Attukal Pongala festival witesses a gathering of 45 lakh people amid COVID-19 fears
Even as Coronavirus or COVID-19 fears grip the world, forcing a rethink on all mass gatherings, Kerala has gone ahead and hosted its popular annual temple festival in the state capital – the Aattukal Pongala.
About 45 lakh women devotees are estimated to have arrived in Thiruvananthapuram and have lined up the streets to offer Pongala.
"We have been attending the festival for the last 10 years regularly. This time, even though, there is Coronavirus scare, we didn't want to miss the festival. So, we are here with masks. We have followed all protocols issued by government," Sumathi Amma, a devotee from Karamana ward, close to the temple, told The Lede.
She and her daughters performed the rituals.
"Police and volunteers had done a great job. There are some volunteers distributing masks too," Sumathi Amma added.
On Friday, the Union Government had advised all states to avoid or postpone mass gatherings until the spread of COVID-19 is contained as various regulators and institutions went into prevention mode. So far the virus has affected 45 people across India, including five fresh cases confirmed in Kerala on Sunday.
According to WHO, even the most prepared of events may experience a disaster, which can overwhelm local healthcare systems and their ability to provide an adequate emergency response, however, Kerala Health Minister KK Shyalaja says that festival cannot be avoided.
Globally, Coronavirus has so far infected 106,465 people and claimed over 3,600 lives. International business meetings and conferences have been put off, schools and colleges have suspended classes, Islamic pilgrimages are halted, Churches have stopped rituals and many tourist spots are looking deserted.
World Health Organisation says that mass gatherings can place a strain on the local health care system, but this has not deterred Kerala's will to host its popular Pongala festival.
The state health minister KK Shyalaja said that months of preparation have gone into organising the Pongala.
The minister said that those having symptoms of the disease should keep away from the event.
“Those who had returned from foreign countries in the last two months should offer Pongala from their homes,” Shylaja said.
The minister also said that the entire Pongala festival is being videographed 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.
According to the minister, 23 health teams have been constituted and all 32 wards in the city where the Pongala will be monitored.
She said that 12 ambulances and five bike ambulances have been set up. Additionally, many small teams, including that of residents' associations, have been deployed to various areas to look for devotees with Coronavirus-like symptoms.
Meanwhile, the district collector said awareness campaigns are underway at railway stations, bus stands, and temples.
“Every 30 minutes, precautionary announcements are being made at railway and bus stations in different languages,” the official said.
Indian Medical Association (IMA) state president Dr Abraham Varghese pointed out that world over, programmes involving mass gatherings and pilgrimages are being restricted to contain the spread of COVID-19.
“In this situation, literate Kerala should also rise to the occasion as gatherings are highly vulnerable for the spread of the virus,” he said.
Additionally, a group of medical professionals urged the people they should stay away from Pongala festivities.
“If an outbreak happens, then all efforts put in by the Kerala government to contain the infection will go waste. Considering the safety of all Keralites, these believers should keep away from Pongala this year,” Dr V Ramankutty, a senior medical professional from Thiruvananthapuram, told The Lede.
“If there is even a single infected person among the people who have come for the festival, it will spread to all,” Dr Ramankutty said.
He added "Self-isolation is the real prayer for the good of the community, their family and themselves."
Bizarre counter claims however surfaced in the defence of organising the festival. A section of those in favour of organising the Pongala claimed that Kerala’s weather and the heat generated by boiling rice in open area by millions of women devotees as part of the Aattukal Pongala could kill Coronavirus.
A leading virologist in India told The Lede that the temperature is not going to affect the virus.
“As for hot weather, while temperatures higher than 40 degrees Celsius and high humidity do affect most viruses like this one, it is not that the virus is hanging around in the atmosphere or sitting on a table to be picked up. It is transmitting efficiently between people,” Dr. Shahid Jameel, virologist, told The Lede.
“So, the temperature is unlikely to have a major effect,” Shahid added.
Dr. Shahid is the virologist who features in a recent viral video clip of a BBC discussion in which he is seen praising Kerala’s health infrastructure which contained the spread of Coronavirus.
The WHO said in an email to The Lede that they "don’t know" the effect of temperature on the virus.
“We still don’t know if and how temperature affects the virus,” Tarik Jašarević, Spokesperson,World Health Organization, said.
On March 6, TP Senkumar, former DGP of Kerala, had posted on his Facebook page that Covid 19 will not survive in the atmosphere if the temperature is above 27 degree Celsius.
“The temperature here in Kerala is now 32 degrees Celsius. And at the time of Pongala, the temperature will rise again. Covid 19 won’t come,” Senkumar’s FB post read.
The post, which got some 2.7 K reactions, 1.2K comments, and 340 shares, was widely discussed both online and offline. The claim by Senkumar was being passed on as a piece of 'scientific information’.
However, KK Shyalaja, the health minister of Kerala, said that such claims are baseless and don’t have any scientific backing.
“The person who has made that claim is not a medical doctor. However, if anybody has any such findings, let them share it with our experts’ team. They will analyse it and if valid, they will be accepted and if not, will be discarded,” the minister said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Shimna Azeez, vice president of General Practitioners Association, said that Senkumar’s claim is baseless.
“Kerala’s average temperature is always above 30 degrees Celsius. Then how did three people get infected? And our body temperature is 36 degrees Celsius. How did then the virus get into our body and infect us,” Shimna asked?
Health minister KK Shailaja said the couple who went to Italy and their 26-year-old son had visited some relatives on their return. All five are in the hospital under observation. The parents of the couple, who are in their 90s and lived with them, have been hospitalised as a preventive measure, sources said.
The health minister said the Kerala couple, in their 50s, and their son did not report either at the airport health desk or their nearest health centre, as is the directive for persons coming from countries affected by COVID-19.
Health authorities came to know about their travel history only on March 6, when one of their relatives came to a hospital in Ranni Taluk with fever.
“Due to the irresponsible behavior of the couple and their son, two of their relatives have also got the virus now. We have learnt that they have also attended several functions and visited several relatives after their return to Ranni where they live,” Shailaja said.
The couple and their son, local authorities said, even refused to cooperate with health officials, following which they were forcibly admitted to the isolation ward of the Pathanamthitta general hospital.
“As of now their condition is stable,” the health minister said, adding the two nonagenarian members of their family will be shifted to the Kottayam Medical College hospital as a precaution.
Kerala has been put on high alert, once again.
“There are 732 people under observation. Out of the 732, there are 648 quarantined at homes and 84 at hospitals,” the health minister said adding that they are going to quarantine people for 28 days even when WHO guidelines limit quarantine period for 14 days.
Pathanamthitta and Kottayam districts have declared holidays for educational institutions to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) employees in Pathanamthitta have started wearing masks.
India hasn’t reported any deaths, however, as of March 5, about 29,607 people across India were placed under observation through the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP) network for the Novel Coronavirus.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), even taking a hot bath does not prevent COVID-19 infection.
The WHO guidelines point out that our normal body temperature remains around 36.5°C to 37°C, regardless of the temperature of our bath or shower.
“Taking a hot bath with extremely hot water can be harmful, as it can burn us. The best way to protect yourself against Coronavirus is by frequently cleaning your hands. By doing this you eliminate viruses that may be on your hands and avoid infection that could occur by then touching your eyes, mouth, and nose,” according to the WHO guidelines.
WHO guidelines say that there is no reason to believe that cold weather can kill the virus.
“The normal human body temperature remains around 36.5°C to 37°C, regardless of the external temperature or weather,” the WHO guidelines say.
According to WHO, thermal scanners are effective in detecting people who have developed a fever (i.e. have a higher than normal body temperature) because of infection with the Novel Coronavirus.
“However, they cannot detect people who are infected but are not yet sick with a fever. This is because it takes between 2 and 10 days before people who are infected become sick and develop a fever,” the WHO guidelines say.
The WHO guidelines says that COVID-19 cannot be transmitted through mosquito bites.
“To date, there has been no information nor evidence to suggest that the new coronavirus could be transmitted by mosquitoes. The new coronavirus is a respiratory virus that spreads primarily through droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose,” the WHO guidelines say.
The WHO guidelines say no.
“Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will not kill viruses that have already entered your body. Spraying such substances can be harmful to clothes or mucous membranes (i.e. eyes, mouth). Be aware that both alcohol and chlorine can be useful to disinfect surfaces, but they need to be used under appropriate recommendations,” the WHO guidelines say.
The WHO guidelines say that at present, there is no evidence that companion animals/pets such as dogs or cats can be infected with the new coronavirus.
“However, it is always a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water after contact with pets. This protects you against various common bacteria such as E.coli and Salmonella that can pass between pets and humans,” to the WHO guidelines.
The WHO guidelines specify that to date, there is no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat the new coronavirus.
“However, those infected with the virus should receive appropriate care to relieve and treat symptoms, and those with severe illness should receive optimized supportive care. Some specific treatments are under investigation, and will be tested through clinical trials,” the WHO guidelines point out.
Garlic is a healthy food that may have some antimicrobial properties.
“However, there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus,” the WHO guidelines point out.
The WHO guidelines point out that the new coronavirus cannot be transmitted through goods manufactured in China or any country reporting COVID-19 cases.
"Even though the new coronavirus can stay on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days (depending on the type of surface), it is very unlikely that the virus will persist on a surface after being moved, traveled, and exposed to different conditions and temperatures,” the WHO guidelines say.