Virus casts shadow over Festival of Light

Fear of the coronavirus and chronic pollution spoiled the party on Saturday as hundreds of millions of Indians celebrated the biggest Hindu holiday of the year.
Virus casts shadow over Festival of Light

In Jaipur, India, locals light earthen lanterns to celebrate Diwali, the Festival of Lights. 

Fear of the coronavirus and chronic pollution spoiled the party on Saturday as hundreds of millions of Indians celebrated the biggest Hindu holiday of the year.

Diwali is meant to be the Festival of Light, but the pandemic has clouded the future for many in the country of 1.3 billion.

Some people defiantly set off traditional firecrackers in Delhi in spite of a ban imposed because of sky-high pollution levels and markets were filled with holiday shoppers. But traders said COVID-19 had scared them off spending amidst the muted revelry.

With 8.7 million cases, India has the world’s highest coronavirus infection count behind the United States. About 130,000 people have died since February and Delhi is going through a new surge with nearly 8,000 new cases a day, which experts have blamed on Diwali crowds.

Engineer Rahul Randhawa, 27, returned from the United States expecting to see a toned down Diwali but found “the total opposite.”

“There are major jams on the street ... and there are huge crowds in markets,” he said.

However, the crowds are being selective. No crowds are allowed at sports events. Cinemas are open but remain empty. Restaurants say they are struggling to get people to come in.

Mahinder Kumar, who sells flowers outside the Jhandewala temple, one of the oldest in Delhi, said that normally there are huge queues for Diwali. “This year it’s nothing — almost empty.”

“Our business has been affected badly. We have hardly sold any flowers this year.”

The eight weeks up to Diwali can account for 40 percent of some traders’ annual business and it is considered an auspicious time to buy gold.

But the lights were off at Vineet Garg’s gold and jewelry store near central Connaught Place, despite an “open” sign.

“It is a waste of electricity to put the lights on,” he said. “People are not buying in shops. The business I am doing is online. They are too worried to have fun.”

In the commercial hub of Mumbai, markets were bustling with shoppers buying lights and food but shopkeepers said sales were no better than on an average day.

“It is a dull Diwali,” said Raju Harijan, 35, who has a food store in north Mumbai.

“Usually every year, sales would peak now but this year, even survival has become tough.”

Bank worker Sonam Choudhary said people were “scared” and “adjusting to the new normal.” She said families would celebrate “with all precautions.”

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President-elect Joe Biden and his deputy Kamala Harris, whose mother was Indian, were among world leaders to issue Diwali messages.

“May everyone be prosperous and healthy,” Modi told his 63.5 million Twitter followers.

But the government is struggling to kickstart an economy that is expected to shrink nearly 10 percent this year due to the pandemic.

The government this week announced incentives worth more than US$35 billion to boost employment, consumer demand, agriculture and manufacturing. Since May, it has spent about US$300 billion on stimulus measures.

But Garg said there would be no point putting the lights on in his jewelry store until a coronavirus vaccine is available to all.

“The new normal is all dark for now,” he said.

Choking not a great way to celebrate

Hundreds of millions of residents in India woke up on Sunday to toxic air following Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, after many revelers defied bans on using firecrackers to celebrate.

New Delhi was blanketed with a thick haze, with the average pollution level over nine times that considered safe by the World Health Organization.

Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had banned the use and sale of firecrackers ahead of Diwali, but the policy has been difficult to implement.

Revelers in the capital let off huge amounts of fireworks prompting angry residents and environmentalists to complain on social media of breathing difficulties and stinging eyes.

“Our gods must be so happy today, that their followers burst firecrackers and choked the young ones to despair and death,” said Vimlendu Jha, the founder of non-profit environmental group Swechha.

But many defended firecrackers as an essential part of a religious tradition.

“Are you realizing how all of India, all places stood up in defiance against the cracker ban?” Tarun Vijay, a leader of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, tweeted.

“It’s like a form of Hindu-freedom battle cry.”

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