Not “Superspreaders”? Why is Tirumala Tirupati Temple Open Despite 140 Covid-19 Cases?


Not “Superspreaders”? Why is Tirumala Tirupati Temple Open Despite 140 Covid-19 Cases?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

The fight against the coronavirus pandemic requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders, whether government, people, or organisations. At times, it has been difficult to achieve, with people not following lockdown guidelines or religious organisations not wanting to curb processions in these extraordinary circumstances. From South Korea, to Iran, to Pakistan, to India, we have seen the consequences of laxity on part of religious groups in the spreading of the virus.

The Tirumala Tirupati Balaji temple continues to be open for darshan despite 14 priests among 140 employees testing positive with Covid-19. The temple continues to allow entry of upto 12,000 devotees daily.

While we now adequately know the risks of the virus spreading in public places, the chairperson of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) Board, YV Subba Reddy insists that there are no plans to shut the temple and that there is no evidence of pilgrims testing positive for coronavirus. The temple’s board had decided to re-open on June 11, in line with the center’s “Unlock” plans.

Mr Reddy pointed out that 14 archakas (assistant priests), 16 workers in laddu-making kitchens, and 56 security personnel were among those infected. He further stated that seventy of them have recovered and only one of them is having severe symptoms. Senior priests will not be put on duty. Priests and employees have requested separate accommodation,” Mr Reddy said.

Honorary chief priest Ramana Dikshitulu raised concerns over priests and employers testing positive. Tagging chief minister Jaganmohan Reddy in a tweet, he said “Disaster if this continues. Please take action.” Mr Reddy said Ramana Dikshitulu should have given his suggestions to the TTD Board instead of putting them out on social media.

However, the honorary chief priest wasn’t alone in his criticism. Users on social media also demanded that shutting down of religious places, given the spike in cases and the extraordinary situation the country finds itself in right now.

“Covid-19 cases are increasing rapidly, all religious sites should be closed,” said another user.

Not merely social media users and the wider public, even employees of the TTD have called for temporarily closing down the shrine. Representatives of the TTD Staff and Workers United Front wrote to TTD Executive Officer Anil Kumar Singhal, stating “These employees could end up infecting devotees when they go up the hill to Tirumala to perform duties. In this context, employees are all very worried.” Apart from temporary suspension of darshan, the union has also asked the TTD to allow employees to work in shifts, so only 33% of employees are working on any given day.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about this virus, it is that it doesn’t care for religion, culture, gender or tradition. By opening up public spaces that aren’t essential, we could be risking the lives of thousands of devotees, most of whom might not be able to afford Covid-19 treatment. To put so many employees, priests, devotees under unnecessary risk is not what the Gods would have wanted.