Rejuvenating wiselyThe government must impose strict restrictions on public gatherings for festivals and rituals.
Nepal's festival season is inching towards its peak. So is Covid-19. And yet, the Janai Purnima festival on Monday invited large gatherings in temples across the country. Thankfully, some people were seen flaunting sanitisers and masks even as they got the sacred raksha bandhan tied on their wrists. But as the country's Covid-19 tally crosses the 21,000 mark with 58 deaths and the government mulls over imposing Lockdown 2.0, the fact that the influx of large numbers of people to mass gatherings gives rise to public health risks cannot be overemphasised.
Festivals and rituals are an opportunity to observe culture in action. They also provide opportunities for social cohesion. For the sociologist Emile Durkheim, rituals form a 'social glue' that keeps people together. Rituals, for Durkheim, do not just express relationships; the very the performances of the rituals create those relationships. In that sense, festivals give meaning to social life, punctuating the mundaneness of regular routine and giving people a chance to introspect, rejuvenate and socialise.
As monsoon begins to give way to a clearer sky, this would in normal circumstances have been the time a seemingly unending series of festivals. But the festival season this time has more or less been a dud, beginning with the cancellation of the Rato Machhindranath Jatra. The pandemic is certain to play the spoilsport right through the Teej, Dashain, Tihar and Chhath, even possibly ruining Sakela and Lhosar celebrations.
But with the government looking the other way as people gather in temples and public spaces, the possibility of widespread transmission and difficulty in contact tracing is getting more imminent than ever. Public gatherings undercut the very concept of physical distancing necessary for avoiding mass transmission. But the message is being lost on the ever-increasing crowd gathering in public spaces for observing rituals, celebrating festivals, and even loitering.
No matter whether it decides to impose another blanket lockdown or cluster lockdowns in high-risk zones in the coming days, the government must ensure the restriction of festivals and rituals to people's homes until the curve is in sight. Faith, religion and rituals may, at least for the time being, be kept within individuals and families as the restriction on public gatherings, big or small, is one of the most effective risk mitigation tools. It is time for science, and not faith or culture, to take the centre stage in public life.
Also, citizens can’t go on organising large gatherings and coming into contact with people indiscriminately only to blame the government for its inability to catch up with the Covid-19 transmission rate. And no matter how religiously they follow the safety protocol, they cannot be certain that they are immune from transmission. As a part of the community, they have a moral obligation to think of the safety and wellbeing of their fellow members just as their own. Importantly, they must come to terms with the fact that Covid-19 is almost omnipresent today and is kind to nobody.