Shadow cast across India as Diwali festival hit by Covid – and smog

People encouraged to stay at home for Hindu festival, with Delhi particularly affected

Heavy smog at Rajpath in Delhi, where there is concern pollution could aggravate the Covid-19 situation.
Heavy smog at Rajpath in Delhi, where there is concern pollution could aggravate the Covid-19 situation. Photograph: Rajat Gupta/EPA

Diwali celebrations in India have taken a more sombre tone this year, as the double spectres of the pandemic and pollution cast a shadow over festivities.

The Hindu festival of light is the most important celebration of the year for many in India and this weekend would usually be marked by raucous parties and fireworks displays.

However, the preparations and planned celebrations across the country have been unusually muted, particularly in the capital, Delhi, where coronavirus cases have reached record levels and the city’s annual pollution hit “emergency” levels and enveloped the city in a thick toxic smog.

“We are not celebrating like other years, it will be a quiet Diwali for us,” said Sumita Majumdar, a housewife in Delhi. “We will only put out candles and pray for good health. We have not done any shopping for Diwali this year, it is not about celebration but survival.”

WhatsApp messages going viral in India encouraged people to stay at home and light candles for the “Covid warriors who have left us”, and to “offer support and spread “cheer to those who have lost their people and who have suffered losses in jobs and business”.

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Delhi recorded 8,600 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, the highest number since the pandemic started, as well as 85 deaths, and hospitals in the city reported that their intensive care units were almost full.

India is the second-worst affected country by the Covid-19 pandemic, with 8.73m cases. Overall, new cases have been declining across the country over the past month but health experts fear Diwali could be a “super-spreader event” that could prompt a second wave, especially if people throng to temples and relatives’ homes as normal.

Gatherings of up to 200 people are still allowed but over the past month, India’s health minister, Harsh Vardhan, has been campaigning for people to have a socially distanced Diwali.

A woman shopping at Lajpat Nagar market in Delhi earlier this week.
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A woman shopping at Lajpat Nagar market in Delhi earlier this week. Photograph: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

At Delhi’s popular and bustling Lajpat Nagar market this week, warnings were broadcast over loudspeakers telling Diwali shoppers to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

With evidence showing that air pollution is linked to higher death rates from coronavirus and more vulnerability to the virus, firecrackers, highly popular during the festival but also major air pollutants, have been banned in the capital and other cities across India.

There has been a push towards a “digital Diwali”. In Delhi, prayer ceremonies will be broadcast on television and social media to encourage people to stay at home. In an attempt to stop the use of firecrackers during Diwali, the UN environment programme launched a series of augmented reality filters where people could have exploding e-firecrackers, known as e-pataakhas, on their Facebook and Instagram posts instead of setting off the real thing.