the night,” Mamata Banerjee said.

Also read: COVID-19 and the danger of complacency

Doctors believe that the State health-care infrastructure will not be able to handle the situation should cases begin to rise further. The eminent Kolkata-based doctor Fuad Halim said: “The ICU [intensive care unit] and HDU [high dependency unit] beds in hospitals are almost filled up, and very few general beds are available. The private sector hospitals are totally saturated. If in this situation we do not expand the infrastructure, new cases will not be accommodated.” Halim said that it was anyway difficult to maintain physical distancing given the paucity of public transport and other facilities available to people. He feared that if basic COVID protocol was not maintained during the festival “West Bengal is staring at a very serious COVID situation during the Pujas and post-Pujas”. “The Chief Minister said she will isolate COVID during the Pujas… this seems to be the expression of somebody who does not understand what COVID is all about…. This does not bode well, as the attitude of the government modulates the behavior of the general public on any major issue,” said Halim.

The fear of COVID has done little to diminish the traditional shopping frenzy that grips people before the Pujas. Throwing caution to the wind, people are flocking to shopping centres to avail themselves of the ongoing discount sales. Jostling with one another, masks frequently askew, they seem to be welcoming COVID along with the goddess.

The festival itself has become a political issue ahead of the Assembly election scheduled in 2021. Mamata Banerjee herself admitted as much. Announcing a whopping Rs.185-crore dole to the puja committees in the State, she said: “The problem is, we do not do politics with such matters, but others do…. If we do not allow the Pujas this time, they will accuse us…. If COVID increases, then they will gleefully say it is because we allowed the Pujas. So what can we do?”

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