Inspector General Kumbha Mela Police Sanjay Gunjyal recently claimed that it was unfair to call the Kumbh Mela a COVID-19 super spreader.
"If we scientifically analyse the Covid data of Haridwar district right from January 1 to the conclusion of Kumbh on April 30, attempts to create a perception that Kumbh was a super-spreader of the pandemic look unfair," Gunjyal told PTI.
While trying to use data to back his claim, he said 8.91 lakh RT-PCR tests were conducted in the district from January 1 to April 30, out of which only 1,954 (0.2 per cent) were positive. He also said that the religious event formally began on April 1 by which time the second wave of Covid was already raging in states like Maharashtra and Haryana.
As per a FactChecker analysis of data from the official website of the Department of Medical Health and Family Welfare, Government of Uttarakhand, his claim is incorrect.
The number of cases in Uttarakhand doubled in around a month's time — from recording 1,00,911 cases on April 1 to seeing 2,04,051 cases on May 4, according to data from the state government's daily health bulletin.
The Kumbh Mela which was held between April 1 and April 30 was attended by roughly 3.5 million people and around one million pilgrims were expected each day. This count increased significantly during the days of the "shahi snan" or royal bath which was held on April 12, 14 and 27. Haridwar recorded only 149 daily COVID-19 cases on April 1, but on April 23, 1,115 cases were recorded. The days between April 23 and April 30 saw more than a thousand COVID-19 positive cases daily.
This is when the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand Tirath Singh Rawat, on April 13, justified the event by saying that the "flow and blessings of Ma Ganga will ensure that Coronavirus does not spread".
In a Twitter post on March 21, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) highlighted the need for stringent measures to control the spread of the virus.
Further, PM Narendra Modi on April 17, took to Twitter saying "Now that two royal baths have taken place, I appeal to everyone to keep Kumbh Mela symbolic due to the coronavirus crisis. This will give strength to India's fight against the virus."
Moreover, Gunjyal is not the only top official who tried to remove the "super spreader" tag off the Kumbh Mela. Uttarakhand Director General of Police Ashok Kumar also used data to prove that the Kumbh was not a super-spreader event.
While speaking to India Today on April 12, the IPS officer said, "Let me tell you, we have been following COVID protocol since the last many days regularly but on such a peek day following the COVID protocol 100% is not easily possible But we have tried to follow it as much as possible. Secondly, I will tell you another big data. Yesterday we tested around 53,000 persons in Haridwar out of which the positivity rate is only 1.5%."
This claim is false as well. On April 11, only 24,357 tests were conducted as opposed to Kumar's claim of 53,000, according to data from the state's daily health bulletin.
Kumar also justified this by stating the following three reasons:
1. Kumbh is an open-air event, hence the spread of the virus is less.
2. Ganga's water is flowing and not stagnant.
3. 90% of people do not stay in Haridwar. They go back to their own places.
FactChecker tried contacting both Sanjay Gunjyal and Ashok Kumar for clarification on their claims, but did not receive a response. We will update the story as and when we do.
To understand the viability of the points enlisted by Kumar, FactChecker spoke to Dr Lalit Kant, epidemiologist and former head of Division of Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases at Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
"SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the disease COVID-19, spreads through droplets and aerosol when in contact with an infected individual (symptomatic or asymptomatic). It is true that the chances of infection are less in open air, but are not zero. If a large number of people gather even in an open space while not maintaining physical distance of 6 feet and not wearing an appropriate mask, the chances of infection increase even in an open area," said Dr Kant.
He explained the term super spreader and said it's a term used to describe settings, events, and individuals, which in hindsight, exacerbate rates of infection like a cruise ship, hospital, place of worship, school etc. or any large gathering or movement of a group of individuals can constitute super spreading or even policy decisions.
"A super spreader has greater than average propensity to infect a larger number of people. Studies done on people returning from Kumbh show a high infection rate among them and they in turn become a source of infection to others," added Dr Kant.
When asked whether the spread of COVID-19 is lesser in running water the epidemiologist said there was no evidence backing the claim and reiterated that close proximity between people was the reason for the spread of the virus.
"As of now there is no evidence that the virus spreads through flowing water though it has been detected in untreated wastewater. There is also no evidence that it spreads through drinking water. But what spreads the virus is not the water, but the closeness of the people taking a dip in the river especially if they are talking or singing while bathing. It is important to remember that any distance less than 6 feet increases the likelihood of getting infected," he said.
"It is not only bathing in the river, the virus also spreads through talking loudly, chorus singing, high pitched singing, or heavy breathing apart from coughing and sneezing. All of these are too frequent in large gatherings with people moving from one point to another," he concluded.