Bhubaneswar: Coronavirus outbreak halts festival for the first time in centuries

CM Naveen Patnaik has been proactive in initiating some harsh measures to contain the spread of coronavirus. And the learnings and systems used to manage Cyclone Fani a few years back has come in useful in the state's handling of the COVID outbreak.

The cancellation of the traditional Ashokastami Rath Yatra (car Festival) of the 11th century Sri Lingaraj temple at Bhubaneswar on April 1ST, which also happens to be Odisha’s foundation day, reflects the state government’s approach to contain the spread of the virus.

Like Puri’s car festival, the Ashokastami Yatra, held a day before Ram Navami, has been one of the city’s traditional festivals since the 12th century. Even at the height of the Orissa famine in 1866, (Naanka Durvikhya in Oriya) this was not cancelled. But the injunction against large gatherings to prevent the coronavirus spread forced the temple authorities to cancel the festival at the last minute on government orders. Besides the Ashokastami festival, the state government also cancelled festivities for Utkal Divas, celebration of the state’s foundation day in Bhubaneswar and other district towns.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has been proactive in initiating measures to contain the corona spread. The state government had won acclaim for the way it had managed to handle the impact of Cyclone Fani some years back. And the learnings and systems used to manage that natural disaster did come in useful in the state’s handling of the current outbreak.

On April 3rd, the authorities imposed a virtual curfew in the twin cities of Bhubaneswar-Cuttack and the district headquarters town of Bhadrak, till 8 pm on April 5th. Two gram panchayats of Bhadrak district have been sealed. The curfew was imposed after new positive cases were identified in these areas. But despite these precautions, the numbers of those in quarantine and those testing positive keep rising daily.

Inevitably, the Tablighi event in Delhi has had its impact in Orissa too, where a similar event had been held in end February. The Orissa congregation, called the World Tablighi Jamaat Ijtema, was held at Brahmabarada of Jajpur district in coastal Odisha from February 29th to March 3rd. It was the second such world conference of the organisation to be held there after 24 years in which religious leaders from five countries, including Maulana Saad, head of the international headquarters in Delhi, had attended. These people then went to Delhi for the Nizamuddin event.

Out of 28 persons who returned to Odisha from Delhi, three have tested positive. Three persons of one family in Bhubaneswar who tested positive on April 3rd had attended the Brahmabarada congregation. Authorities have sealed the Brahmabarada area besides the district headquarters town Jajpur. Patnaik has appealed to people who returned from Delhi’s Nizamuddin meeting to come forward and be tested.

Migrant labour

From among migrant labourers who returned from other states, around 8000 have been identified and put in home quarantine. Gram panchayats have been given Rs 5 lakh to set up beds in local schools for those requiring isolation. But in many villages, the returnees are not being allowed to go to their homes. “They are for now being housed in village schools,” said Mr P Das from Naugaon block in coastal Jagatsinghpur district.

Naveen Patnaik has also written to other Chief Ministers to take care of Oriya migrant labourers in their states with the assurance that the state government will reimburse the expenditure. The state government has in fact opened a central control room at Bhubaneswar’s Lok Seva Bhavan where 10 IAS officers and one IPS officer have been assigned to coordinate the issues of lakhs of Oriya migrant labourers working in other states.

Currently, Bhubaneswar and Cuttack have have two and one testing centres respectively with three other testing centres planned:  In Berhampur in Chief Minister’s home district of Ganjam in south Odisha;  Burla in  Sambalpur district of western Odisha, where government medical colleges are located; and the  IGH hospital of Rourkela Steel plant. Private hospitals in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack have been part of the COVID treatment centres to augment beds. More private hospitals are likely to be roped in at Rourkela, Jharsuguda and Kendrapara.

Contact tracing is also happening but only among confirmed primary contacts of those who returned from abroad and tested positive. Naveen Patnaik’s sister, well known New York-based writer Gita Mehta, who had come to Bhubaneswar recently after the death of her publisher husband Sonny Mehta, was put under home quarantine at Naveen Nivas, the CM’s family residence. Even the erstwhile Gajpati King of Puri, Dibyasingha Dev who had gone to USA in connection with an opening of Lord Jagannath’s temple there had to self-quarantine himself at Bhubaneswar on his return.

Meanwhile, various relief measures costing Rs 2200 crore are being implemented.

As per the latest figures released on the evening of April 5th, Odisha had 39 positive cases, out of which Bhubaneswar, at 19, has reported the largest number so far.

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