On her way to work every day, 62-year-old Manisha Das constantly tells people, “Why is it below your mouth? Pull up your mask!” Das loves her job. After retiring as a nurse from a government hospital two years ago, she jumped at the chance when asked by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation to work at a local health facility. Earlier, health workers like her would get three weeks off during Durga Puja. This year, things are very different. Das cannot take leave at all from 19 October to 30 November, not even on Sundays.
“We have been working hard for many months now, making many sacrifices. Everyone got leave from work during lockdown. I went to work every single day. What was that for? It’s for the people. So that everyone stays happy and healthy,” she told HuffPost India.
As West Bengal celebrates its biggest festival, medical experts and frontline warriors are fearful about the impact on the state’s coronavirus infections. Over the past few days, waves of people have been thronging markets for last-minute puja shopping, throwing caution to the wind. The state, which has recorded more than 330,000 cases and 6,244 deaths so far, has been reporting thousands of infections each day, with Wednesday setting a . Kerala’s worrying example, where infections after the Onam festival, adds to the anxiety. With crucial state elections coming up next year, the Mamata Banerjee government doesn’t want to risk losing votes by placing too many restrictions on people’s movement.
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The Kolkata high court’s order banning visitors’ entry into pandals has come as some relief amidst this. While it has given some leeway on organisers’ entry into pandals and allowed dhakis, or traditional Bengali drummers, around them, this is expected to go some way in controlling crowds.
Health workers such as Das heartily welcome the court order, but many express doubts about whether it will actually be followed.
“If you work hard all day long, and see that just for a little thing in the end your entire work went to waste, how would you feel? It’s exactly like that,” she said.
Das herself struggles with diabetes and high pressure. But even when transport facilities were limited due to the lockdown, she would walk three kilometres to her workplace every day. As she prepares to work for a month-and-a-half without a single day off, she wishes people would be careful on their own without court orders.
“When we are in the mood for celebrations, we forget everything. If you go out and see crowds, you will forget that you have been told to keep a distance. You might take off your mask to join in the merriment. Now the high court is compelling them to not go pandal-hopping but we want people to voluntarily keep themselves safe. Then at least our struggle will count for something,” she says.
Dr Indranil Khan, an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad leader, also expressed concerns about how Durga Puja festivities may hit healthcare workers badly.
“A significant number of healthcare workers have already succumbed to the disease in West Bengal. Many hospitals had to be shut down or have functioned suboptimally as a number of healthcare workers had contracted Covid on duty during the pandemic over the last six months. Any spike post Puja may precipitate a greater healthcare crisis,” he said. Earlier this year, Khan had been detained and interrogated by the police for posting on social media about substandard PPE kits at government hospitals.
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Khan has an appeal for everyone planning to ignore social distancing rules to celebrate Puja.
“Let’s make Durga Puja 2020 unique and make it an occasion of austere spiritualism, less about irresponsible celebration. We can always hang out like yesteryears again in 2021, provided we stay alive and keep our close ones safe. Certainly a pandemic is not the best time for merriment. Practising self-restraint is also an act of devotion,” he said.
However, scenes around Kolkata show that many people are unlikely to heed this appeal.
Behala Tram Depot markets are seeing a surge in shoppers like every year during Puja season. Cars and buses pour onto the roads lined with puja stalls selling clothes, jewellery and decorations. The roads are manned by the Traffic Police, Green Police (civic police volunteers) and puja volunteers.
“I think the importance this virus was given in the beginning is gone now. Earlier people would not step out fearing for their lives. Now you can see nobody has any fear in their eyes,” said 24-year-old Manorama Kumari, looking at the people on the streets around her.
She is one of the Durga Puja volunteers who control crowds every year. They usually work from Panchami to Dashami, but this year they started work on Tritiya. Kumari has worked as a Puja volunteer for five years now. She is in her third year of Hindi Honours, and is glad to do the work with colleges still closed.
“Does anyone actually step out to see pandals? People go out to see each others’ outfits. They dream of meeting everyone else,” she says about the High Court order.
Kumari’s father worries about her working on the ground amidst a pandemic, especially as she has many allergies. Kumari herself, however, isn’t as concerned.
“If it happens, it’s okay, there are ways to deal with it,” she says.
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For Soumitra Sharda, a 23-year-old college student, being a Durga Puja volunteer is one of the few ways he can still make some money. Sharda tries to find such small jobs to bear the expenses of writing government exams.
“Sitting for these exams once is not enough, right? We have to keep taking them. So I do, in the hope that one day I might get some government work. But that incurs some expenses. I can’t keep asking my father for money. I can’t keep telling him about my problems. His earnings alone are not always enough for all of us,” he says.
Sharda’s home is in a Fatepur village, near Diamond Harbour, where he lives with his parents and sister. His father is a farmer and runs their home on his income alone. For three years now, Sharda has been coming to his uncle’s place in the city to volunteer during Durga Puja.
“There is no fixed aim that I want to be ‘something’. I just want to get a job so I can stand tall in front of my father,” said Sharda.
Working from Tritiya instead of Panchami means two more days of pay at a time when other avenues of earning are closed to him. He keenly feels the economic pinch of the pandemic.
Sharda is happy about the new court order barring entry into pandals but he doubts its efficacy. “The High Court has taken a good decision but only if people listen. Even if I tell someone now to keep distance, they will ask, ‘why should we?’ No matter how much we tell them not to do something, if people want to see pandals they will. Bengalis only have this one festival,” he says.
Anish Mukherjee, a 26-year-old, minds the traffic at Behala in his Green Police uniform. The Civic Police Volunteer Force, popularly known as Green Police, are a joint venture of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and Kolkata Police. Mukherjee leaves behind his one-month-old baby at home to come to work every day. It has been three days since he was discharged from the hospital, having just recovered from coronavirus.
“I was mentally prepared in advance that one time or another every police person, every health worker is going to get it. We are frontline warriors,” he said. “I was more worried for my son as he is a newborn baby. So I didn’t stay home, I got myself hospitalised. With god’s blessings, everyone else at home tested negative,” he adds.
Like every year during Puja, this year too his duty begins in the afternoon and will continue till dawn breaks. Although the high court has taken the bold step of barring pandal entry in a festival that revolves around pandal-hopping, ground workers seem unconvinced as they look at the crowds around them. “People are going out anyway. People are shopping. Who can stop them?” said Mukherjee. However, he gives the court the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they are seeing something he isn’t. “They must have deliberated and taken this decision for some reason. It must have some benefit,” he says.
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