Steve KL Chan and Kevin SY Tan
Keimyung / Singapore â
Sat July 3, 2021
It has become evident to most observers that the current waves of COVID-19 infections in Asia coincide with the appearance of major cultural festivals.
While the fault is certainly not on the festival itself, the resulting crowds of people often increase the potential for a rapid and intensive spread of COVID-19 infections. This was recently illustrated in the case of India, with a record number of infections following not only election rallies but also the Kumbh Mela festival. This has led to a tragic loss of life due to a lack of medical infrastructure.
In Southeast Asia alone, parallels are observed between the cultural festivities that take place during the month of April 2021. Ramadan, which lasts a month and culminates with Idul Fitri or Eid, is an important event because Islam is the most prevalent religion in the region, accounting for over 40 percent of all Southeast Asians.
On a smaller but nonetheless significant scale among Indochinese nations, the celebration of the traditional solar new year is another important holiday that has been celebrated in many forms. They include Songkran (Thailand), Pi Mai (Laos), Thingyan (Myanmar) and also Choul Chnam Thmey (Cambodia).
What is instructive is that each of these events occurred during a period just before the most recent waves of COVID-19 infections in their respective countries. As of May 2021, countries like Thailand and Malaysia have seen their worst epidemics since the start of the pandemic. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have also seen surges, although relatively smaller in terms of actual numbers. These epidemics are all the more disturbing because they have emerged despite various restrictions in place.
While part of the reason for the waves of infection lies in the emergence of new variants of COVID-19 and the low vaccination rate across Southeast Asia, one can’t help but notice the remarkable chain of festive events that happened just before.
Due to their highly social nature, festive events tend to weaken and relax our expectations of everyday life. Anthropologically speaking, cultural festivals are opening events, a period of time that falls between and between what we consider to be typically structured as ânormalâ. In other words, the routines of our daily life are suspended from their daily grind during such times.
This liminality also affects the way public spaces are perceived and used. And if their character varies from culture to culture, today they are commonly presented in the form of traditional holidays and celebrations that combine memory, emotion, spectacle and playful activity.
This is precisely why festivals are attractive to most people, as they provide a respite from the realities of “normal”. Unfortunately, however, they also turn out to be the site of rapid contagion during a pandemic.
It is therefore important to recognize that festivals represent a real test for policymakers in the event of a pandemic. While the risks of letting them continue are certainly recognized, it also appears to be a difficult decision to prevent them altogether, either because of political expediency or the deep importance they hold to the public.
They often represent a dilemma for governments because there is a risk of public backlash if they are not well managed. At the same time, societies that have already undergone a period of extended vigilance in the form of lockdowns are particularly vulnerable, as pandemic fatigue will often be high and festivals are a useful way to reclaim parts of our lives that remind us of a era before COVID-19.
The introductory aspects of any impending festival are then, of course, more than welcome among many people, who are ultimately social beings. But it’s also most likely a time when our guard is down. For the ânew normalâ has never been socially natural, and festivals or similar events are an instinctive way to push back restrictions. This applies to most contexts, whether among elites or ordinary citizens.
Examples can be seen in the case of Thailand, where pre-Songkran Bangkok’s nightlife among privileged locals played a role in triggering the country’s latest and deadliest wave of infections. On the other hand, the mass appeal of Malaysian urban night bazaars throughout Ramadan preceded their current crisis.
We are therefore faced with a dilemma in this continued fight against the pandemic. How far do we have to go in running festivals, which have been a big part of our identities and our lives? Are we canceling the next Lunar New Year? Or the next Songkran or Deepavali?
Maybe part of the answer lies in accepting that we need to learn to live with COVID-19 while reminding ourselves that we shouldn’t necessarily die because of it. There will be no absolute results of our choices: only the best or the worst.
Therefore, it might be wiser to let go of a part of his life that existed before the pandemic in order to keep the rest. And governments must realize that winning elections is now less important than saving lives.
Tackling pandemics through containment, quarantine, social distancing and vaccines is a necessary strategy to contain, or at least slow down, the rate of infection in all affected countries. However, what is perhaps the most difficult to overcome is not the coronavirus, but our own human nature.
Steve KL Chan is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Keimyung University, Republic of Korea. Kevin SY Tan is Visiting Principal Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. The article was published in Fulcrum