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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 18, New Delhi, April 17, 2021

Letter to the Readers, Mainstream, Apr 17, 2021

Friday 16 April 2021

Letter to the Readers, Mainstream, April 17, 2021

Since the first week of February 2021 India has seen a steady rise of Covid19 infections that have expanded at a very rapid pace and made the country into the new global hotspot for the COVID 19 pandemic. On April 15, 2021 the official count recorded 216,850 new cases of the disease. In January 2021 India’s health minister had proclaimed that the country had “successfully contained the pandemic”. Soon after restrictions were lifted on social and religious gatherings. A huge religious congregation —the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival has been taking place in Northern India and drawing crowds estimated to be over three million (the Kumbh Mela of Haridwar has been on since mid-January 2021; a report on the official notification of 27 Dec 2020 regarding the 48-day festival can be found here). According to The Lancet a top scientific journal "superspreading events account for substantial SARS-CoV-2 transmission; indeed, such events may be the pandemic’s primary drivers". Media reports tell us that the devotees in Kumbh in very large numbers have not been observing social distancing nor wearing masks and no wonder 1,701 people have tested positive for Covid-19 between April 10-14 at the Haridwar Kumbh Mela. Epidemiologists and Virologists closely observing the situation point at new variants in India that are more infectious have helped rapidly spread the disease.

There is some concern among scholars over the veracity of medical statistics made available officially which lists the number of daily infections and records daily deaths. Some institutions abroad that work on health metrics have been observing and recording International medical data project much higher figures for India.

It is being estimated by some that the current high level of daily cases could multiply two and half times and there could be a similar multiplication in per day deaths in a month’s time. A study on Mumbai is projecting that fatalities will peak by early May 2021. Even before we get there is already a near-collapse of the medical infrastructure in many states. There are shortages of medicines and essential medical equipment. India has a huge population of 1.3 billion – where around 108 million people have been vaccinated so far, too small a number to curb the second wave.

The BJP government in Uttarakhand state has acted in a very irresponsible manner by granting permission for the ’Maha Kumbh Mela’ religious festival in Haridwar despite knowing of the public health dangers and the chances of such an event becoming a super-spreader of coronavirus. Tirath Singh Rawat, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand and a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has continuously downplayed the risks saying there should be no “rok-tok” (curbs) and suggested that religious sentiment needed to be given priority over health concerns. On March 21, National newspapers carried full-page advertisements of Chief Minister Rawat and Prime Minister Modi welcoming devotees to the Kumbh Mela (see also here) This was an open violation of public health protocols in times of a pandemic. Some people are above the law, top politicians have an air of immunity about them and yes they can get away with murder in India. (Mr. Rawat who had himself tested positive for COVID-19 on March 22 despite that has continued to argue for restriction-free religious congregation — unlike the previous BJP government in Uttrakhand, among the reasons is the influential traders and tourism lobby in Haridwar and also the politically powerful religious bodies called ’Akaras’ that are close to the RSS).

Readers would remember that In March 2020, a mosque in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin area was shut down following the filing of a Police case over a Tablighi Jamaat sect gathering of some 5000 people. Swift action was taken and the charges were filed under the Epidemics Act [The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 is a colonial-era legislation is used as the primary law to control a mass epidemic]. We doubt very much if public health officials & administration will have the courage to invoke the Epidemics Act move against the organisers and promoters of the Kumbh Mela. Without much ado, the Kumbh Mela must be shut down immediately. Given the surge and spread of the pandemic, exceptional measures must be taken. There should be restrictions on all mass gatherings religious or political. The Election Commission of India which is responsible for organising Assembly elections should also take note and try to group together the remaining rounds of elections and restrict election campaign rallies unless they observe social distancing and wearing of Masks.

Tributes:

IA Rehman the outstanding Pakistani journalist, progressive social commentator, and a towering spirit behind the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and also a co-founder of the cross border peace platform – the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) passed away on April 12, 2021 in Lahore. He was 90 years old.
Rehman saheb was highly respected for his unwavering commitment to the rights of all citizens. He will be fondly remembered in Pakistan and beyond.

Vira Sathidar, was a rights activist who had long been associated with the political group the ‘Dalit Panthers’, he was also poet, singer and the editor of the Marathi magazine Vidrohi. A few years ago, he had acted in a very influential film called The Court. He passed away on April 13, 2021 in Nagpur due to COVID-19.

We pay our tributes to the above figures

April 17, 2021 – The Editors

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