Authorities in Odisha Tuesday banned religious gatherings at river banks and ghats on Makar Sankranti and Pongal on January 14, while the Uttarakhand government also disallowed devotees from taking a dip in the Ganga at Haridwar and Rishikesh in view of the coronavirus surge.
The move came even as experts warned that allowing the annual Gangasagar Mela -- scheduled between January 8 and 16 on the occasion of Makar Sankranti -- on Sagar Islands, which is about 130 kms from Kolkata, could turn out to be a "super-spreader" event.
According to government orders issued in Uttarakhand, devotees have been asked not to take a bath on Makar Sakranti on the banks of the Ganga in Haridwar and Rishikesh in view of the surge in Covid cases.
The entry of devotees to Har ki Pauri in Haridwar, Triveni Ghat in Rishikesh, and other ghats has been banned, Haridwar District Magistrate Vinay Shankar Pandey and Dehradun District Magistrate R Rajesh Kumar said in their separate orders.
A large number of devotees take the 'holy dip' in the Ganga in Haridwar and Rishikesh on the occasion of Makar Sankranti.
COVID cases have been rising in Uttarakhand over the past few days with a total of 2,127 infections reported on Tuesday and 1,292 the day before.
In Odisha, the office of the Special Relief Commissioner (SRC) said in a fresh set of guidelines that congregations at river banks, ghats, ponds, sea shores or near other water bodies for bathing on the occasion of Makar Sankranti and Pongal and on the following day is prohibited throughout the state.
Since large crowds gather at the temples on the occasion, the order said that all religious places and places of worship will remain closed to the people on Makar Sankranti, Pongal, Makal Mela days.
However, religious rituals will be allowed with a bare minimum number of priests, servitors and staff, it said.
"Religious congregations/ celebrations are strictly prohibited, the order said.
People are advised to perform the rituals and puja on the occasion at their homes with only their family members. They should avoid mass gatherings and adhere to the COVID-19 safety protocols, it said.
Odisha recorded 7,071 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, a sharp rise of 46 per cent over the previous day's figure of 4829 cases and the biggest one-day spike in over seven months, the health department said.
The authorities in the two states announced the ban even as health experts once again advised going ahead with the annual Gangasagar Mela.
They said that the Mela, akin to the Kumbh Mela held at Haridwar and Allahabad among other places, which attracts lakhs of people could transform into a "hot source of transmission of the coronavirus".
"It (Gangasagar Mela) will definitely be a super-spreader. There is no doubt of that. The number of daily cases will be much more than what we are seeing now," Dr Anima Halder, principal of state -run Infectious Diseases and Beliaghata General (ID&BG) Hospital, told PTI.
In the last seven days, West Bengal has witnessed a massive surge in Covid infections with the positivity rate shooting to 37 per cent. West Bengal reported over 24,287 infections on Sunday, the highest since the pandemic began.
A doctors' forum had filed a writ petition before the Calcutta High Court seeking a ban on the gathering.
The HC allowed the Mela to proceed on assurances from the state government that it would take steps to enforce Covid protocols and after ordering that the island be declared a notified areas, a committee be set up to monitor the measures taken, and to ensure that only double vaccinated people who have had RT-PCR Covid tests done 72 hours before reaching Sagar are allowed.
Echoing Dr Halder's apprehensions, Dr Hiralal Konar, one of the conveners of the West Bengal Joint Platform of Doctors, said that there is a very strong possibility of the situation going out of hand and warned the healthcare infrastructure would be severely challenged if that happens.
"Though, we know that the Omicron variant is not as fatal as previous strains, the rate of transmissibility will definitely cause havoc after the congregation has taken place at Sagar Island. This will definitely be a severe challenge to the health infrastructure," Dr Konar told PTI.
Dr Shanta Dutta, director of the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases, also reiterated the same fear stating that controlling people and making them follow safety protocols is a tough task in such a big gathering.
"Distancing while taking the dip? That will not be possible. So, it will definitely pave the way for the virus to transmit more and more," Dr Dutta told PTI.
Copyright©2022 Living Media India Limited. For reprint rights: Syndications Today