India’s Covid-19 task force chief sounds alarm bell over festival crowds, says vigilance ‘critical’

For the past week, the daily caseload addition has fallen below 20,000 — a situation similar to late February and early March before the second wave hit. (IE)

The chief of India’s Covid-19 task force has issued a warning of a surge in case amid visuals on social media of crowds throning the popular Sarojini Nagar market in Delhi for the festival season.

The visuals showed few people wearing masks, the absence of thermal screening at entry points, and negligible social distancing.

According to VK Paul, India’s Covid-19 task force chief, the country had administered 75% of its adult population with at least one vaccine dose.

But he also said India needed to achieve saturation coverage at the earliest with two doses. At this juncture, however, there is still a need to continue following preventive precautions.

Paul told The Indian Express that there could not be large gatherings and urged people to celebrate the festivities at home. He added that India could not afford to lower its guard and urged people to adopt Covid-appropriate behaviour.

India cannot let the pandemic go out of control, he said, adding that both vaccine and vigilance were critical for the next three months.

Paul said this message was being reinforced in communications with states and local administrations continuously.

Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya met with officials of 19 states and Union Territories on October 9, two days after Navratri began, to discuss the measures undertaken to check the virus’ spread during the festival season.

He emphasised that the festivals might derail Covid-19 containment if they were not celebrated following Covid protocols.

Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan, on September 21, sent a detailed communication to the state governments asking them to maintain vigil during this “critical period”.

Bhushan said there could be a propensity to ignore Covid-appropriate behaviour during the festival season, leading to large events and gatherings.

It is critical to enforce Covid-appropriate guidelines for the festivities, he had said. Any laxity in implementation could lead to serious consequences and lead to a surge in cases, he had warned.

Bhushan’s communication also directed the states to not allow mass gatherings as a matter of “abundant caution”. He, however, said there could be assemblies of a limited number of people in districts with a positivity rate of less than 5% with prior permission.

During the meeting on October 9, Bhushan had stressed on provision for online darshan at important shrines, symbolic ritual observation, and separate entry and exit points at places allowing gatherings.

According to officials, the situation was critical, especially now that tourism was likely to take off after airlines were permitted to operate at full capacity from next week and the Centre granting fresh tourist visas to foreigners reaching India in “bubble flights” from November 15.

As the Covid caseload began to decline in July, the return of domestic tourists to popular sites in large numbers led to a surge in active cases in many places.

Kerala’s withdrawal of restrictions during festivals led to a rise in infections, while Maharashtra and Gujarat also reported an uptick in cases following the recent festivities.

For the past week, the daily caseload addition has fallen below 20,000 — a situation similar to late February and early March before the second wave hit.

The officials said the vaccination drive had covered a large section of the population. India has jabbed nearly 70 crore of the close to 93 crore eligible adults 18 years with at least one dose while around 28 crore have been fully vaccinated.

But the officials warned that even a few super-spreader events could trigger a chain reaction that could return India’s daily caseload in the 40,000-50,000 range.

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