Rajat Sharma

Crowding hill stations and markets can spark a third wave of pandemic

akbToday I again want to sound a note of caution which you can ignore at your own peril. Though the number of fresh Covid-19 cases has declined in most of the states except Kerala and Maharashtra, I am noticing people have again started breaking Covid protocol with a vengeance.

In my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ on Friday night, we showed visuals of huge crowds of tourists throwing caution to the wind while enjoying their holiday in tourist spots like Mussoorie, Nainital, Shimla, Manali and other places. These images are frightening, because most of the tourists are not wearing masks and are moving in crowds. This negligent attitude can be dangerous and again make our countrymen face a fresh wave of pandemic.

Here I want to cite instances of how huge crowds that had descended to watch the Euro Cup semifinal inside and outside the Wembley stadium in London later celebrated England’s victory with gay abandon. Thousands of fans crammed into pubs and came out on streets to celebrate, without wearing masks and practising social distancing. This has caused grave concern among UK authorities who were planning to unlock restrictions. Similarly, there were huge crowds in the USA that had congregated to watch NBA basketball matches in Milwaukee. These crowds later became super spreaders of Coronavirus. In Barcelona, Spain, a three-day music festival opened with thousands of revellers turning up.

On Friday, the health ministry at its daily briefing showed a video of hundreds of semi-clad tourists, without masks, enjoying a bath at the Kempty Falls in Mussoorie, and issued a caution asking: “Is it not an open invitation for Covid-19 virus to infect us?” Niti Aayog member (health) Dr V K Paul said, it was a serious cause of concern and there is no scope for lowering the guard as it can reverse the gains (earned after lockouts). I want to remind viewers about what the Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the first meeting of his reshuffled cabinet. He said, the pandemic is not gone and any negligence on our part can again cause havoc.

After 55 days of continuous decline, the number of fresh cases has started to rise again. On Friday, India logged 42,718 fresh Covid cases. India has reported 2,09,892 cases so far this week. Already Covid cases are on the rise in countries like Russia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, South Korea and UK, as fresh mutations of the virus are taking place.

While the Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand governments have started imposing fresh restrictions on the number of tourists arriving at hill stations, the surge in ‘revenge tourism’ is yet to abate. It appears as if people want to go out to hill stations to forget the trauma of the second wave, but, in the process, they themselves could become the harbingers of the expected third wave.

More than 18,000 vehicles are entering Himachal Pradesh daily bringing more influx of tourists from the plains. More than seven lakh tourists have gone to HP within a week to visit tourist spots. All hotels, cottages and lodges in Himachal Pradesh are booked.

Our reporter Puneet Parinja sent us visuals of huge crowds moving around without masks and social distancing at The Mall in Shimla. Hotel owners said that tourists from the plains normally visited hill stations for weekends or more than three days, but this time, due to heat wave in northern India, many tourists have booked cottages to stay with their families for nearly a month. Due to ‘work from home’ protocol prevailing in several corporates in Delhi-NCR, many have started working online for their companies from places in Himachal Pradesh.

In Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, markets are overflowing with shoppers with most of them disregarding Covid norms. Though the positivity rate is lower in Mumbai now, yet BMC authorities fear that the number of cases could rise if crowding in markets continues. More than 15,500 people died of Covid in Mumbai metropolis till now, and yet, people are no more afraid of the virus.

The same is the case in Delhi. Markets like Karol Bagh, Lajpat Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, Chandni Chowk, Gandhi Nagar and Laxmi Nagar are overflowing with shoppers. Local authorities ordered temporary shutdown of some of the markets for three days for violation of Covid guidelines, but crowds continue to throng most of these markets.

Crowds at hill stations and city markets reflect the obvious: People are no more afraid of the virus that had threatened our lives only three months ago when the second wave swept India. People are now more worried about how to beat the summer heat wave and enjoy outings with their families. I do not want to prevent people from holidaying, but in the ‘josh’ (enthusiasm) for enjoying vacation, one should not forget ‘hosh’ (caution).

At this moment, out of 736 districts in India, 80 per cent of Covid cases are spread across 90 districts only. Most of these districts are in Kerala, Maharashtra and the sparsely populated North East states. There are only 66 districts where the positivity rate is more than ten per cent.

I am citing these statistics to explain how we, as a nation, worked unitedly to corner the Coronavirus epidemic that had swept our country. But if we, as common people, start flouting Covid protocol and indulge in negligence, we will lose all the gains that we have made during the last three months. Wear masks when you move in public places, avoid crowds and wash your hands frequently. State governments must play an active role in ensuring that there are no crowds in markets and hill stations.

We must learn from what is happening in Spain, UK and the USA. These are advanced economies having a strong health infrastructure, where people take care of their personal hygiene and where most of the population has been vaccinated. These countries had cornered the pandemic through mass vaccinations, but after crowds collected at sports and music events, the number of Covid cases are again on the rise.

In India, we managed to control the epidemic after a nationwide massive effort. Remember the Oxygen Express trains that were transporting millions of litres of liquid oxygen from one corner of the country to another? Remember the large number of oxygen containers and cylinders that we had to bring in ships from abroad? Remember the IAF transport aircraft that were used to ferry empty oxygen tanks from one part of India to another?

This was not long ago. It was in the months of April and May, hardly two-three months ago. We are moving back fast to square one. The pandemic was at its lowest ebb in February this year, but due to mass negligence, it reached its peak in April and May, taking the lives of our near and dear ones. If we do not heed to sane advice, we may be facing the same scenario again. Avoid mixing up with crowds, always wear masks in public and frequently wash your hands. These are simple, but helpful, advices and easy to follow. Remember the old proverb? A stitch in time saves nine.

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