Vidisha (Madhya Pradesh): At a time when India was reporting record high Covid-19 figures in the second wave around April, Kanhaiya Lal, a 49-year-old teacher in Gyaraspur, a small town in Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha district, was attending the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar — between 11 and 15 April.
Lal returned home on 16 April, and soon after, started complaining of high fever and body ache. In the next few days, he along with many other people who had returned to the district from the Kumbh Mela, were traced by the administration and tested for Covid.
Lal tested positive, went into isolation and recovered in a few weeks.
But a month on, he is still battling guilt and regret for visiting the religious congregation that some have now started calling a Covid “super spreader“.
“I shouldn’t have gone, not when there was a Covid surge. Cases in Vidisha began rising rapidly after we (Kumbh attendees) returned. That’s when I realised that it had been a mistake,” said Lal.
Lal is not alone in repenting the visit to the mela. Many others in the district — from where highest number of people had gone to Kumbh — shared his feeling. But mixed with this regret was a sense that there had been a lapse on the part of the government.
“The government shouldn’t have allowed it, either. It’s only because the government allowed it that we felt it was safe to go. There’s no way such a congregation should have been allowed in those times,” said Lal.
According to data shared by Additional District Magistrate (ADM), Vidisha, Vrindavan Singh, Lal was one of the 60 returnees who tested positive in Gyaraspur — among the 83 traced in the entire district.
Some of those ThePrint spoke to in Vidisha also questioned the timing of the elections — also crowd-pullers — held in many states that month, arguing that the polls didn’t even have the logic of adhering to religious sentiments that the mela had.
The Kumbh Mela, held between 11 March and 30 April, earned widespread criticism for the Modi government. The religious congregation, where millions gather to take a holy dip, saw extensive flouting of Covid protocols with few people wearing masks and following social distancing.
Following criticism, the government did eventually scale down the gathering from 17 April onwards, announcing that the mela should only continue as a “symbolic” event.
But by then, many Kumbh attendees had already returned to their hometowns. According to the state health bulletin, the total active cases in Madhya Pradesh stood at 55,694 on 15 April. On 17 April, when the situation seemed to be getting out of hand, the state home ministry asked for Kumbh returnees in the state to be traced and tested. By 26 April, the total number of active cases in the state had risen to 95,864.
‘Other mass congregations were curbed…’
“It’s true that because of the Kumbh Mela, cases rose in Vidisha — not so much in urban areas, but definitely in rural areas,” ADM Singh told ThePrint.
In Kherua Haat, a small village in Vidisha, residents said there had been barely any Covid cases till March. Then, a busload of 40-odd villagers travelled to Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela, and when they returned, there was sudden spike in numbers.
ThePrint spoke to a dozen Kumbh Mela attendees from the village who all said, in hindsight, the Kumbh visit this year was a mistake.
Vikram Raghuvanshi, 28, thought he was just being a dutiful nephew, when he took his 50-year-old aunt Maya Bai, whom he addresses as ‘Badi Ma’, with him to the Kumbh Mela for the first snan (bath/dip) on 11 March.
“When we came back, we realised just how quickly the cases began rising because of us. If the mela had been cancelled, none of this would have happened. The village wouldn’t have had to be sealed for weeks,” he said.
The 28-year-old had also tested positive for Covid, though his aunt had not been infected.
What made matters even more precarious was that many of the attendees from the village were elderly — like Govind Raghuvanshi and Bhogiram Raghuvanshi, two brothers, both aged in seventies.
“We went for the first snan in March because cases weren’t as high at that time. But even then, so many of us got Covid and infected others,” said Govind.
Both brothers said they had all the symptoms of Covid after they returned from the Kumbh, but their results were negative. Still, they followed the prescribed Covid treatment and have since recovered.
Govind felt that even if the first snan in March was allowed — the Covid scene wasn’t so out of hand yet — the subsequent days could have been cancelled.
“At least in April, the Mela should have been completely cancelled, given the rise of cases,” he added.
His brother Bhogiram agreed, and gave examples of other gatherings that had been curbed during the pandemic. “If weddings and other mass congregations could be cancelled, why not the Kumbh?” he questioned and added that “there were no restrictions (Covid appropriate behaviour) being adhered to” at the mela.
‘But the elections were also held…’
Some in Vidisha felt that it was the multi-state elections “being held around the same time” that gave people the confidence to attend the mela. If the polls were not being conducted, they felt, the pandemic situation couldn’t be so bad.
“No one stopped the elections in five states. The Kumbh is a matter of Hindu aastha [faith]. But the elections weren’t stopped either, and that resulted in a gathering too. People saw all that crowd and felt it was okay to travel for the Kumbh too,” reasoned Brajesh Kumar, the Kherua haat village sarpanch.
While Kerala, Assam and Tamil Nadu had concluded the polling by 6 April, the final polling of the eight-phase West Bengal assembly election took place on 29 April. In almost all the states where they were held, the elections too were later cited as a reason for the spike in Covid cases.
“The Kumbh mela takes place once in 12 years, so of course believers feel the desire to go. But the government should have stopped the Mela, and not given anyone the permission to visit,” Kamal Singh, another Kumbh attendee said.
His concern had earlier been shared by B.S. Ahirwar, Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Vidisha, who was quoted in newspaper reports last month as having said that the Kumbh returnees could be Covid “super spreaders”.
However, speaking to ThePrint, he now said the Covid spike in MP could not be linked to the Kumbh Mela alone. “Many people came into MP in April, including Kumbh returnees. So we can’t identify what led to the spike,” he said.
He did say, however, that “the timely tracing and quarantining of the Kumbh returnees had helped contain the infection”.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)
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