Festive buzz in Bengal as COVID-19 cases dip; experts voice caution

Upbeat about drop in COVID-19 daily count, Durga Puja organisers in West Bengal are banking on mass vaccinations 

By Gurvinder Singh
Published: Wednesday 29 September 2021
Kolkata, the capital city, has launched into a festive mood, with shops abuzz with buyers. Experts have cautioned about surge in COVID-19 cases. Photo: CSE / DTE

Durga Puja, West Bengal’s most popular festival, is a few days away. Kolkata, the capital city, has launched into a festive mood, with shops already abuzz with buyers.

A cautionary note, however, comes close on the heels of this festive buzz: The state, much like the rest of India, had experienced the horrors of the second wave of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic a few months ago.

The state government has sounded an alarm bell: Festivities from October 12-15, 2021 will be held with all COVID-19 protocols in place

Health experts in Kolkata have requested pandal hoppers to not equate the drop in cases to the end of the pandemic. “The virus is still there. It may raise its ugly head if we lower our guards. Everybody should wear masks and take proper precautions. Overcrowding should be avoided at all cost,” said Sajal Biswas, general secretary, Service Doctors Forum (SDF), Kolkata.

He added the people must take lessons from the second wave of the pandemic: “The case count surged just before the puja in 2020.”

The state reported 5,000 deaths and 3,000 cases fresh cases a day during this time in 2020. The numbers this time have been hovering around 750 this year.

Relying on vaccinations

The puja organisers said they are hopeful of cases not surging during / after festivities as vaccination has picked up in the state and elsewhere. 

“Vaccinations are on the rise, but we will not take any chance. Our volunteers and those living in the locality have been inoculated with double doses. We have also issued stern instructions to locals to get their shots before the start of the festival,” said Umesh Jaiswal, puja organiser in West Bengal’s Howrah district.  

In 2020, the Calcutta High Court had barred visitors from entering pandals to prevent overcrowding and minimising spread of the virus.

Organisers are cautious this time around as well: “The High Court may intervene in the last moment and force us to change our plans. We are making pandals in a way that idols can be viewed from the distance,” said Subhendu Ghosh, member, Bosepukur Talbagan Puja, a pandal organiser.

He added they are anticipating a low footfall as most people come from outskirts, and a low frequency of local trains may affect their number. 

A section of organisers also questioned the logic behind imposing restrictions during Durga Puja even as large gatherings were held during the recently concluded state polls: “The gatherings during Bengal polls led to a surge in COVID-19 cases, but not a single political leader faced any action. This smacks of double standards of the administration,” said a puja organiser in north Kolkata.

“We will give face masks and hand sanitizers to devotees. We will ensure that all rules are followed,” said Saswata Basu, secretary, Forum for Durgotsab, an umbrella organization of 400 Durga Puja organisers in Kolkata and Howrah districts.

The state government has also announced a grant of Rs 50,000 for 36,000 puja committees. It will include concessions such as fee waivers and taxes by the fire department and civic bodies as well as a 50 per cent waiver on power bills.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has reiterated the need to follow all precautions.

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