The auspicious Navratri and the upcoming festival season—Durga Puja, Dussehra and Diwali—maybe a good time for the Covid-hit urban people to pack their bags for pilgrimage-cum-holiday trips to the hills. But hold on ‘revenge travellers’, Himachal Pradesh has a message—coronavirus is still alive.
Since the start of Navratri—nine days considered auspicious by Hindus—the hill state has witnessed massive footfall of pilgrims at the temples of Kangra, Una and Bilaspur districts, sparking fears in the administration of a spike in Covid cases.
A let-off in Covid cases since the peak of the second wave has already seen a big spike in tourist inflow to the state over the past couple of months, a trend referred to as ‘revenge travel’—when people seek to move out to break the lockdown fatigue.
Despite health agencies issuing strict advisories about Covid protocols to tourists, those monitoring the arrivals admit that social norms are not being observed by most visitors thronging temples to pay their obeisance.
Reports from the major hill stations, including Dharamshala, McLeodganj, Kullu-Manali and Shimla, suggest that there is a sudden rise in arrivals throughout the week, in contrast to earlier trends of weekend tourism. Officials say the increase in the number of tourists is around 45-55 per cent.
Temple pilgrimage is already at its peak at Chintpurni in Una district, Naina Devi in Bilaspur and Jawalamukhi, Brijeshwari Mata and Chaumanda, all in Kangra district.
Latest government data put the number of active Covid cases at around 1,260 active cases in the state. At least 3,683 people have died due to the pandemic in the past two years. Now that Himachal Pradesh has lifted all restrictions on mobility and opened all temples to tourists, the footfall is unexpectedly high this year. Last year, the state government had regulated pilgrims’ arrivals at the temples and shrines with strict protocols .
Huge crowding is seen not alone in the temple complexes but also in the sanctum sanctorum. Experts say that infants and elderly accompanying the families are at a greater risk of infection. Temple officials say most people are thronging the temples with “overwhelmed faith” and it was not possible to implement the guidelines in matters of belief.
Kangra deputy commissioner Dr Nipun Jindal admits that people have become complacent, apparently believing that the fully vaccinated are no longer at risk. “We are regularly advising visitors to follow Covid-appropriate behaviour in view of the ICMR warning about the third wave if the protocols are compromised. We are keeping a watch on the situation. If needed, restrictions will be imposed,” he said.
In its latest circulator to the states, including Himachal Pradesh, the ICMR has instructed strict adherence to social distancing norms. “A surge in gatherings at tourist places, mass congregations due to social, religious or political events may set off the third wave of Covid-19 in India,” the ICMR said.
Himachal Pradesh is also witnessing by-poll to Mandi parliamentary constituency and three other assembly constituencies. There are fears over a possible Covid surge as parties and leaders are holding mass rallies and gatherings. “There are a total of 20 assembly constituencies, 17 of which alone in Mandi—a district with a high rate of infection. Earlier, during the municipal corporation polls, Mandi had seen a big spike in cases, even deaths,” a senior health official said.