A team of the Health Ministry has reported that nearly 10-20 pilgrims and 10-20 locals at the Kumbh Mela, ongoing in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, are being reported positive every day. Such a rate had the potential to rapidly turn into an ‘upsurge’ in cases. This assumes significance given Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat, stating that a negative COVID-19 test wouldn’t be a requirement for those intending to visit Haridwar.
The Uttarakhand government had also been told that the daily testing numbers being reported in Haridwar, around 50,000 rapid antigen tests and 5,000 RT PCR test, were inadequate given the expected number of pilgrims.
The team, led by Sujeet Kumar Singh, Director, National Centre of Disease Control in Delhi, had visited Uttarakhand on March 16 and 17 to review the medical and public health preparedness measures undertaken by the State for the Mela.
Rajesh Bhushan, Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, wrote to Uttarakhand Chief Secretary Utpal Kumar Singh on Sunday, highlighting the concerns raised by the NCDC-led team.
The government has been advised to “scrupulously follow” the Health Ministry’s guidelines such as including display signages, increasing awareness of self-reporting symptoms of cases suggestive of COVID-19, to increase testing, particularly, in potential high transmission areas, continuing the periodic testing of frontline workers before and after key auspicious days of the 30-day festival. Were the number of cases to surge, the State ought to be “promptly sending” samples for genome sequencing.
Mr. Rawat’s predecessor, Trivendra Singh Rawat, had mandated a negative test as part of the Standard Operation Procedure for pilgrims. The incumbent Rawat, following a meeting of the State Cabinet last week, said while guidelines such as “masking and sanitising” would be followed there would no obstructions to the ‘smooth’ movement of people. “We have increased the number of buses to transport people and seers to the various pilgrimage spots. This event happens once in 12 years and it would be wrong to discourage people from taking a holy dip.”
The Mela-linked ceremonies are expected to last for most of next month with several days in April corresponding to “Shahi snaans” (royal bath) expected to see upwards of 5 million converge on a single day. A formal order specifying new guidelines that pilgrims are expected to adhere to is expected to be made public by the month end.