As most states head for mini-lockdowns and night curfews, scenes at Haridwar’s Kumbh Mela defy all norms of social distancing, as thousands of devotees gather – unmasked, unprotected but united in their belief – to take a holy dip in the Ganges. It is mind-boggling to think that a government that could cancel Class 10 board exams, instruct consecutive IPL tournaments to be played to empty stands, and curtail weddings and private functions, does not have any control over religious gatherings of this scale. Is there some special immunity granted to people who pray? It does not appear to be so if one looks back at some key super-spreaders at the start of the pandemic.
One of the first reported clusters linked to a religious gathering was in February 2020, when the Christian Open Door Church located in Mulhouse, France held a week-long annual celebration for thousands of devotees. France, which till then had just 12 confirmed cases (and none in Mulhouse), soon saw 2,500 confirmed cases which eventually spread the virus to neighbouring Switzerland, Corsica and even Guyana.
In the same month in Malaysia, the Tablighi Jamaat gathering held in Kuala Lumpur became the key source of infections for cases that spanned Southeast Asia. India too had a number of infections linked to this gathering, which eventually fanned out to as far as Canada, Nigeria, China, South Korea, and Australia. February 2020 also recorded another cluster in South Korea where a member of the Shincheonji Church in southern Daegu left the confines of the hospital to attend a prayer meeting. It is reported that the female patient attended the two-hour-long service in close proximity to 1,000 people. More than 5,000 cases in South Korea emerged as a result of this gathering.
It would be unfair to only highlight religious gatherings as super-spreaders. Sporting events too have been repeat offenders. Italy’s woes started with a soccer game in Milan’s famous San Siro stadium, where a 40,000 strong crowd gathered to watch the Champion’s League match. That ill-fated match, now referred to as ‘Game Zero’ led to over 7,000 cases of COVID 19 in Italy, making Bergamo the most infected Italian province. In Tamil Nadu, it was a year ago when a huge cluster emerged from the 65-acre Koyambedu market in Chennai. Housing over 3,500 licenced shops and a few hundred makeshift stalls, the market saw an unprecedented rush a day before Tamil New Year in 2020. However, this was just the tipping point, as the market had already seen three times as many visitors as a result of the panic buying caused by the lockdown announcement. The resultant cluster was responsible for one-fourth of the cases in TN in May 2020.
Transmission is the main engine that drives the spread of COVID 19. Data from University of Washington’s Institute for Disease Modelling shows coronavirus is almost purely transmission driven, with 90% cases coming from just 10% carriers. In an Indian contact tracing study, conducted by the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy in New Delhi, researchers studied 78 people who sat within three rows of an infected person on long bus or train rides. Nearly 80% of passengers contracted the virus by just being in the vicinity of an infected person.
Despite the warnings, what has emerged one year into the pandemic are two kinds of survivors. The cautious ones, who take the virus seriously and follow the rules of masking and social distancing; and the defiant ones, who see their survival as a cloak of invincibility, leading to cavalier attitude. If one is safe and healthy, it might be a good time to thank the almighty, but it would be wise to do so in the privacy of one’s own house. The greatest blessing one can hope for is to see an end to this pandemic, which requires us to ‘break the chain’ and not prolong it with blind faith.