Tika utsav is fine but poll rallies, Kumbh Mela without social distancing and masks big threat to India's war on COVID-19

Perhaps the time has come for politicians of all parties, not just the aam aadmi, to also exhibit that “Covid-appropriate behaviour”

Sandip Roy April 09, 2021 13:17:48 IST
Tika utsav is fine but poll rallies, Kumbh Mela without social distancing and masks big threat to India's war on COVID-19

Representational image. PTI

Apparently, Indians pay attention to nothing unless it’s turned into a festival. Diwali, Durga Puja, Dussehra, Eid, Christmas, and Kumbh Mela, the mother of all festivals, are clearly not enough.

We added turned IPL into India ka tyohar.

We probably have the most literary festivals in the world. Other countries have run-of-the-mill elections. India, we have been told again and again has a “festival of democracy”

Therefore it’s hardly surprising that in the middle of the second wave of COVID-19, the prime minister wants the good citizens of India to have themselves a tika utsav or a vaccination festival.

In his speech, Narendra Modi suggested that a tika utsav between 11 and 14 April could boost the vaccination drive. Also, 11 April happens to be the birth anniversary of social reformer Jyotiba Phule while 14 April is that of Babasaheb Ambedkar. This could be some strategist’s brainwave of killing two birds with one jab.

One year ago as India went into lockdown the prime minister had other festive ideas to raise our spirits - we clanged pots and pans, blew conch shells, lit divas. There were even WhatsApp forwards about how that vibration was going to destroy the virus. One year later the virus is rampaging through the country in its second wave, those WhatsApp forwarders have move on to other causes and we have upped the game from pots and pans and candles to a full-fledged festival.

Cynics might roll their eyes but the prime minister knows that as soon as it’s called a festival it becomes a red-letter day in our minds. Amazon and Flipkart can do “Tika Utsav” bumper sales starting on 12:01 am on 11 April until 11:59 pm on 14 April. Pizza Hut can deliver Tika Utsav special pizzas - with tika kebab toppings of course. Each city can have friendly contests to see which centre doles out the most shots in one day, that’s vaccine shots, not alcoholic ones.

Anything that encourages vaccination is of course something to be encouraged. And the prime minister is in his own way a cheerleader-in-chief for the nation. Thus he is to be commended for trying to encourage all eligible Indians to go out and get vaccinated. And if some upbeat festival messaging works better than doom-and-gloom portents so be it. Of course, there is a danger that in the rush to celebrate tika utsavs, we could crowd vaccination centres and forget about social distancing but that’s a minor quibble.

But what feels incongruous is this cheery PSA for a “festival of vaccination” occurs at the same time as a “festival of democracy” is unfolding in so many states across India.

The pandemic and the election seem to be occurring in different worlds, hermetically sealed from each other. There are two Indias, one in which a COVID-19 second wave is raging and one in which elections and Kumbh Mela are happening and apparently never the twain shall meet. Mind you this is a country where a court rules that you can be fined for not wearing your mask while alone in your car. A vehicle is a “public place” says the Delhi High Court but a political rally is obviously not. Neither is the Kumbh Mela with 12,000 to 15,000 people entering Haridwar daily.

As India’s tally crosses 1.35 crore — surpassing Brazil’s 1.34 crore — making it the second-highest in the world the government turns a blind eye to tens of thousands converging on the banks of the Ganga for the Shahi Snaan holy dip.
Sure there are warnings about masks and social distancing at the ghats but when the faithful believe that a dip at the Mahakumbh will liberate from the cycle of life and death anyway, why would they be bothered by masks and COVID tests? The city of Haridwar has seen a 100 percent jump in daily and active cases in just one week.
Officials just recite the mantra of strict Covid compliance with some 350 CCTV cameras. It’s only now that Inspector General Sanjay Gunjyal has admitted “a stampede-like situation will arise if we would try to enforce social distancing at the ghats.”
 While obvious comparisons have been drawn to the furore over the Tablighi Jamaat congregation being dubbed a super spreader a year ago when the COVID wave was just beginning and the Mahasilence over Mahakumbh in the middle of the second wave, the larger issue remains the same. In the finger pointing and whataboutery between groups, public health and science are the real casualties every time.

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan recently scolded his fellow citizens for letting down their guard and allowing the Covid numbers to explode afresh. He blamed “lack of commitment and sincerity” and said, “nobody is interested in wearing the mask.. there’s no respect for the norms of physical distancing.”

As Scroll pointed out, the same minister shared pictures of his party leaders holding election rallies where hardly anyone was wearing a mask and there was certainly no physical distancing happening. “One look at Harsh Vardhan’s Twitter feed makes it quite clear who could be called out “for taking everything casually’” writes Rohan Venkataramakrishnan in Scroll.

It’s not a BJP problem. It’s a problem pretty much across the political spectrum. Old habits die hard. Old electioneering habits die especially hard. Photographs from rallies across Bengal for example, whether Trinamool or BJP or the Left Front-Congress combine, would hardly suggest the country is grappling with a pandemic. It looks just like something from five years ago. Perhaps the fact that the Bihar elections did not cause a huge explosion in infections lulled us into a false sense of complacency. But these elections are happening in the middle of a certified second wave. Yet the same politicians who wag their fingers at the public for giving safety precautions a “tilanjali” seem to have no interest in leading by example. And they do not even see the jarring dissonance.

It is obviously not easy in a country like India to do physical distancing at the best of times, let alone at election time. But we can do our bit. The symbolism matters. Though Donald Trump sneered at Joe Biden for wearing a mask during his campaign, Biden resolutely stuck to it. The open-air inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris with the guests wearing masks sent out two messages - one, that the business of democracy and transition of power must go one and two, they must go on with as much safety precautions as possible in these grave times. It was about fortitude in face of a pandemic not the denial of it. It will never be foolproof but the message is important.

The visual of masked politicians on stage at an election rally in India would send out a message as well. A top political leader taking his mask off to address the rally and then putting it back on would send out a message. Similarly, a crowded stage filled with maskless jostling politicians sends out its own message to the rank and file. A political candidate in Kolkata told reporters asking him about lack of masks and safety norms that he was “not afraid” of the virus and he would win, COVID or no COVID. Tirath Singh Rawat, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand tells devotees planning to attend Mahakumbh that “nobody will be stopped in the name of COVID-19” because “faith is stronger than fear”. Two days later he tested positive.

At this point it’s baffling that politicians still think bravado is the vaccine we all need.

The state only made a negative RT-PCR test mandatory after the high court told it to do so. Even then there are reports of pilgrims using alternative routes through villages and forests to evade police checkpoints.

And many people, including some of the saints, have tested positive. And what happens at Mahakumbh will not stay in Haridwar as the pilgrims return home.

Now, the Haridwar district magistrate has said all schools in the district will remain closed from 9 to 15 April not because of COVID-19 fears but “in view of a huge rush of devotees to Kumbh Mela.”

It’s clear that after a year everyone is suffering from COVID safety exhaustion. The masks are slipping and weddings and parties are back and public transport is crowded. We read about rising numbers and lack of beds but there’s no indication that it’s affecting our behaviour. A video of a cheerful woman at a temple during Holi telling a reporter there was no COVID there recently went viral.

Despite Yogi Adityanath’s strongman reputation in Uttar Pradesh, his exhortation to maintain safety protocols during Holi seemed to fall on many deaf ears. People are tired of a year of safety protocols or lulled by the dip in numbers at the end of 2020 or both. But now that the second wave has truly landed, mixed messages from the political leaders do not help. While the prime minister exhorts us to not let down our guard, we just hear "no lockdown".

The prime minister in his message about the second wave has reiterated the focus needs to be on “test, track, treat, COVID-appropriate behaviour and COVID management”. That’s commendable. But perhaps the time has come for politicians of all parties, not just the aam aadmi, to also exhibit that “COVID-appropriate behaviour”.

And if we must turn everything into a festival, what about a month-long “mask festival” instead of just a tika one?

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