OPINION

Faith can’t override public health

The U.P. govt.’s move to proceed with the Ayodhya ‘mela’ defies WHO guidelines and its own advisory

That mass gatherings, especially in enclosed spaces, provide the perfect conditions for novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) to easily spread became amply clear early on during the COVID-19 outbreak. The number of cases reported from the Diamond Princess cruise ship kept increasing before reaching 712; half-a-dozen jails in China reported over 500 cases. Both in Singapore and South Korea, large clusters of cases have had their origin in churches.

Countries across the world, from China to Italy, have been taking the World Health Organization (WHO)’s advice of quarantining and social distancing seriously to contain the spread of the virus. Taking a cue from these, many sporting events, from Formula 1 racing events to tennis, basketball, football and cricket championships, including the Indian Premier League, have been put off or cancelled.

Government advisory

On March 6, when the number of cases crossed 1,00,000 globally and stood at 31 in India, the Union government advised all States to avoid or postpone mass gatherings till the COVID-19 outbreak was contained. It wanted States to take precautions in case mass gatherings were held. Earlier, taking the advice of experts to avoid mass gatherings to cut the transmission chain, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that he was not going to celebrate Holi. Making a similar announcement, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath also appealed to people of his State to “refrain from attending social functions”. Soon after the March 6 advisory, educational institutions, malls, theatres, to name a few, were shut in many States. Mumbai ordered private companies to work with 50% staff capacity.

But, just a couple of weeks later, at a time when even mass gatherings involving a few hundred people are being discouraged, the U.P. government has said that the Ayodhya Ram Navami Mela will be held as planned from March 25 to April 2. The mela , which attracts lakhs of tourists every year, will be of special significance this time as it will be the first such function after the apex court’s Ayodhya verdict. At a time when the virus seems to have gained renewed vigour and is marching across countries, infecting thousands and killing hundreds each day, a congregation of such magnitude could have serious consequences and shift the trajectory of the outbreak in India.

Tradition cannot be allowed to override public health, especially when it cannot be guaranteed that the number of people congregating can be reduced or precautions instituted. More so when the virus in question is highly infectious, while India’s healthcare system is weak and cannot take a frontal assault by the virus if hundreds of people manifest serious symptoms. There have been several recent instances when large gatherings have had disastrous consequences.

On International Women’s Day on March 8, over 1,20,000 people marched through Madrid. The same day, over 60,000 fans gathered at the city’s largest stadiums and 9,000 supporters of Vox party assembled inside a sports centre. Less than a week later, the number of cases shot up from a few hundred to 4,200. Today, with more than 13,700 cases, Spain has the third highest number of cases outside China.

Examples of Malaysia and Iran

In Malaysia, over 16,000 people gathered in late-February in a mosque complex in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur for a four-day meeting. Of the 790+ cases in Malaysia so far, nearly two-thirds are linked to the event. The city of Qom in Iran, where the first case and death were reported, is full of holy sites that people touch and kiss. Qom soon turned into a hotspot and played a role in the virus’s spread to the rest of Iran. While in South Korea, a day after cases soared by 833 in a single day, the church halted masses at more than 1,700 locations across the country.

It is time we learn from the experiences of other countries and act wisely and not allow religious fervour cloud our discretion.

prasad.ravindranath@thehindu.co.in

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