Gangasagar Mela during 3rd Wave

Last year, the Kumbha Mela at Haridwar formed a massive super spreader from where the second wave of Covid-19 started all over India. Kumbha Mela, the largest religious gathering in the world, was banned by the Uttarakhand Government, though there was no rule stopping pilgrims from visiting as tourists and bathing in the Ganga river. Due to economic as well as cultural reasons, an unofficial gathering of lakhs of people occurred at Haridwar in April 2021. The result was a massive second wave that killed thousands of people all across India.

Gangasagar is the second largest religious gathering, attracting pilgrims from all over the country. Last year, amidst Covid-19, Gangasagar Mela was banned completely and was done online. This resulted in a fairly low Covid-19 count during January and February. Gangasagar Mela is an annual fair occurring every year, unlike the Kumbha Mela, which occurs every year. Hence, doing without the Gangasagar Mela this year would not have caused many problems to the pilgrims and Government alike. However, the Government has walked the other way and has decided to go on with the Gangasagar Mela this year with strict Covid-19 rules.

It is next to impossible to maintain social distancing at a single small beach where lakhs of visitors will bathe on 14th January 2022. It is also impossible to get all pilgrims masked and sanitized at the same time all over the huge island, whether at temple premises or at the ferry. It is also impossible for the Government to mandate RT-PCR tests for pilgrims when there are numerous entry points and means of transportation to Gangasagar island. Most importantly, the state itself is going through its worst phase of Covid-19, when a huge gathering at Park Street, Kolkata during Christmas has become a super spreader for the new Omicron variant of Covid-19.

Gangasagar Mela can be put on hold for the next year, but the rising Covid-19 cases will lead to massive hospitalization and even death of some of our fellow citizens. Hence it is necessary to avoid the crowd as much as possible during the Gangasagar Mela. It is time to stay at home and make Pitha, a winter delicacy in Bengal. It is time to avoid any large gathering for whatever reason despite double vaccination or negative RT-PCR test, because you may contract the virus anytime from someone else. With record Covid-19 cases in West Bengal, it is up to the visitors and the citizens to control the Covid-19 spread and stop the pandemic once and for all.

Written by – Himadri Paul

Is Flight Cancellation Effective Against Covid-19?

Due to the recent increase in Covid-19 cases, many international and domestic flights have been cancelled by the respective State Governments. However, not all flights are cancelled, and the decisions taken at the highest level are quite blurred, which may do more harm than good. Though restrictions in localities and cities are working quite well the flight cancellations are neither feasible to stop passengers from reaching their destination, nor can prevent the community herd of a potential third wave.

Omicron cases are rising fast in Mumbai and Delhi. Amid rising cases, some states in India have imposed flight restrictions directly from these two cities. Taking another metropolis, Kolkata as an example, the flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Kolkata have been banned on all days but Monday and Friday. This restriction, according to the Government of West Bengal, is effective in stopping any Omicron wave in Kolkata. International flights directly from the UK, a hotspot of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, have also been suspended some days back.

The first loophole in the system is how flights operating on Monday and Friday can prevent any third wave in Kolkata, while those on the other days cannot. The mandatory quarantine, or tracing of passengers through the Air Subidha app, can be imposed on the travellers. Moreover, the cancellation was announced hours before the flight schedule, causing panic among passengers, leaving them without an option to travel to their destination.

The second, and possibly the biggest loophole lies in the fact that all express trains from Mumbai and Delhi to Kolkata are running, and there are options for bus travel as well. Most importantly, the travellers in trains or buses do not require any vaccination certificate or a negative RT-PCR test before travel. The travellers by flight need to undergo an RT-PCR test upon arrival in Kolkata, and after 8 days of arrival will need to do another RT-PCR test. If both tests turn negative, the travellers still need to spend 14 days in home isolation. No such restrictions are in place for other means of transportation.

The most controversial part is the third loophole, where the travellers from UK, Mumbai, and Delhi are allowed to come to Kolkata via another city. For example, a traveller, instead of coming directly from Mumbai can travel to Ahmedabad and then take a flight to Kolkata, or in the case of Delhi, can arrive via Lucknow. The Government openly declares that UK, Mumbai and Delhi passengers can come via other cities, without undergoing any severe restrictions.

Bhubaneswar and Jharsuguda airports have not applied such controversial restrictions, and have simply made the RT-PCR test mandatory for all arrivals at the airports. Though Covid-19 can still leak out, it is quite a safe and hassle-free measure for all passengers. However, the most urgent thing required now is wearing masks in the public and frequent sanitisation, which is somehow missing from everywhere across India. The good news among all these is that vaccination of children in 15-18 years have kick-started and this hopes to bring down the severity of infection in the children.

Written by – Himadri Paul

Omicron Variant and Our Concern

Covid-19 pandemic across the globe has taken a new turn on the discovery of a new variant, named Omicron. While there are many other variants of Covid-19, both active and inactive, the Omicron variant has taken the world media by storm. Let us find out in this article what exactly are the concerns in most people’s minds regarding this Omicron strain.

It is known that viruses not only transmit but also change their mutations in each transmission. Usually, these changes are too minute to be detected. However, large variations do occur, and in some cases may lead to a stronger virus with higher transmissibility, greater resistance to vaccines, or even more deadly. Covid-19 coronavirus also underwent several changes since its first detection in Wuhan. At first, the variants were popularly nicknamed from the country of origin. As they caused some kind of racism against a particular country or a particular race, the nomenclature shifted to Greek letters, alpha, beta, gamma, and delta.

WHO classified these variants into two categories – Variants of Interest and Variants of Concern. Variants of Interest are those variants that may in the future cause community transmissions or has the potential to become out of control. Variants of concern are those which have greater transmissibility, can cause severe symptoms, are more fatal, or develop resistance to vaccination. To date, only five of these variants – alpha, beta, gamma, delta and the newly added Omicron have been recognised as Variants of Concern. Variants of Interest at present are only two variations, lambda and mu.

Transmissibility of Omicron is considered much greater than delta, one of the most fatal and widely circulated variants of Covid-19 discovered to date. However, it is yet to be proved as data remains insufficient on the spread of this virus. Neither it has been proved that it is more harmful as it is still under research level. However, preliminary research suggests that it may be much less dangerous than the delta variant despite having greater transmissibility. Omicron has also not gone out of control in most countries, including Botswana and South Africa, the countries of origin of this variant.

South Africa did well to report globally that a new variant of Covid-19 has been detected within its borders. South Africa also did well to make sure awareness and research studies can spread to other nations to initiate effective measures to contain this strain. However, most countries around the world, except for African and some South American ones, are looking at South Africa with suspicion. Most countries have responded with travel bans to South Africa and other African countries, shutting down flights, ships, and different modes of transportation and communication.

This may set an example to other countries to remain silent on new variations, only to save their economy. Also, many countries around the world have significant Covid-19 caseload and high fatality rates from delta variants, who do not have even mandatory Covid-19 protocols such as mandatorily wearing a mask in public. Hence, it is not the right time to panic and stand against South Africa, but work all together to end the pandemic once and for all.

Written by – Himadri Paul

Maintaining Covid-19 Protocols this Diwali

Diwali, the festival of lights, is the biggest festival of Hinduism. Apart from the rituals, and worshipping Ma Laxmi or Ma Kali, Diwali is the time when people burn firecrackers, light their homes, and draw rangolis. Diwali also sees a large migration of the working class of big cities to their birth village or city. As the third wave of Covid-19 looms large after Dussehra, such massive migration may spread Covid-19 even in remote corners of the country according to some experts.

The return of workers, students, and other professionals is impossible to stop, given people seem to have forgotten all about the horrific first and second waves of Covid-19. However, what can be stopped is the celebration in a large gathering. People are hoping to make the most of it this year, as was evident in Durga Puja in West Bengal. The Covid-19 cases in Kolkata and its neighbourhood shot up past 500 from below 200 before the Puja. And studies have revealed a new trend that most of the cases of virus contraction were in individuals receiving double doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. Not only the Puja pandals, shopping centres and restaurants are major spreaders, apart from late-night parties that became active after the State Government lifted the night curfew during the festival. Night clubs and parties have accounted for most of the second wave cases and also is the biggest threat to start off the third wave.

So, should we not celebrate Diwali this year? Experts warn only on gathering and not on the celebration. Every year, Diwali is celebrated at every home with mostly family members. So, the rituals themselves can be done in isolation at home. Marketing is a major concern, and it is best to opt for local markets and shops in the neighbourhood, or online shopping, rather than gather at a shopping mall. Markets have off-late became extremely crowded in this festive season, where hardly anyone is following Covid-19 protocols. The one who is sick or is showing Covid-19 symptoms should take a rest in isolation as this will not only improve the health but also help in curbing any contracted virus. Pandal hopping, especially in parts of West Bengal, should be avoided with no entry allowed inside Puja pandals. Wearing a mask properly when going outside and washing hands frequently are some known Covid-19 protocols people have forgotten nowadays.

Staying at home and following the festival rituals is probably the best option for this Diwali than a late night party that may turn into a super-spreader. Despite taking double vaccine shots, anyone is at risk of contracting the virus, as is evident in recent studies in Covid-19 cases across West Bengal. So, this Diwali, let’s follow the festival’s rituals in their true sense, and maintain the most essential protocol of Covid-19, staying at home and thus avoiding a possible third wave in the future.

Written by – Himadri Paul

Cherry Blossom Festival in India

Cherry blossoms are infamous in Japan, where it is celebrated as a festival called sakura. Many other countries around the world have planted Japanese cherry trees for a cherry blossom festival that attracts huge revenue from tourists. Also, some countries in the world, such as Korea and China, have their native cherry trees, which bloom at the advent of spring. But all over the world, especially in the Americas and Europe, cherry blossoms are associated with Japan, and festivals are organized in parks around blooming Japanese cherry trees.

It is less known that in India, we have our own version of cherry blossom every year in many of our states. India’s own cherry tree, Prunus cerasoides, is native to Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, parts of Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim, Meghalaya, and have subsequently spread to other north-eastern states. Unlike Japanese cherry trees, Prunus cerasoides blooms in autumn. Autumn appears earlier high up in the Himalayas, so by mid-October, you can see the hills of Narkanda, Shimla, Kalpa, Dharamsala covered in a whitish-pink hue. By early to mid-November, cherry blossoms spread to other parts of the country, notably in Shillong in Meghalaya. Like Japanese sakura, the bloom occurs for a short period of only one or two weeks.

Like its Japanese cousin, Prunus cerasoides is considered sacred in Hinduism, and the flowers are used in worshipping Vishnu and Shiva. It is called in Hindi as padmakashtha. However, very little was known about it beyond its native range until 2016. Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (IBSD), a national institute under the Department of Biotechnology, in collaboration with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), took the first initiative to set up a cherry blossom festival in Shillong. Dinabandhu Sahoo, the director of IBSD, was particularly inspired by wild cherry blossoms in the countryside around Shillong and was keen to establish a festival of international standard like most other countries around the globe. India’s cherry blossom festival does not coincide with the ones in Japan, or other countries around the world as the blossoms arrive late autumn, making it a unique cherry blossom viewing around the globe. Notably, Japan is very interested in India’s cherry blossom festival and is looking forward to promoting it among Indians and abroad.

Like 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a drop in tourism in the north-eastern states of India. As such, no cherry blossom festival was held, but the flowers, in their usual might, bloomed in the second week of November. This year also no cherry blossom festival will be celebrated, though the flowers will bloom in time. However, when the pandemic eases out, it will surely be a hit among Indian and foreign tourists, who love to see the landscape turn green to pink. Ward’s lake in Shillong is the most popular site of the cherry blossom festival, though there is also Umiam Lake. We only need good promotion, a festive mood, tourism infrastructure, and most importantly, awareness to make our own cherry blossom festival a success.

So, have you seen cherry blossoms in India? Do let us know in the comment section below.

Written by – Himadri Paul