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Coronavirus outbreak: Why you don’t necessarily have to give up Holi

The suggestion to avoid Holi follows from the broad overall advice to stay away from crowded places. This advice is generally applicable to all respiratory illnesses, not just the novel coronavirus.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: March 5, 2020 1:18:35 pm
Avoid crowded places, but you don't necessarily have to give up Holi for fear of coronavirus. Here's why. The suggestion to avoid Holi follows from the broad overall advice to stay away from crowded places. (File/Representational Image)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on Twitter on Wednesday (March 4) that because of the global novel coronavirus outbreak, he would not participate in any Holi programmes.

“Experts across the world have advised to reduce mass gatherings to avoid the spread of COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus. Hence, this year I have decided not to participate in any Holi Milan programme,” he tweeted.

Home Minister Amit Shah echoed the Prime Minister: “Holi is a very important festival for we Indians but in the wake of Coronavirus, I have decided not to participate in any Holi Milan celebration this year. I also appeal everyone to avoid public gatherings and take good care of yourself & your family.”

BJP national president J P Nadda, also former Union Health Minister, tweeted, “The world is battling COVID -19 Novel Coronavirus. The countries & medical fraternity are jointly making efforts to contain its spread. Keeping this in mind, this year, I will neither celebrate Holi nor organise Holi Milan. Stay safe, Stay Healthy.”

The suggestion to avoid Holi follows from the broad overall advice to stay away from crowded places. This advice is generally applicable to all respiratory illnesses, not just the novel coronavirus.

It is important to not lose sight of the fact that the virus is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, spraying around droplets — just because the virus has “come to India”, it must not be assumed that it is floating around in the air, and healthy people can just breathe it in.

“You have to understand that it is an infection that spreads by droplets; not, say, through the breath of the person who is carrying it, like TB. You cannot just stand next to someone and get infected unless you are close enough for the droplets to reach you,” Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organisation (WHO) told The Indian Express. Read her interview to The Indian Express

Visitors wear protective masks at the Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad. (PTI Photo)

“The most common method of transmission right now seems in fact, to be through infected surfaces,” Dr Swaminathan said. “So, it is important to avoid touching; [you must] wash hands repeatedly, [and] also avoid touching your own face with unwashed hands.”

Specifically, on avoiding Holi (which is on March 10), Dr Swaminathan said: “People cannot put their life on hold, nor is it necessary. Celebrate Holi— but maybe you should not celebrate it with thousands of people. Celebrate with close family and friends, and avoid big gatherings as far as possible.”

Also read | Coronavirus scare: PM Modi to skip Holi event; here are some precautions you can also take

The Holi celebrations of important public leaders are obviously likely to be much bigger, and involving many more people, than those of ordinary Indians.

But then, even if you do avoid Holi, it is almost impossible to avoid going close to people in Indian towns and cities. In trains and buses, on the Metro, and in shared auto-rickshaws and e-rickshaws, people are packed closely together. Thousands of individuals repeatedly touch the same handrails, handles, doorknobs, tabletops, etc. in public spaces.

It is in this context that the advice about being wary of infected surfaces, and ensuring heightened levels of personal hygiene becomes relevant. Both the WHO and the Indian government have advised people to wash hands repeatedly and thoroughly with soap and preferably warm water, to use a hand sanitiser with high alcohol content.

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Since the elderly and people with already weakened or compromised respiratory systems are more vulnerable, they should avoid crowds much more than younger, healthy adults.

And should you stop sending your children to school? Not necessarily, Dr Swaminathan said.

“Unless there is a specific advisory asking people to refrain from sending children to school or using public transport, or unless there is a cluster of cases reported from one particular school or college in which case the institution will have to be closed down and students followed up for 14 days, such precautions are not necessary,” she said.

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