Artists perform the traditional drama Ramleela, which narrates the life of Rama, ahead of the Dussehra festival, in Allahabad. Photo: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP

Indians received a word of warning as bazaars get into festival mood leading up to the main Hindu festival of Diwali. A team of scientists from top institutions said any laxity could see Covid-19 cases surge by a third from the present 7.55 million.

“The upcoming festival and winter seasons may increase the susceptibility to infection, and any relaxation in protective measures can lead to a significant rise, of up to 2.6 million infections within a month,’’ said the report by the Prof M Vidyasagar-led Covid-19 India National Supermodel Committee.

India is just behind the US which leads the global count of cases with 8.4 million. Europe with 7 million and Brazil with 5.2 million follow as other major hotspots.

The main Hindu festivals began on October 17 with Navratri, to be followed by Durga Pooja, Dussehra and culminating with Diwali on November 14. Most of the festivals involve people gathering outside homes for community prayers, dances and celebrations. Keeping people confined to safe limits is now a key challenge for most state governments.

The festivals also mean annual household purchases before the winter in most parts of the country. Government officials have warned of a spurt in Covid cases as thick fog and unrelenting pollution combine to make the air difficult to breathe. The Air Quality Index (AQI) in Delhi and north India often crosses the danger mark and causes serious respiratory illnesses. This phenomenon is likely to make Covid-19 more noxious, say experts.

The committee also has some good news.

The pandemic in India could be controlled by early next year with minimal active symptomatic infections by February end if most of the standard protocols are followed, it said in the report.

“The pandemic (in India) has peaked, but only if sufficient protective measures continue,’’ said the report, adding that about 30% of the population is likely to have developed antibodies compared with 14% around the end of August.

Festivals in the past few months have been a source of a sharp increase in cases, and remain a cause for concern.

India’s Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan in his “Sunday Conversations” remarked that in the state of  Kerala, once hailed as a role model for containing the virus, cases jumped as much as four times after the festival of Onam. In Maharashtra too, after the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, the government reported a sharp uptick in cases.

Officials in West Bengal state are warning of a potential spurt in cases during Durga Pooja this week. The week historically is declared a public holiday across most workplaces for cultural programs and gaiety. Citizens erect thousands of street corner pavilions for prayers and fun.

Kolkata has 2,500 community prayer pavilions, while West Bengal state is estimated to have 37,000. Most of them have received financial help from the state government because they are popular. Prime Minister Narendra Modi plans to inaugurate 10 community prayer pavilions virtually from New Delhi.

Incidentally, elections to the West Bengal state assembly are likely before April next year. The run up indicate the elections will be hard fought between the incumbent party and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The Calcutta High Court has asked the state government on its plans to ensure the virus doesn’t spread during community gatherings.

Last week, the governor of Maharashtra caused a stir by questioning the chief minister why the state wasn’t opening all the temples. His action was followed by political workers shouting their demands outside a key temple and holding up traffic in central Mumbai, increasing pressure on the administration controlling the Covid situation.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) too is cautioning people during the festival and winter season.

“The upcoming festival season and the approaching winter season threatens to aggravate the situation if we let our guards down,’’ said Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the WHO regional director for south-east Asia. “The co-circulation of seasonal influenza and Covid-19 in the winter may present challenges for health systems and health facilities.’’

On the positive side, for the third week in a row, WHO’s South-east Asia region has registered a 6-8% fall in Covid cases, mainly because of decrease in cases from India and Bangladesh. It said there should be no complacency in view of the declining numbers in recent weeks.

India’s committee of scientists too commended efforts of the government in containing the number of cases and deaths. The number of cases match that of India’s population, or about one-sixth of the global population.

The committee said the March 25 countrywide lockdown may have been responsible for saving millions of lives and containing cases. The Modi government lockdown was criticized by some as too draconian. The migration of millions of workers from towns to villages didn’t have any major impact on spreading the virus, it revealed.