Nepal’s Gaijatra festival witnessed big crowds amid ongoing Covid wave: Why do people not learn from past devastation?

Kathmandu Valley witnessed a massive mass gathering in the Gaijatra festival celebration. What if the celebration turns out to be a ‘super-spreader’ event?

People celebrate Gaijatra festival in Bhaktapur flouting Covid-19 protocols. (Photo: RSS)

Ashim Neupane

  • Read Time 3 min.

Kathmandu: Despite the formal request of no extravaganza from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the local government, photographs from Monday showed large crowds gathering to celebrate the Gaijatra, an annual festival celebrated especially in the Kathmandu Valley to commemorate the loved ones who passed away over the past year.

There were apparent breaches of Covid-19 protocol by the crowd with authorities powerless to enforce social distancing measures. The crowds were seen either without masks or pulling masks under their noses or completely off their faces to rest under their chins.

The gathering has created a fear that the celebration might turn out to be a “super-spreader event”. Formally, the government has banned gatherings of more than 25 people. However, thousands of people gathered in Bhaktapur to celebrate Gaijatra on Monday.

“People have a “blind faith” when it comes to their religion. As certain religious practices are deeply linked with some rituals, festivals and celebrations in the Kathmandu Valley, the government failed to control the activities in the Valley,” said sociologist Ram Paudel, who is also the head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Ratna Rajya Laxmi Campus.

This is not the first incident in the country where people defied Covid protocol to take part in religious and cultural events. In the Kathmandu Valley, such events continue even at the cost of public health. 

Last year, police and public clashed in Lalitpur after locals attempted the chariot procession of Rato Machhindranath. The clash erupted when police tried to stop the people from Lalitpur from pulling the chariot as the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic had ravaged the country.

“People have deep-rooted beliefs in religion. But the government should impose strict restrictions on huge gatherings during these times as there is a huge risk of the spread of the virus,” Paudel said.

Sociologist Paudel further added that the leadership fears political consequences of imposing strict restrictions on religious festivals in the Kathmandu Valley. “Politicians fear that they might lose votes from the Valley if restrictions are imposed on religious activities,” Paudel said. 

Those who took to the streets to celebrate the festival tend to forget that hundreds of people are being infected every day and the death toll due to Covid-19 has crossed the 10,000 mark in Nepal. On Tuesday alone, Nepal reported a total of 2,525 Covid-19 cases, with 35 deaths.  

Both the federal and local governments should take responsibility for their failure to control the crowd. According to public health experts, apart from a formal request for no extravaganza, there should have been meaningful coordination and cooperation among local governments and federal government, and efforts should have been made to convince the people not to join the mass gatherings.

“Yes, there have been big lapses from the government. But in these times, people themselves should also be responsible,” said Dr Baburam Marasini, a former director at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division.  

“Forceful implementation of law is one thing. As religion is deep-rooted, the administration should have allowed the gathering of only a few people. But, both the government and the local administration failed,” Marasini said. 

Dr Marasini further added that the consequence of Monday’s gathering will be seen in the next week. “The number of cases in the Kathmandu Valley will see a sharp spike in the next week,” he added.

The Gaijatra celebration in Bhaktapur comes at a time when health experts have warned that Nepal is bracing for the third wave of Covid-19. A few weeks ago, Nepal Live Today reported that hospitals in the Kathmandu Valley are slowly getting overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients.

When Nepal Live Today talked to a few government hospitals about the situation of Covid-19, they said the number of cases has started to increase at a sharp rate. 

According to Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, in papers, the country is still in lockdown, but the reality is different. “People are flouting the health safety protocols. Still, a huge number of the population is unvaccinated, so there is a huge risk of infection. The consequences of Monday’s event will be seen in a few days,” added Dr Pun.

Photos: RSS