The Tirumala Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh, despite being identified as a COVID-19 hotspot, has no plans of shutting down.
As many as 743 of its staff members tested positive for the novel coronavirus, soon after the temple was opened to devotees on 11 June. So far, three, including a former head priest, have succumbed to the disease.
But the trust that runs the temple is adamant about keeping the doors open.
“There is an increase in cases across the country, not just here in Tirupati. So, there are no plans to shut down the temple because of this,” Shekhar Reddy, a board member of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), an independent trust that runs the temple, told The Quint.
This decision, however, could potentially lead to disastrous consequences.
“This can have a cascading effect – spread to many people,” explained Dr KS Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. “One can take protection in terms of physical distancing and masks. But, we need to make sure we don’t have mass events, as they are what we call super-spreader events.”
‘Number of Infected is Much Higher’
According to TTD Executive Officer Anil Kumar Singhal, 743 employees, including special protection force, vigilance department, sanitation workers, have contracted COVID-19. Out of this, 402 employees have recovered, and 338 people are undergoing treatment.
However, a source close to the temple board told The Quint that the actual number of those infected is much higher, if the contract employees are included.
"“There are 9,000 permanent employees, of which there are 700-odd cases. You can then take a guess how many cases there are among the 14,000 contract employees. Five among the infected have passed away.”" - K Murali, TTD Employees Association, Contract and Permanent Employees
Are the Safety Measures Enough?
“The temple is taking all precautions and safety measures to ensure social distancing in the temple premises,” Reddy told The Quint. This includes compulsory masks, social distancing, thermal screening at checkpoints, and use of disinfectant spray.
But, the temple sees at least 7,000-8,000 devotees every day. The temple authorities sell over 3,000 tickets online for darshan, and at least 3,000-4,000 come directly to the temple counters.
A source told The Quint that there are several priests who have tested positive because of their close proximity to devotees.
“The VIPs are allowed till the first step of the deity. Social distancing is not possible there as there are at least 10-15 people standing together while the arathi is performed. My concern is about the archakas (priests),” he said.
From government officials to politicians, several have visited the temple for VIP darshans over the last two months.
Dr Reddy told The Quint that this poses a huge risk for infection spread.
“Open spaces carry less virus (load) than closed spaces, because aerosols can form and hang around for several hours in these spaces especially without ventilation... even air conditioning doesn’t help. Most temples, though, have open spaces and do have a lot of closed spaces, especially as you get close to the sanctum sanctorum. This is a dangerous combination and that is why crowds must be avoided,” he said.
K Murali, of the TTD Employees Association, says that the temple is being sanitised regularly, but adds, “Our workers are not safe. No PPE kits are provided to them and there is no testing done.”
He said that they have appealed several times to the state government, TTD board and the management to close the temple but the authorities don’t agree.
Moreover, not all devotees are being tested.
“Of 7,000-10,000 devotees coming for darshan, it is not possible to test everybody. So, we do random sampling of 150-200 per day – and so far we have not got any positive cases,” the District Medical and Health Officer (DMHO) of Chittoor, Dr M Penchalaiah, told The Quint.
‘No Contact Tracing Done’
Unlike the Tablighi Jamaat cluster in Delhi or the more recent Kozhikode air crash in Kerala, there has been no push from the Andhra Pradesh government for contact tracing of those who came in contact with the infected, despite many positive cases within the temple premises.
Dr Penchalaiah confirmed to The Quint that no contact tracing exercise is being conducted. He, however, said that Tirumala “has a call centre, and they are calling every pilgrim to check on the status of their health. This is manned by 20 people.”
However, a source close to the board said even this was not true. The Quint tried reaching out to several board officials but did not get a response.
"“Contact tracing has to be early, energetically and extensively, which is very important. But, sometimes, in large crowds, it becomes practically difficult. That is why preventing large crowds is the better thing to do.”" - Dr KS Reddy, President of the Public Health Foundation of India
The DMO, however, said that the temple premises will not be shut down or deemed a containment zone.
He said there are “no plans” to shut down the temple as “we have to contain corona.”
Many also raised concerns that since devotees are coming in from neighbouring districts, the spread of the virus could be rapid and wide scale.
‘Pray From Home the Only Option’
Many public health professionals have advised that the right thing to do is to shut down public spaces until the pandemic is under control.
“Devotion doesn’t disappear from the hearts if you can’t just visit the place. It mediates against the concept of omniscience of God,” Dr Reddy said,
Experts say that the best approach for the sake of everyone’s health is to ‘pray from home’, much like how we now work from home.
One of the wealthiest Hindu shrines in the world, the Lord Venkateswara or the Tirupati temple reopened in the second week of June.
As on 12 August, there were 2,41,654 confirmed cases in Andhra Pradesh, of which 18,334 are in Chittoor district, where the temple is located.
Since mid-June, there has been a steady increase in cases in the district, with some days clocking 700-900 cases.
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