Kolkata thumbs nose at COVID-19 safety protocols as crowds throng Puja pandals

Labourers work to construct a pandal ahead of Durga Puja festival, in Kolkata, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.   | Photo Credit: PTI

They say a picture speaks a thousand words, but one particular picture from Sunday, circulating on social media, has nothing left to say. It shows a lane leading to a Durga Puja pandal packed with mask-wearing people, several of them are clicking selfies. In the foreground is a man carrying his child — the boy’s mask is in place but the father’s mask sits way below the nose.

Many such crowd pictures emerged from the ‘City of Joy’ on Sunday, when West Bengal recorded not only the highest number of daily COVID-19 cases — 3,983 — but also the highest number of deaths, 64. Come to think of it, Durga Puja has not even officially begun: it traditionally begins on the sixth of the nine days that precede Dussehra and Sunday was only Day 2.

It was, therefore, not surprising when on Monday, the Calcutta High Court directed that all pandals be treated as no-entry zones. It remains to be seen how effectively the court directive is implemented, considering that pandal-hopping has already been set into motion, and with Assembly elections around the corner, the last thing the State Government would want is restricting the celebrations.

If anyone is worried at the moment, it’s mainly the doctors. Eventually, the responsibility will be theirs to deal with a surge in the number of cases, which appears imminent because that’s exactly what happened in Kerala, where the number of COVD-19 patients rose by 750% after Onam celebrations. And Durga Puja takes place on a far bigger scale than Onam.

“Shock. Horror. Apprehension. Sadness. Deeply worried,” this is how Dr. Arjun Dasgupta — a highly-regarded doctor in the city and a founding member of the West Bengal Doctors’ Forum — summed up his reaction to the pictures to The Hindu.

And if there’s anyone that doesn’t seem too worried, it’s the State government. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who first said that she would be inaugurating the Puja in various neighbourhoods virtually, is now busy cutting the ribbon at various prominent pandals. This change in mind has only emboldened the public: if the Chief Minister can visit the pandals, then it must be safe for them, too.

When asked what exactly made people crowd pandals in spite of the high risk of contracting the virus, Prof. Bula Bhadra, a well-known sociologist, said: “It is the same mentality that led to the laying of the foundation of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya at the time of the pandemic. People get the government they deserve. Both, the people and the governments, are not being responsible.”

According to her, the country went for a lockdown when it did not have to, and lifted the lockdown when it should not have. She also added that it was highly insensitive on part of the people to be out celebrating when a large number of people had died due to COVID-19.

Never before has Kolkata been split in this fashion: while the mood in many neighbourhoods is muted this year, the mood in many others is upbeat as ever, as if nothing has happened. COVID-19, however, will not recognise the boundaries between the localities that are being cautious and those that aren’t.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2020 12:27:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/kolkata-thumbs-nose-at-safety-protocols-as-crowds-throng-puja-pandals/article32892775.ece

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