A Naga Sadhu or naked holy man takes a holy dip in the river Ganges during Shahi Snan of Kumbh Mela 2021 (AP Photo)
India is likely to witness a further surge in COVID-19 cases with two festivals -- Holi and the Kumbh Mela 2021-- around the corner. Crowd sizes are expected to swell during three upcoming holy bathing days.
The government has raised concerns about the recent uptick in cases during Kumbh Mela. The Health Ministry has directed the Uttarakhand government to follow all the "stringent measures" to control the spread of the deadly virus during the Kumbh Mela.
In a letter to Uttarakhand Chief Secretary, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan highlighted the concerns raised by the high-level central team during its visit to Uttarakhand.
Kumbh Mela 2021: Important dates, COVID-19 guidelines and more you need to know
A central team led by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) Director has visited Uttarakhand on March 16-17 to review the medical and public health measures undertaken by the state for the ongoing Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, the Health Ministry said in a statement.
Could Kumbh Mela be a super-spreader event?
In his letter to the Uttarakhand Chief Secretary, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan noted that around 10-20 pilgrims and 10-20 locals are being reported positive every day.
"This positivity rate has the potential to rapidly turning to an upsurge in cases, given the expected large footfall during Kumbh," the ministry said in its statement.
Read: Enhance COVID testing, ensure adequate care facilities in view of Kumbh: Centre to Uttarakhand govt
In case of a surge in cases/super spreader events, promptly send samples for genome sequencing in consultation with NCDC, the ministry said.
"It has been noted that there is a potential of an upsurge in cases in the local population after the auspicious Shahi Snan days during the Kumbh Mela," the ministry said.
It further said that more than 12 states in India have shown a surge in COVID-19 cases during the past few weeks, and pilgrims expected to visit Haridwar during the Kumbh Mela could also be from these states.
COVID-19 protocols to be followed
The Uttarakhand government has mandated the registration of the saints coming to attend the Kumbh. Also, a COVID-19 negative test report is mandatory. The devotees will have to get their RT-PCR test done 72 hours before participating in the Kumbh.
The SOP also makes it compulsory for devotees to bring a medical fitness certificate and an e-pass or e-permit issued to them after registering on the Kumbh Mela web portal.
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As far as possible, people must maintain a six-foot distance in public places and wear masks, the SOP stated.
Enforcement agencies have been told to levy penalties on those not wearing masks or face covers or for not following physical distancing norms.
The SOP is to be adhered to at all facilities in the Kumbh Mela area, including parking lots, ghats, railway stations, bus stands, hotels, guest houses, ashrams, and dharmashalas during the entire duration of the event.
Arrangements made by the Uttarakhand government
According to an IANS report, 100 teams have been constituted for thermal screening while the teams performing the COVID-19 tests have been increased to 50 from 40 and the ambulances have also been increased to 54 from 32.
A team of 100 doctors and 148 paramedical staff from Uttar Pradesh has also been deployed at the site.
The state is also set to ramp up COVID-19 testing after the Health Ministry noted that the daily testing numbers reported in Haridwar -- 50,000 Rapid Antigen tests and 5,000 RTPCR tests -- are not enough to effectively offset a huge number of expected pilgrim footfall.
The state government has also been advised to follow scrupulously the SOPs issued by the ministry and display signage to disseminate the main points of these SOPs.
This year Kumbh Mela will be organised for a shorter span, from April 1 to 30. Three 'Shahi Snans' will be performed in April. On April 12 and 14, all the 13 Akharas will take the holy dip, while on April 27 Bairagi Akhara will take the holy dip.Click here for Moneycontrol's full coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak