With third COVID wave around the corner, we must choose good health over festival bonhomie

With experts predicting the COVID third wave to peak in October, letting go of vigil at this stage and get into a fickle celebration mode would be foolhardy

Representative Image
Representative Image

Devasis Chattopadhyay

The state government of Maharashtra decided that this year too they would not grant permission for ‘Dahi Handi’ celebration during Janmashtami on August 30. This is the second consecutive year that the immensely popular Dahi Handi celebration has been cancelled owing to the pandemic.

Indeed, all of us, the Indians, share the same sentiments about our festivals; we all want to celebrate them. However, the priority today is to safeguard our health. Over the last 18 months, the country as well as the world has been fighting against this universal health emergency. To let go of our vigil over it at this stage and to get into a fickle celebration mode would not be advisable.

A section of our populace is speaking against any curb. But how prudent is that? And the continued debate of how COVID could have been eradicated faster and how vaccination programmes have been mismanaged can continue till we settle the debate through suffrage.

Look at Kerala. The festival season started with the observation of a 10-day ‘Onam’ in the Malabar region between 12 and 23 August. And, as expected, Kerala reported 31,445 Covid-19 cases on 25 August, with a test positivity rate (TPR) over 19 per cent. Onam being the main festival in the region, the Kerala government had relaxed restrictions. Markets were jam-packed ahead of the festival. Predictably, the state saw a surge in cases after Onam.

Agreed, the festive season in the country couldn’t have commenced on a more sombre and subdued note. For example, Krishna Janmashtami would usually have been a joyous occasion with temple visits, distribution of prasad and the exuberant Govindas building colourful human pyramids to dizzying heights for Dahi Handi. Instead, we will see empty streets in Mumbai and Nagpur with devotees observing the festival within the safe confines of their homes.

The coronavirus sweeping across the country for the second consecutive year has crippled the massive festival industry that caters to the religious gatherings for over a billion Hindus, 250 million Muslims, 35 million Christians and people of other faiths. Most Indians are religious, and festivals are a time to express their faith – and importantly spend money. Community festivals are also a big business opportunity for the festival organizers, corporate sponsors, logistical suppliers of food, music, decorations, electricals, transport, security and primarily for the potters and artisans.

During Janmashtami, for example, the Govindas – young participants from each Mandal - would have dressed in branded jerseys loudly proclaiming popular brand associations as they try to break the Dahi Handis. The visuals of this would have been televised during prime-time news shows, roundups and featured in print media stories.

It is a win-win situation. The brands receive additional exposure in ‘earned’ media, apart from fulfilling community relations, thereby maximizing reach of the marketing rupee, while the communities get sponsorships for celebrations. While the corollary result of it is the purchases being made and associated industries receiving the capital-flow in a buoyant economy. COVID-19 has put a halt to it all.

After Janmashtami, Ganapati festival is scheduled on September 10 in Western India. And, within the next 4 weeks, it will be week-long Durga Puja for the Bengalis – which is nearly a Rs 5,000 crore industry with similar amount of marketing spends providing a fillip to it; and Navratri and Dussehra in the rest of India.

These will be followed by India’s biggest celebration – Diwali in early November. Most Indian families make their annual personal and household purchases ahead of Diwali. Thereafter will come Christmas and rolling out of the New Year 2022.

A study by Assocham in 2015 had calculated that the total spending during all the festivals put together stands at around Rs 20,000 crore. With a modest projected growth of around 10 to 15 per cent year-on-year basis, that figure will be nearly Rs. 40,000 crore by now under normal circumstances. Assocham had earlier described the money-spinning Indian festivals as “recession-proof”, but the question apparently now is how pandemic proof are they?

Historically, the festive season has been the time when campaigns and product rollouts happen. As already stated, marketers had traditionally spent big marketing bucks. But this year is an exception, and it is a no-brainer. However, is your brand a ‘Friend-in-Need’ while celebrating community festivities in the pandemic pandemonium? If so, it is more important that brands be true to their beliefs and values, and act on them and support communities and the economy.

Consider the scenario that several epidemiologists and medical experts have hinted that the third wave of Covid19 could cause a rise in the number of daily cases starting September and peak around the end of October or November. Newer models and findings from NITI Aayog have predicted that there could be almost 6 lakh cases recorded per day with the third wave and warned authorities to prepare accordingly. So, it is evident that the festival season and the third-wave would run concurrently this year.

It is almost certain that new rules for the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi in Maharashtra will be announced after Janmashtami. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had earlier said that the devotees should avoid pomp and grandeur and huge public gatherings. In West Bengal, including Kolkata, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee would likely request the community to scale down the festival bonhomie and the public to be wary of the third-wave.

The key to fight the pandemic is full vaccination. As of now, just about half of India's eligible have received only one dose of a COVID vaccine, official data said. India has been trying to ramp up the vaccination drive to stave off a third wave of infections. The country has so far given about 610 million doses of three approved vaccines - Covishield, Covaxin and Sputnik V. The Central government’s aim is to vaccinate all Indians by the end of this year. But only about 15% of eligible adults have been fully vaccinated since the beginning of the drive in January.

It is doubtful whether ‘normal’ in-person buying and selling could resume in the current festival season after nearly 18 months of horrendous turbulence, loss of life and livelihood. With yet no finality in sight about the eradication of the infections, the brands should feel happy to show-off their ‘socially conscious’ side this year too and not push for too much of a hard-sell.

Considering what we have learnt from the second-wave, the choice now should be of safeguarding health over festival bonhomie.

(IPA Service)

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