This year's dangerous Dasain


The coronavirus used to be imported, from Europe, China or India. No more. It is now here among us, and this Dasain it could be a relative who could bring it home.

Dasain is said to mark the victory of good over evil, but this year we may want it to represent the triumph of health over disease. The festival, with its family get-together and close contact, however, may itself be the reason for an even more serious surge in the pandemic.

Dasain was expected to be toned down this year owing to the exponential rise in Covid-19, but many Nepalis seem to be in a festive mood and determined to celebrate after long months being cooped up at home.

Already, city dwellers are travelling to Chitwan or Pokhara, embarking on treks, or travelling back to their home districts to meet members of the extended family. Dasain is also a time for shopping, and the markets are crowded with people, many not wearing masks properly.

"Dasain holds too much cultural importance for Nepalis to skip it,” explains Mahesh Kumar Maskey of the Nepal Public Health Foundation. “This year, it comes after months of sporadic lockdowns. People are experiencing mask and lockdown fatigue, and can only have so much self-discipline. So, the chances of people being less careful during Dasain is high.”

Maskey says people have to make compromises, even if we have to meet and greet family or travel to home districts we should take great precautions – not just for ourselves but for elderly relatives we are seeking blessings from.

Every year, around 2 million people leave Kathmandu to go to their hometowns for Dasain, according to the Federation of Nepalese National Transport Entrepreneurs that operates inter-district buses. However, this year, there are reported to be fewer people travelling out even though Kathmandu Valley is Nepal's Covid hotbed.

On Friday, the country recorded 4,499 new infections, taking the total confirmed cases to 153,008. Of these, 2,720 were in Kathmandu Valley. With 17 more deaths, the total fatalities now stands at 829. There are nearly 50,000 active cases, and the numbers needing ICU treatment and ventilators continue to rise.

"This is a very high-risk situation. Infected people from Kathmandu will become a source of transmission in their hometowns,” says Krishna Man Shakya of the Nepal Public Health Foundation. “Because of Dasain, Covid will spread to every corner of Nepal."

He says the festival will bring people in close proximity in buses, and those using long-distance transport will be much more vulnerable to contracting Covid-19 than people travelling with friends and families in private vehicles.

The Department of Transport Management has ordered that public vehicles can only carry half the passengers, conductors and drivers must wear masks, and seats should be disinfected. But the rule is not being enforced.

"People travel from Kathmandu to their hometowns to spend time with their parents and relatives, if they become a source of transmission, they not only cause health problems for their near and dear ones, but also take on the emotional burden and responsibility of being patient zero. The mental toll this takes is dangerous," Maskey explains.

Indeed, Nepal's already dire and stigmatised mental health problem is being exacerbated by the pandemic. Before the crisis, 37% of Nepalis surveyed indicated that they suffered from some form of  psychological disorder. Now, 42% of Nepalis surveyed indicate suffering from at least one kind of mental health issue, and 25% of Nepalis surveyed said Covid-19 has negatively affected their mental well-being.

"The responsibility to fight the virus has now fallen on the citizens -- we can no longer depend on the government. Celebrating Dasain with precautions is one way we can protect ourselves as well as control Covid," Maskey adds.

Experts highlight the role of information technology in celebrating a safe Dasain, suggesting a more virtual approach -- online shopping, online card games, physically distanced kite-flying, and calling/video calling during tika.

Says Shakya, "When people shop for Dasain, they are in crowds where everyone is not wearing a mask. This increases the risk of transmission. The products people buy could be contaminated -- a source of infection if not disinfected properly. Similarly,  the tika itself, the jamara, and the dakshina could all be carrying the virus. This is risky."

A Covid-adapted Dasain isn't as radical as it seems. In fact, Dasain have in the pst been rescheduled, says Poonam RL Rana at Tribhuvan University's Department of Nepali History, Culture, and Architecture.

"Originally, Dasain was in the summer, referred to as Chaite Dasain. However, people would get sick because of summer diseases and from overeating during festivities. So, it was moved to autumn," she says.

In fact, historically Dasains have been affected by recurring small pox and cholera epidemics in Kathmandu Valley. Those infected were quarantined till they were cured of or succumbed to the epidemic, those uninfected would go about with their festivities.

Perhaps the problem is not the pandemic, but cultural orthodoxy and religious fear. Surveys have shown that many people believe that scaling down festivals such as Dasain could invite divine wrath.

An unfortunate example was the Rato Machindranath chariot fiasco. Devotees violently clashed with riot police insisting that the festival go ahead despite prohibitory orders, many believed that pulling the chariot would miraculously end the pandemic. Ironically, the festival was a spreader event. And Dasain could be an even bigger transmitter of the disease.

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