India’s festive season spawns fears of renewed coronavirus surge

The festivals draw tens and thousands of people, packed together shoulder-to-shoulder in temples, shopping districts and family gatherings, leading to concerns among health experts who warn of a whole new cascade of infections. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 25 October 2020

India’s festive season spawns fears of renewed coronavirus surge

  • ‘I’d be very worried about what we are going to see in India’
  • India is second to the United States with the largest coronavirus outbreak

NEW DELHI: Just weeks after India fully opened up from a harsh lockdown and began to modestly turn a corner by cutting new coronavirus infections by near half, a Hindu festival season is raising fears that a fresh surge could spoil the hard-won gains.
“I’d be very worried about what we are going to see in India,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health and a leading infectious disease expert.
The festivals draw tens and thousands of people, packed together shoulder-to-shoulder in temples, shopping districts and family gatherings, leading to concerns among health experts who warn of a whole new cascade of infections, further testing and straining India’s battered health care system.
The Hindu festival season is traditionally laced with an unmatched fanfare and extravaganza, with socializing being the hallmark of the celebration. But this year’s festivities have started on a pale note.
So far, the colorful and elaborate rituals for Durga Puja and Dussehra have been scaled down. The celebrations, bereft of all the grandiose, have been muted. The towering displays of religious sculptures are rare, and at many places, prayers have gone virtual, with organizers livestreaming the sessions for the devotees.
In many states, police barricades have been erected around the usually buzzing places of worship to avoid large gatherings.
But this could change.
Nearly 1 billion Indians will soon celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, and the country’s biggest. Socializing is key part of the most highly anticipated event of the year, with malls and markets buzzing with shoppers. It also traditionally brings in a massive increase in consumer spending across India.
Even though the government is expecting the festival to help resuscitate the ailing economy, it is also worried about people packing together, foregoing social distancing and masks.
Such concerns prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address the nation in a televised speech earlier this week, warning people of “any laxity” during the festive season that “could strain India’s health system.”
India is second to the United States with the largest coronavirus outbreak. Last month, the country hit a peak of nearly 100,000 cases in a single day, but since then daily infections have fallen by about half and deaths by about a third.
Some experts say the decline in cases suggests the virus may have finally reached a plateau but others question the testing methods. India’s testing rate has remained constant but it is relying heavily on antigen tests, which are faster but less accurate than traditional RT-PCR tests.
Even as the reasons behind the decline are not fully clear, India is still clocking more than 50,000 cases a day, making any new surge all the more important.
These fears stem largely from India’s initial success story – until it wasn’t.
In June, the southern coastal state of Kerala was cheered for flattening the curve, generating worldwide appreciation, even from the United Nations. But in a stunning reversal, it now fares as the second-worst state in active coronavirus cases in the country.
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan blamed “gross negligence” during the 10-day Onam festival celebrations in late August for Kerala’s virus surge. Since then, reported infections there have jumped by five times, far outpacing the nationwide trend.
Kerala’s story has alarmed health experts who fear similar problems in the runup to Diwali that could reverse the gains.
“If we don’t avoid socializing during the upcoming festival season, I fear we will be back to where we started,” said Dr. T. Jacob John, a retired virologist. “There is a significant risk ahead of us.”
For the many faithful, scaled-down celebrations aren’t bringing home festival cheer and the urge to step out is only growing.
Sumita Chaterjee’s family has avoided outdoor gatherings for months after the 64-year-old resident of New Delhi and her granddaughter survived the virus in late June.
But now the family is planning to forego the restraint and take part in a ritual where the idol of goddess Durga will be immersed in a community pool on Sunday. The entire neighborhood is expected to take part in the ritual.
“This is a matter of faith,” said Chaterjee. “I know there are risks but we can’t make the gods angry.”


Scotland leader ‘never been more certain’ of independence

Updated 28 November 2020

Scotland leader ‘never been more certain’ of independence

  • The head of Scotland’s devolved government and the leader of the pro-independence SNP told supporters at the party’s virtual conference

GLASGOW: Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Saturday said she had “never been more certain” of achieving independence, with Britain’s final departure from EU trading arrangements set to precede key Scottish elections in the months ahead.

The head of Scotland’s devolved government and the leader of the pro-independence SNP told supporters at the party’s virtual conference that the prospect of a break between Scotland and the rest of the UK has never been closer.

“Independence is in clear sight — and with unity of purpose, humility and hard work I have never been so certain that we will deliver it,” she said.

Sturgeon and the SNP have argued for a second referendum on Scottish independence since the party’s overwhelming victory among Scottish seats in Britain’s 2019 general election.

Now she hopes that a further resounding win in May elections to the Edinburgh parliament will hand her party a mandate for a second bid to quit the UK.

Opinion polls in recent months have shown that a majority of public opinion in Scotland now supports independence.

The country chose to remain part of the four-nation United Kingdom in a 2014 referendum on the issue.

But Scots later voted by a thumping majority in 2016 to remain in the European Union, a referendum the Leave side won by a narrow margin when taking the rest of Britain into account.

Since then, “we have won a landslide victory in a UK general election and support for independence has risen, it has become the sustained and majority view in public opinion this year,” said Sturgeon.

“Who should be taking the decisions that shape our futures? We know that it is the people who live here, wherever they come from, who can best harness Scotland’s immense human and natural resources.

“Let us reach out to all Scotland like never before,” she added.

Sturgeon urged her party to “demonstrate ... that Scotland is ready to take our place in the global family of independent nations,” saying it was “now a nation on the brink of making history.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly rebuffed calls from for a another referendum, saying that the 2014 vote settled the question for a generation.

Earlier this month, Scottish independence campaigners seized on comments by the prime minister in which he said the creation of a devolved parliament in Edinburgh had been “a disaster.”

In response Sturgeon said the only way to protect the parliament was “with independence.”

On Thursday, she said a referendum could be held “in the earlier part” of the next parliamentary session.

“The people of Scotland have the right to choose their future. Let’s now focus all our efforts on making sure we bring about that better country they and future generations deserve,” Sturgeon said on Saturday.