It is now too late to issue any special COVID-19 advisory for Attukal Pongala that will be held in Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram on March 9. State Health Minister K K Shailaja said the Pongala would not be stopped.
“Months of preparation has gone into the conduct of the Pongala. So the decision is not to cancel Pongala,” the health minister said in the wake of five new Covid-19 cases in Kerala. District Collector K Gopalakrishnan has also told the minister that calling off the annual event was not advisable. Thousands have already arrived in the capital city for the festival.
Now that Pongla will happen, Shailaja seems to suggest that self-discipline is the only precaution that could be taken.
The minister said that those with even an inkling of a mild disease, say a sore throat or cough or a running nose, should keep away from the event that will witness a gathering of lakhs of women, considered the largest mobilisation of women for a single event in the world.
World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines on COVID-19 states that crowded areas should be avoided, especially by those above the age of 60. It is unofficially estimated that nearly 35 per cent of women devotees who come to Attukal for the Pongala are over 60.
The district administration can only hope that some good sense would prevail. Perhaps thinking that Covid-19 has been kept under control, the Health Department had not issued any Pongala-specific advisory in the last week. There was also a fear that any Pongala-related advice that could sound like a restriction would be politically counter-productive. The virus has now made a come back on the day before the mass Pongala gathering, far too late for any preventive steps to be taken.
It all now boils down to how devotees would respond to the threat. Here is a practical advice the health minister has. “Those who had returned from foreign countries in the last two months should offer Pongala from their homes,” Shailaja said. As if to instil some fear in those with a tendency to flout general orders, she said the video footage of the Pongala would be taken as a precautionary measure. “If at all anything goes wrong, we can use these video clippings to identify those who had come into contact with the infected person or persons,” the minister said.
The minister said that 23 health teams have been constituted. She said that 12 ambulances and five bike ambulances would always be at hand. She also said that many small teams, including that of residents' associations, would be deployed to various areas to look for devotees with COVID-like symptoms. This could prove tricky as as most women devotees would be found coughing and sneezing because of the heat and fumes from the Pongala pots.
Squads formed by residents' associations will look for women who had returned from a foreign country in the recent past. This measure, too, is seen as highly inadequate as women from all parts of the state and outside gather for the festival. It is said that the travel history of at least 70 per cent of women who attend the Pongala on March 9 would be hidden.
At the most, the district administration can intensify the awareness drive to convince foreign returnees and those with even a mild cold to keep away from the festival. The district collector said such awareness campaigns had already begun at railway stations, bus stands and temples. He has been coordinating with his counterparts in other districts, too.
That the festival is a huge tourist draw is another big headache. There has usually been a spike in tourist traffic on the days leading up to Pongala. This time, too, hotels and resorts in the city and along the coastal areas in the district have filled up. Health Department sources said that a list of foreigners in the capital had already been drawn up. Hotels and resorts in the city and outskirts have been asked to provide details of foreigners who had checked in.
Screening all these foreigners also is a daunting task as the Department is woefully short-staffed. Nonetheless, hotel and resort managers have been instructed to somehow dissuade foreigners, especially from high-risk countries like China, Italy, South Korea, Vietnam, Hongkong, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Nepal and Malaysia, from travelling to the city to visit the Pongala celebrations.