Covid-19: My dilemma in the festive season, writes Karan Thapar – columns

Am I a killjoy or do I have good reasons for being apprehensive? The truth is, I just don’t know. I can recognise valid arguments on either side of the issue I want to raise and it’s placed me in a quandary. So let me share my thoughts, and you can decide for yourself.

Now, it might seem paradoxical but this particular and pressing problem is amplified by the fact that things are improving on the Covid-19 front. The seven-day average of daily cases has been steadily declining since September 16. On that date, it was 93,617. On Friday, it was 65,956 — a drop of 30%.

This is also true of daily deaths. For almost two weeks, the number has been under a 1,000. Similarly, the positivity rate and the number of active cases are also reducing.

All this is cheering, but might the festive season, which starts in a week, reverse the trend? Dussehra is on October 25, Eid on October 29, Diwali on November 14 and Chhath Puja on the November 20. As we celebrate, it’s likely that social distancing and mask-wearing, hand hygiene and cough etiquette will be forgotten. Yet, all the while, the virus will be around us.

This is why the health minister, Harsh Vardhan, has warned against large gatherings. “There is no need to congregate in large numbers to prove your faith or your religion”, he said. “You can pray to your Gods at your home. I would suggest that all of you celebrate with your families”. From the point of view of containing the epidemic, these are wise words. No epidemiologist would disagree. Alas, this will dampen the festive spirit. Ramlila rallies, Durga Puja pandals, Eid Milans and Chhath Puja gatherings cease to be fun without large numbers. But the minister is prioritising safety ahead of celebration. The question is at what cost?

This brings me to the other side of the argument. The festive season is traditionally a time when Indians spend money. They actually wait to splurge and this released demand gives the economy a significant lift. This year it’s badly needed. With growth slumping by close to 24% and the government reluctant to further stimulate, any tradition-based revival of demand must not be stifled. After all, it could be the economy’s resurrection.

By now the dilemma I can’t resolve should be clear. After months in lockdown, followed by a fear of venturing out, many understandably want to enjoy Durga Puja, Dussehra and Eid. These are cherished religious festivals and God, they hope, will protect them. But what if the virus gets them first? On the other hand, if they stay indoors, neither spending nor celebrating, they could crush what little hope we have of the economy improving. In fact, thousands of dealers and shopkeepers, who’ve stocked up for the festive season, could face huge losses as their wares remain unsold.

When I go back and read what the minister has said, I’m tempted to agree. “No God says you need to go to big pandals to pray. If you know there’s fire outside and you still go out in the fire in the name of religion, what’s the point of such festivals?” But when I ask the question, is this learning to live with the virus, I’m pushed in the other direction. If we cancel Durga Puja, Dussehra, Diwali and Eid, that won’t be living. It could feel like the virus winning.

This isn’t a dilemma the government can resolve but, of course, it must advise and warn. Not just at the health minister’s level but at the prime minister’s as well. Yet, in the end, it’s an issue on which each of us has to make up our own mind and suffer the consequences — whatever they may be. I just thought I’d spell out the argument on either side so you know what you’re doing and what the cost could be. The inescapable truth is we face a dreadful choice and can’t avoid making it!

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story

The views expressed are personal

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