Kumbh Mela, Haridwar: On 15 April, I was sitting in my hotel room in Haridwar, filing a report on the Kumbh Mela’s third shahi snaan (royal bath), when at 8.44 am, I got a text message (image below) from the Government of India saying my sample for a Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) had been successfully collected, along with the routine advice to isolate.
That’s odd, I thought. Curious, I clicked on the link that accompanied the message. A PDF (embedded below) of the ICMR Specimen Referral Form, complete with my name and phone number, opened up. It showed that my sample had been collected in Haridwar and that my result was negative.
This outcome would have not been alarming, except that I had never taken a RAT, had not filled out any Specimen Referral Form (SRF) and wasn’t at any testing facility at the time my sample was purportedly collected. In fact, at the time I was sitting in my hotel, typing out a story.
So, what had just happened?
The Uttarakhand government had on 25 March, made it mandatory for anyone attending the Kumbh Mela to have tested negative in a RT-PCR test.
Like many others, I had presented my negative certificate while crossing the Narsan border on 13 April. Booths had been set up to collect information of travellers coming in, and were manned by police personnel and volunteers.
A pair of volunteers, who worked with one of the three empanelled private laboratories making registrations and conducting tests, had noted down my name and address, and stamped a piece of paper that acknowledged my result was negative. I was allowed to enter without any hassle.
At the time, I didn’t think much of the exercise, but when I received the text message two days later, I called one of the volunteers whose numbers I had happened to take down.
“We have to register every negative RT-PCR report that comes our way and generate an SRF number with it. We registered the negative result and did your entry through the Rapid Antigen Test, and put it as negative,” he said. He explained they were having data entry problems, which is why I had received the message two days later.
“It’s not just you, we have done this with everyone who presented a negative RT-PCR certificate to us,” the volunteer assured me.
Instead of assuring me, though, it made me wonder what this would mean for the state’s positivity rate, and how this data could disrupt the big picture of gauging how Uttarakhand was handling its Covid situation.
Also read: Govt ‘data’ on Covid cases, and ‘fresh start’ for virus at Kumbh Mela
A double negative
Not everyone who attended the mela had the same experience, it turned out. Most other travellers I had spoken to said they hadn’t received any such text message. But I wasn’t the only one either.
A doctor, who did not wish to discuss the matter particularly, said he had a similar experience in March. In his case, the ICMR SRF showed his sample had been taken by a private laboratory for an RT-PCR test, and that the results were not in yet. He had escalated the matter to authorities immediately.
When I spoke to the Chief Medical Officer of Haridwar, Dr S.K. Jha, he said, “This is incorrect and we will look into it. This shouldn’t be happening, as police should check the negative certificates and let those cars go. We will take corrective measures immediately.” Dr Jha oversees testing of travellers at the Narsan border.
Data from the Haridwar health department shows that on 15 April, till 8pm, 2,987 people had been tested at the Narsan border, and 2,875 had already been tested and shown their result before passing through. Three diagnostic labs — Tata Medical and Diagnostics, Dr Ahuja’s Pathology Lab and Novice Pathology — had been empanelled by the government to conduct tests at the border.
“This isn’t the protocol that is meant to be followed. We empanelled private labs to help us out for the Kumbh mela. No one with a negative RT-PCR should be re-tested nor their number used to produce a RAT report when a sample wasn’t given. We will look into this,” Dr Jha added.
Also read: Returning from Kumbh Mela? Delhi govt makes 14-day home quarantine mandatory
Chaos at Kumbh
At the Kumbh Mela, I spent two days reporting on the lack of enforcement of Covid-19 norms on the ground, and the subsequent exodus of seers who tested positive after participating in the shahi snaans.
Several doctors and nursing staff who were in charge of testing at the mela said seers were outright refusing to get tested, and in some cases, aggressively so. By evening, as it inched closer to the time for the Ganga Aarti began, crowds on the banks of the river only swelled — people pressed up together like dozens of sardines in a can. By then, police were also making no efforts to maintain social distancing among people, and testing booths remained largely empty.
Although the mela will now continue only “symbolically”, the effects of Covid-19 infections can already be felt in the small district, which recorded 634 cases on 18 April.
This will likely reverberate across the state, which is seeing a similar spike in cases and test positivity, which is currently at 8 per cent.
“The state government allowed this to happen. It’ll wreck havoc, and we will have to be the ones to clean up the mess,” an official in the district health department told me.
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)
Also read: British govt to Modi govt — How Kumbh Mela has been organised through epidemics
We are such a bunch of morons! Even the example of Pakistan next door of how not to allow religion to be mixed in politics hasn’t woken us up. Now the religious fundamentalists have made us the object of ridicule and infamy in Covid management among all nations.
Will Shekhar Gupta call Kumbh Mela a ‘crime against humanity’ as he had done it to the Tablighi event last year?
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