Monday, 18 January, 2021

Heed Nature To Avoid Large Gatherings

Namrata Sharma

With the advent of the cool weather and sunny days, the Dashain festival is in the air these days. In fact, we would be in the midst of Dashain celebration now had it not been for the Purusottam Month as per the lunar calendar. This is also known as Adhik Mas or Mal Mas. This is known as the extra month in the Hindu calendar which is inserted once in every 32 months to keep the lunar and solar calendars aligned. Astronomically Mal Mas is also known as the intercalary month. Purushottam is an epithet of Lord Vishnu to whom this month is dedicated. This year, the Purusottam month falls between Asoj 2 and Kartik 1 (September 18 to October 16). This has pushed the Dashain festival forward by one month as compared to most years that my generation has seen.
I remember observing Navaratri straight after the Sohra Shraddha, which is 16 days of giving respects to the pitris, family members who have passed away. This is probably the first time in my lifetime that we have to wait for a month before the Navaratri commences. This month is dedicated to worshipping Lord Vishnu and his incarnations and not doing any other auspicious events like celebrating big festivals, marriages and the like.
It makes me wonder on the coincidence of nature and its implications on human lives. The advent of COVID-19 and the Purusottam month this year has helped Nepal stave off the coronavirus by one month. But what then?
During the ongoing pandemic and the lockdowns, missing large gatherings such as weddings, funerals, festivals and parties has become very difficult for many people. It has increased the feeling of isolation and loneliness and even depression. However, as per the warnings of health experts, large gatherings remain one of the highest risk activities of contracting COVID-19. Such events are termed as “super-spreaders” events by the disease control centres. These are events where many people can catch the coronavirus before passing it to others at home or in their communities. Although social distancing, masking oneself and hand-washing to prevent people from getting infected are the mantras these days, I don’t think these sort of gatherings are fully safe. Therefore, the most important step probably is to weigh the risks and follow the safety measures outlined by the doctors.
While the Hindu community is gearing towards Navratri and the Dashain festival, I want to share the experience and statistics of a Christian community while attending the Church service. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA, among the 92 attendees at a rural Arkansas church during March 6-11, 35 people, which are 38 per cent, developed lab-confirmed COVID-19, and three people died. The highest attack rates were among people aged 19-64 years, which is about 59 per cent; and for those above 65 years, it is about 50 per cent. An additional 26 cases were linked to the church occurred in the community, including one death.
The reason I am citing this case here is because the statistics are related to infections due to a gathering in a religious event. People belong to different religious beliefs and have been accustomed to practise rituals, ceremonies and gatherings based on the social and religious norms associated with their religions. As Navaratri and Dushera are round the corner, with Chhath, Christmas in the way too, it is important for faith-based organisations within Nepal to work together with the local health offices and communities to determine how to implement the guidelines issued by the Government of Nepal for modifying activities during the pandemic to prevent transmission of the virus to their members and communities.
Celebrating the festival within individual households may be more appropriate but even now during the Purusottam month the practice of doing Purusottam Mahatme in several places is on-going. This is a special Hindu ritual of reciting stories related to Vishnu with the belief that it will lead those who listen towards salvation. For this, the priests come to recite the holy scripts and people gather in public places. Now the event may not be happening in public places as openly as before but there are events organised within households where some people gather. I have also heard many priests say openly that nothing will happen to the religious people as the Gods will take care of them. Well, one only needs to look at the above data of religious people being infected with the coronavirus to see that this belief does not hold water.
It is important to realise that when more people attend an event, there is more likelihood of infections. Additionally, a higher number of attendees increases the likelihood that one or more individuals will not take the virus seriously or maintain physical distance from others.
During the Dashain festival, the Nepali people visit the homes of their relatives to get blessings from their elders who put tika on their foreheads. It is a social belief that not doing so is not respecting them. However, this year we need to reflect on why nature itself has inserted the Purusottam month after sohra shraddha and pushed Dashain further away by a month? It could be that nature and the Gods are telling us to take the Pandemic seriously. Nature can only give indications. It is up to us to take the hint and act accordingly. It is therefore important for the temples to be closed as it will otherwise attract gatherings as people will be tempted to go there because of the strong beliefs they have in the religious institutions. It is also important for the government and these institutions to work together and avoid massive infections among people and avoid the adverse impacts it might have on the population.

(Namrata Sharma is a senior journalist and women rights advocate and can be reached at Twitter handle: NamrataSharmaP) 

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