Coronavirus: Allowing huge congregation during Ram Navami mela is dangerous at this time

Coronavirus photo

At a time when the virus is marching across countries infecting thousands and felling hundreds each day, lakhs of people congregating during the Ayodhya Ram Navami Mela can have serious consequences and can completely shift the trajectory of the coronavirus outbreak in India.

That mass gatherings,  especially in enclosed spaces, provide perfect conditions for novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) to easily spread became amply clear early on during the pandemic. The number of cases reported from the Diamond Princess cruise ship kept increasing before reaching 712; half-a-dozen jails in China reported over 500 cases. Both in Singapore and South Korea, large cluster of cases had its origin in churches.

Countries across the world, from China to Italy, have been taking the World Health Organization’s (WHO) advice of quarantining and social distancing seriously to contain the spread of the virus.

Taking a cue from these, many sporting events starting from Formula 1 racing to tennis to basketball including Euro 2020, London marathon and cricket matches such as the Indian Premier League have been put off or cancelled.

On March 6, when the number of cases globally crossed 100,000 and the number of cases stood at 31 and no coronavirus-related deaths were reported in India, the Union government advised all states to avoid or postpone mass gatherings till COVID-19 was contained. It wanted States to take precautions to avoid severe respiratory illness including COVID-19 in case mass gatherings were held. Soon after the March 6 advisory, educational institutions, malls, theatres to name a few have been shut in many States.

Modi says no to Holi

On March 4, taking the advice of experts to “reduce mass gathering” to cut the transmission chain, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that he was not going to celebrate Holi. Making a similar announcement, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath also appealed to people of his State to “refrain from attending social functions”.

Ayodhya Ram Navami Mela as scheduled

But, just a couple of weeks later, at a time when even gatherings involving a few hundred people are being discouraged, the U.P. government has said that the Ayodhya Ram Navami Mela will be held as planned from March 25 to April 2. The mela, which attracts lakhs of tourists every year, will be of special significance this time as it will be the first such function after the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya verdict.

But at a time when the virus seems to have gained renewed vigour and is marching across countries infecting thousands and felling hundreds each day, a congregation of such magnitude can have very serious consequences and can completely shift the trajectory of the outbreak in India.

Tradition cannot be allowed to override public health, especially when it cannot be guaranteed that number of people congregating can be reduced or precautions instituted. More so as the virus in question is highly infectious and more deadly than flu, while India’s health-care system is weak and cannot take the frontal assault of the virus if and when hundreds manifest serious symptoms.

How huge congregations led to flare ups

There have been several instances during the pandemic when large gatherings have had disastrous consequences. On International Women’s Day on March 8, over 120,000 people marched through downtown Madrid. The same day, over 60,000 fans gathered at the city’s largest stadiums and 9,000 supporters of Spain’s political party Vox assembled inside a sports centre.

Less than a weak later, the number of cases shot up from a few hundreds to 4,200 and 120 deaths. Today, with 11,826 cases, Spain has the third highest number of cases outside mainland China.

In Malaysia, over 16,000 people gathered in end February in a mosque complex in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur for a four-day meeting. Of the 790 cases in Malaysia so far, nearly two-thirds are linked to the event.

The religious city of Qom in Iran, where the first case and death were reported, is full of holy sites that people touch and kiss. Qom soon turned into a hotspot and played a role in virus spread to the rest of the country. While in South Korea, a day after cases soared by 833 in a single day, the church halted masses at more than 1,700 locations across the country.

It is time we learn from the experiences of other countries and act wisely and not allow religious fervour cloud our discretion.

Published in The Hindu on March 19, 2020