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Friday, January 28, 2022

Makar Sankranti: Lakhs throng Gangasagar Mela amid Covid surge, more expected on Saturday

Since Friday, lakhs of devotees have been congregating at the mela ground in West Bengal's Sagardwip, flouting Covid norms. Several were spotted without masks and even taking the customary holy dip in the sea.

Written by Atri Mitra | Kolkata |
Updated: January 15, 2022 5:31:59 am
Since Friday, however, lakhs have been congregating at the mela ground flouting Covid norms, many of them without masks.(Reuters)

Amid the third wave of Covid, which is largely driven by the Omicron variant, lakhs of devotees arrived at Sagardwip in the state, where the Gangasagar Mela is under way, to take a holy bath at the point where the Ganges joins the Bay of Bengal. With Makar Sankranti celebrations commencing, the district administration is expecting more devotees on Saturday.

Though the Calcutta High Court has allowed the government to organise the mela, the court has also formed a two-member committee to monitor the arrangements. The panel will give instructions and oversee if the state government’s affidavit on Covid rules is being complied with. The instructions have to be implemented by the Chief Secretary as per the direction of the division bench. The court had also ordered that only those with a negative RT-PCR report in the past 72 hours can visit the mela.

Since Friday, however, lakhs have been congregating at the mela ground flouting Covid norms, many of them without masks. Devotees were also spotted taking the customary holy dip in the sea. District officials said they have arranged around 20 Covid-safe drones, which were seen buzzing over the devotees and spraying them with holy water as they chanted. A senior official of the South 24 Parganas district administration said, “We have arranged announcements asking to maintain Covid protocols, and are sprinkling a mix of sanitiser and holy water using drones. Despite the arrangements, many devotees are taking the holy bath and flouting the limit of 50 persons at a time, but we’re unable to prevent them from doing so.”

The celebrations come at a time when West Bengal has been struggling with a daily caseload of over 20,000 fresh Covid cases and a positivity rate of more than 30 per cent. On Thursday, the state’s positivity rate rose to 32.13 per cent, while it was 30.86 per cent on Wednesday. A section of experts and doctors have already expressed concern over such large gatherings and worry that it may turn into a “super spreader” event.

Nevertheless, the state government has gone ahead with its plans to conduct the mela even after the move invited sharp criticism from the Opposition and sections of the medical fraternity. Inaugurating the mela, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had on Wednesday urged all Gangasagar-bound pilgrims to “strictly follow Covid-19 guidelines” while advising those showing symptoms not to visit the fair.

Officials said Covid testing facilities have been set up at all entry points of Sagar Island and every devotee will be screened. All health facilities have buffer zones and first aid centres, down the 110 km length from Outram Ghat, Kolkata to Sagar Island. Besides, rapid testing facilities have been arranged at 13 locations, including bus stands and railway stations.

Four dedicated Covid hospitals have been tasked with handling possible cases. They have a total capacity of 500 beds and will coordinate with the screening points. Other than that, facilities with 1,910 beds are being set up between Outram Ghat and the island, besides five SARI (Severe Acute Respiratory Illness) isolation wards with a bed capacity of 125, and four ‘safe homes’ with 235 beds.

Seven quarantine centres, with a total of 435 beds, will accommodate direct contacts of Covid patients. The district administration has also set aside six dedicated cremation grounds as well as six burial grounds for “safe” disposal of bodies.

The health posts have 25 dedicated ambulances, besides water and air ambulances. There are 75 more ambulances for non-Covid patients. A dedicated rapid response team will be at hand to handle emergencies and a reserve pool of specialist medical officers are ready at the headquarters. Officials said they have designed a software to track Covid patients from the stage of medical screening till they reach home after recovery.

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