The street is deserted, except for a solidarity yellow and green rickshaw trundling past at a snail’s pace. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there is a flurry of movement and a puff of red dust – a group of children throwing a handful of coloured powder. “Happy Holi!” they cry, and run away laughing.
It is the time of year when India and much of south Asia celebrates the festival of colour, with neighbourhoods gathering for huge, raucous street parties and the roads in between transformed into battlefields scarred by bright red, orange and green.
Tuesday should be the pinnacle of the festivities, marked by a national holiday across India. Yet there has been far less activity than usual in the build-up, with shops reporting poor sales of coloured powder and water pistols, as concerns mount in India of a potentially devastating coronavirus outbreak.
With India’s number of confirmed virus cases rising on Monday to 45, the government has upped screening on international arrivals and issued advisory notices – via social media, newspaper adverts and automated messages preceding all mobile phone calls – warning the public to maintain good hygiene, avoid large crowds and remain vigilant of symptoms.
The health ministry has stopped short of explicitly banning Holi celebrations, but senior government figures are leading by example. Prime minister Narendra Modi tweeted last week that he would not take part in any Holi gatherings given that “experts across the world have advised to reduce mass gatherings to avoid the spread of Covid-19”.
Home minister Amit Shah went one step further, saying he would not take part and issuing an “appeal [to] everyone to avoid public gatherings and take good care of yourself and your family”.
Holi’s emphasis on large crowds and close personal contact has made the timing of the festival this year “really quite alarming” for public health officials going to great lengths to prevent coronavirus from spreading, explains Dr Sanghita Bhattacharyya, a senior expert at the Public Health Foundation of India.
“Playing Holi means what? This festival is about giving colour to each other,” she tells The Independent. “That means you will come in close contact – generally you put colour on other people’s faces. The very fundamental nature of the festival goes against the [official] advisories.”
Public health officials are recommending people restrict Holi celebrations to small groups, ideally just family members who they are spending most of their time around anyway.
And at-risk groups in particular – the old and those with pre-existing health conditions – are being urged not to head outside on Tuesday.
“[The message is] stay away, stay indoors,” Dr Bhattacharyya says. “Because you cannot tell kids not to touch anybody, it isn’t going to work. The best advice is that, if it is at all possible, you shouldn’t go out. [Stay] at home, and eat lots of good food to compensate.
“Don’t let this [coronavirus] dampen the mood of the festival, there are other ways to enjoy it.”
Even major set-piece Holi celebrations that would have had extensive vetting, such as the annual event at the presidential palace, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, have been called off. President Ram Nath Kovind said the decision was a “precautionary measure”.
Some have compensated for the lack of colour in their social media timelines by sharing images from previous years’ celebrations. They include Vikram Misri, India’s ambassador to China, who tweeted that the traditional party at India House in Beijing “unfortunately, due to the ongoing #coronavirus situation ... has had to be called off”.
With its beleaguered health system, densely populated megacities and close transport links to China, India is bracing for the arrival in earnest of Covid-19. At present, the majority of confirmed cases are in travellers arriving from Italy, including 15 positive cases in a single group tour to Rajasthan.
Schools in Delhi have been closed by local authorities until at least 31 March, with similar measures adopted across the country.
And late on Monday, the foreign ministry said a planned trip by Mr Modi to Bangladesh on 17 March had become the latest casualty of the virus outbreak. Bangladesh, a spokesperson said, was scaling down an event to mark the centenary of the birth of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, and India stood “ready to work with Bangladesh, as partners, to combat the spread of this disease in our shared neighbourhood”.
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