Festival season raises fears of renewed virus surge in India


Just weeks after India fully opened following a harsh lockdown and began to modestly turn a corner by cutting new coronavirus infections by nearly 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 of 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 straining India’s healthcare system.

The Hindu festival season is traditionally laced with an unmatched fanfare and extravaganza, with socialising being the hallmark of the celebration. But this year’s festivities have started on a pale note.

So far, the colourful and elaborate rituals for Durga Puja and Dussehra have been scaled down. The towering displays of religious sculptures are rare, and at many places, prayers have gone virtual, with organisers livestreaming the sessions for 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 one billion Indians will soon celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, and the country’s biggest. Socialising is key part of the most highly anticipated event of the year, with shopping centres and markets buzzing with people. 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 in terms of coronavirus outbreaks. 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.

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