Sabarimala pilgrimage may upset COVID-19 care in Kerala

Deccan Chronicle.  | Smitha N

Nation, Current Affairs

Shortage of reference hospitals near the Ayyappa temple is another major concern

Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala

KOCHI: Opening of the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple for the annual Mandala Makaravilakku festival may pose serious challenges for the state’s healthcare system, which has been relentlessly fighting against the pandemic for several months.  As the hill shrine is all set to open for the two-month long famed festival, healthcare practitioners are concerned over the adverse impacts of the pilgrim season on the COVID-19 care system in Kerala.

Deployment of government doctors for Sabarimala duty will further stress the already staff-scarce healthcare sector, according to Kerala Government Medical Officers Association (KGMOA). The Association has already taken up the matter with the health minister and health secretary.

“There is an extreme shortage of staff and if the available doctors are deployed for Sabarimala duty, the COVID-19 prevention and management system will be derailed. In a recent meeting, we have submitted a request to the health secretary urging to spare government doctors from assigning pilgrim season duty. If private hospitals are entrusted at locations like Nilakkal, Erumeli, Pampa and Sannidhanam, they will be able to manage it,” said Dr. Joseph Chacko, state president of Kerala Government Medical Officers Association.

“Swab samples of pilgrims have to be collected from various points like railway stations and base centre at Nilakkal. The number of devotees doesn't matter as the medical facilities have to be the same even when 100 or 5000 pilgrims are allowed at the shrine per day,” he added.

Shortage of reference hospitals near the Ayyappa temple is another major concern. Since the nearby government general hospital in Pathanamthitta has been converted to COVID-19 care centre, pilgrims requiring emergency care couldn’t be referred to the facility.

“We have requested the health secretary to ensure alternative facilities like tie up with private hospitals,” said the KGMOA state president.

Meanwhile, healthcare practitioners have also pointed out the possibilities for surge in COVID-19 figures if devotees fail to strictly comply with the health protocols. If the pilgrims turn up in big numbers, social distancing norms cannot be followed properly.

The state government has decided to allow 1000 devotees per day to have darshan at the temple. More pilgrims might be allowed on the Makaravilakku festival day, during the culmination of the season. All the devotees and those on duty have to produce COVID-19 negative certificates.

The Ayyappa temple will be opened for the pilgrim season on November 15 and the Travancore Devaswom Board has made elaborate arrangements considering the pandemic situation.