Kolkata: As Durga Puja festivities begin, experts warn that the West Bengal government’s guidelines to control the spread of COVID-19 during the state’s biggest festival would only work if there is less crowding. Many are worried about COVID-19 superspreader events and a possible spread to districts that currently have lower infection prevalence.

This year, 37,000 pujas will be organised across Bengal, including 2,509 in Kolkata, even as the fifth phase of theUnlock” is under way. Last year’s pujo season saw 2,500 pandals across Kolkata alone that raked up six million visitors, said Partha Dutta, sergeant, Kolkata Traffic Police.

Updated guidelines were issued on October 9, following a spike when the state recorded its highest single-day tally of 3,612 cases on October 11--just days before the commencement of the festival and well into the usual pre-Puja shopping sprees--and has been recording new single-day peaks since.

The Calcutta High Court stepped in on October 19 and ordered that no one except organisers be allowed inside pandals. “This order should reduce crowding to some extent,” said Polly Roy, professor of virology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “It is really not good to have puja celebrations in big pandals which invite large crowds. It is common sense that there should be no gatherings at all, otherwise more people would be infected and it would not be possible to prevent the virus from spreading,” she said.

However, some doubt this would change the situation much. “If there are crowds on the streets there may be more physical closeness and jostling near the entrances of the pandals,” said Partho Sarothi Ray, an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata. “Therefore, stopping entry into pandals might not help much.”

Police and government officials are expecting a lower turnout this year due to the ongoing pandemic, said Subhankar Sinha Sarkar, joint commissioner of Kolkata Police. “It is tough to predict something like this, but I am hoping the crowds during Pujas would be 30-40% less,” said Dutta, the traffic police sergeant. “At least a certain number of people might not want to risk their health and choose to stay at home. But Durga Puja is a big deal for Bengalis, so I would not be surprised if it turns out to be like other years, though I am really hoping against it.”

People shop at Kolkata’s Gariahat markets ahead of Durga Puja, West Bengal’s biggest festival. The state has been recording new single-day peaks since October 11.

Surging since Unlock

COVID-19 cases have increased with each successive unlock phase, government data show. Till May 31, the last day of the countrywide lockdown, Bengal had recorded 5,501 cases in all, of which 3,027 were still active. In a month after Unlock 1.0, the total number of COVID-19 cases had increased by almost 237% to 18,559. Total cases as of October 18 stood at 321,036 in the state.

The resumption of public transport, and the reopening of offices, businesses, markets, restaurants, bars and malls as well as places of worship, have contributed to this steady rise, experts said.

Public transport resumed in Kolkata in June, and passenger numbers and traffic have visibly increased over the last month, said Dutta. “Still, commuter numbers and traffic levels are lower than pre-COVID levels as certain sectors have not yet resumed operations. The vehicle density ratio is also lower than pre-COVID levels during rush hour,” he added.

The spike in commuter numbers and traffic has coincided with shoppers thronging malls and markets such as New Market and Gariahat. While there is no system in place to estimate numbers flocking to New Market or the markets in Gariahat, Kolkata’s malls witnessed almost pre-COVID level crowds with a footfall of 1.2 million between October 5 and 11 and their sales were at almost 70% of previous year. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation, in an attempt to control overcrowding in markets, ordered hawkers in Gariahat markets to wind up by 2 p.m. and clear the pavements by 3 p.m. October 18 onwards.

Amid all this, one encouraging development was that testing had rapidly increased since the first confirmed case on March 17, said Ray of IISER. From 539 tests completed in all of March, 3.2 million samples had been tested in Bengal by the end of September with an average of 44,660 tests per day in September.

Urban areas are hotspots

All it takes for the virus to spread further “is a susceptible population and the introduction of the infection”, Giridhar Babu, head of Life Course Epidemiology at the Public Health Foundation of India, told IndiaSpend on September 24.

If Kerala’s Onam celebrations and the subsequent spike are anything to go by, Bengal is likely to have a COVID-19 surge once the Durga Puja festivities end. During the festive period, the state could witness large gatherings and increased movement of people within, and across, districts--the perfect conditions for the virus to spread. “Even one or two infected individuals without any symptoms can spread the virus in the community very fast in such a situation. It is happening in the United Kingdom and other countries too,” said Roy, the professor of virology.

As per Covid19India.org, a volunteer-driven crowdsourced COVID-19 tracker, the worst affected places in West Bengal are the North and South 24 Parganas, Kolkata, Howrah and Hooghly--all urban areas. Of the total 321,036 cases recorded by October 18, these areas collectively accounted for more than 60%. On the other hand, almost all of North Bengal--Uttar Dinajpur, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar and Coochbehar--have accounted for 10.9% of total cases as of October 18. With the exception of Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling (Siliguri township), the rest are largely rural.

The main crowding during the pujas occurs in the urban areas, specifically in Kolkata more than anywhere else, said Ray of IISER. The city alone had accounted for almost 22% of the total cases till October 18. Pandals are also popular in districts such as Malda, East Bardhaman, West Bardhaman (Durgapur and Asansol townships), Murshidabad (Baharampur township), Nadia (Santipur) and Paschim Medinipur (Kharagpur). Among these, Paschim Medinipur and Nadia accounted for the highest number of cases, at 3.8% and 3.1%, respectively, as of October 18.

The pandemic has been spreading faster in cities than in rural districts, found a sero-surveillance study conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research. More than a quarter of the people tested in Kolkata had developed antibodies, found a recent study by private testing lab Thyrocare, accessed by IndiaSpend. The survey involving 18,476 people from Kolkata and 46,785 people from Bengal found Kolkata’s sero-positivity rate was 29% while that of the state was 26%. Places such as Howrah, North and South 24 Parganas and Hooghly also had high antibody prevalence of 31%, 23% and 25%, respectively.

This was a positive development, said Ray, hinting at the possibility of herd immunity. “Although it is too early to talk about [herd immunity], but if a large percentage of the population in the cities [approaching 30% or more] is seropositive and therefore possibly protected from infection, it suggests a movement towards that direction,” said Ray. “This could afford some protection against superspreading in the cities.” However, this also meant that districts with lower COVID-19 numbers might see a spike after the festive period due to lower probability of herd immunity, warned Ray.

The other thing to be wary of is that a lot of people from Bengal who have moved elsewhere tend to return home during this time every year, said Aniruddha Sen Gupta, a senior medical officer working with the World Health Organization. While the numbers of international returnees might be low, domestic travellers have been reportedly increasing over the past month despite some restrictions on direct flights from six cities including Mumbai and Delhi. With tourism also gradually resuming, people might choose to flock to the hills in North Bengal during the vacation period, Sengupta added, taking the infection to places where the transmission rate is still very low.

Economic vs political reasons

Going ahead with puja celebrations despite health risks could be a political decision, said a state health ministry official on the condition of anonymity. Bengal, just a month earlier, was implementing two-day lockdowns every week to check the spread of the disease. With less than eight months to go for the state elections, this is a rather crucial Durga Puja for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to gain supporters from all sections, the official said. “More so, after the Bharatiya Janata Party won nearly half the seats in Bengal in the 2019 general elections. This has been quite a concerning development considering how the Trinamool Congress has repeatedly enjoyed clean sweeps after coming to power since 2011,” the official added.

Trinamool Congress spokespersons have not responded to IndiaSpend emails seeking a response on the political reasons for going ahead with Durga Puja festivities this year while the police refused to divulge what its advice was to the government on Puja celebrations: “We cannot tell you that,” said Sarkar, joint commissioner of Kolkata Police.

Many sectors are dependent on the festival, said Asamanja Chattopadhyay, public relations and social media manager of Panchanantala Sarbojanin Durgotsab, a Durga Puja committee, at Chinsurah in Hooghly district. “And as such, it is necessary to go ahead with the celebrations which might help improve the economic condition of the state too. This includes artisans of Kumortuli and folk artistes in rural Bengal whose entire livelihoods depend upon receiving commissions for Pujo,” Chattopadhyay added. Thousands of jobs, including building pandals, decoration, lights, food, equipment rental and performers, are created during pujas.

Social distancing nightmare

The state government has announced a grant of Rs 50,000 to each Puja committee to ensure they are adequately funded to implement the guidelines that emphasise social distancing, use of masks, sanitisation and an online shift.

Experts agreed that masks, hand hygiene and social distancing were essential at this time, but were skeptical about their practicability during the festival. “Even though the chief minister has advised to draw circles and mark out spaces for social distancing, it is debatable how far people would actually stick to it unless there is impeccable coordination and strict monitoring in place by the police and organising committees,” said Roy, the virology professor.

Various puja organisers have tried to adapt. Some have planned drive-in darshan, enabling people to pay obeisance to the idols without having to exit their vehicles. Others, such as north Kolkata’s Shobhabazar Rajbari, one of the big names, have announced they will not allow any visitors.

Traffic control during puja entails management of overcrowded roads and altered traffic routes to accommodate pandals (elaborate tableaux with idols and decorations). Doing this while ensuring social distancing would require a bigger task force on the ground, said Goutam Sengupta, a motor transport officer with Kolkata Traffic Police. “This would be especially difficult in cities, as they have very limited street space with quite a high vehicle density ratio, which only worsens during the festival,” he said.

If people flout social distancing rules and do not adhere to the guidelines, there’s likely to be utter mismanagement all around, said Serene Adak of the West Bengal Health and Family Welfare department. “Not only the medical staff, organising committees or the police--the civilians too have to undertake equal responsibility and precautions to maintain decorum,” she said.

What the state must do

Crowding during Durga Puja has to be minimised, said Ray of IISER.

After hitting a new single-day record with 3,983 new cases on October 18, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation took the first step in that direction and ordered hawkers in south Kolkata’s Gariahat and Hatibagan markets to wind up their stalls by 2 p.m. in order to reduce overcrowding in markets.

Putting the onus on individuals to proactively try and limit the spread of the virus, Roy said, people would need to take self-precautionary measures such as wearing masks, maintaining a distance of two metres at all times and carrying their own flowers for rituals. “They should not accept food or water from the priests or anyone else,” she added.

If a surge is noticed, like in Kerala after Onam, the most effective way to bring the situation back under control would be to isolate and track the virus presence in each infected person, said Roy. However, contact tracing methods in the state must be improved, said Ray. Bengal is placed below the 50th percentile in terms of people tested per million in the country, as per a study on the laboratory surveillance for COVID-19 between January 22 and April 30 published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research. On average, contact tracing had been done at only 3.4 contacts per case confirmed among symptomatic contacts or asymptomatic family members, and at 7.6 including uncertain contacts, according to the study.

Rigorous and rapid testing methods should be used regardless of symptoms, said experts. Special task forces ought to be created for each district, with medical professionals, administrative officials and volunteers assigned to each area or locality for routine temperature checks, constant monitoring of symptoms and sharing of such data on public platforms. Further sero-surveillance studies are necessary, said experts, adding that areas which are more susceptible should be kept under close watch.

Most importantly, however, the experts mentioned that there should be free and detailed sharing of information at all times. They have also pointed out that data obfuscation can turn out to be extremely dangerous in the face of a likely surge in cases, keeping in mind how the state government was alleged to have suppressed data in the past.

(Datta is a freelance reporter and photographer. Shrenik Avlani edited the story and also contributed to the reporting.)

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