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COVID-19: India’s Diwali celebrations could be super-spreading events, experts warn

After months of lockdown and restrictions, the festive season in India is here.

An equivalent of Christmas, Diwali – the festival of Lights – is being celebrated across the country but under the shadow of a pandemic.

At a religious gathering in a gated community in Ghaziabad the enthusiasm is evident.

Men, women, old and young dance in gay abandon to religious songs belted out by a singer and his orchestra. There is no social distancing and very few wear masks. Here, caution is the first casualty.

It’s exactly these gatherings that doctors have warned could be super-spreader events. But now COVID-19 fatigue has set in and people just need a respite from it all.

Dr Rommel Tickoo, associate director of internal medicines at Max Healthcare hospital, told Sky News: “People are out partying for Diwali, they are shopping, socialising. They don’t understand the consequences. It’s not just about you or me, it’s about your family, folks at home and colleagues at work.”

“There is always a next time. We can always celebrate Diwali next year”.

In markets, footfalls are back to pre-COVID-19 levels. Shops in Delhi are crowded with people. Here, too, social distancing and personal protection is missing.

Diwali is an auspicious time for shopkeepers, traders and businesses. They gear up the whole year for the season, and the large crowds are a sigh of relief for them.

Parmajeet Singh, 47, who owns a women’s garments store, told Sky News: “We shopkeepers have gone through very difficult times. Our business was uncertain, we found it hard to get food on the table, it was a hand-to-mouth existence, but now it’s back and we are happy and feel better.

“Almost 80% of the market is back, it’s like rain that gives life. It’s a godsend, we have got life in us, you can see it on the faces of shopkeepers.”

With almost 8.7 million cases, India is the world’s second worst affected country after the US and more than 128,500 people have died so far. But even with its poor record of public health care, the fatality rate is low. Its figure of 92 deaths per million is well below the world’s average of 160 and the UK’s 760.

Dr Tickoo says: “The government was decisive and quick to lock down, and at the right time, which was in early March: that prevented millions of people getting COVID-19 and prevented many deaths. It also helped us prepare ourselves and the entire credit goes to the government.”

India enforced one of the severest lockdowns. It drove millions of migrants back to their villages, leaving them without an income for months.

But with a graded unlocking of the economy, they take their chances between hunger and a ravaging infection that could be fatal.

Dinesh, a 24-year-old labourer from the state of Odisha, told Sky News: “What to do? It’s an emergency, there is no money at home, I must earn something for a living.

“We are helpless as there is no work in the villages. Should we starve? The government is not listening to us.”

A COVID-19 mobile testing van stands nearby to conduct rapid antigen tests on workers. A negative test means bread on the table for their families.

As winter sets in and the air quality gets worse, doctors have warned the combination could see a spike in cases.

Dr Tickoo says: “We are in for a double whammy. Air pollution damages lungs and COVID-19 targets it.”

The pandemic looms large over this holiday season, but for the moment, the festival of lights has brought a cheer.

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