Canadians asked to celebrate Diwali virtually in bid to limit COVID-19 cases

Celebrants of Diwali were forced to find new ways to mark the holiday this weekend as the heeded warnings from politicians and community leaders to keep gatherings to a minimum.

The typical festivals and gatherings were replaced by virtual options for those celebrating the five-day South Asian holiday, which marks the victory of light over darkness.

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"With COVID, we are definitely being careful and we have been taking precautions. We are urging everyone in the community to maintain social distancing," said Ajaay Modi, the founder and director of the Indo-Canada Arts Council and Canada-Diwali.

Modi said the virtual aspect of the celebrations has enabled his organization to extend its reach this year.

He said he expects Diwali events, such as the fireworks over Niagara Falls, to reach up to two million people — far more than if the events were only held in-person.

"It's been a blessing in disguise," he said in an interview. "We're celebrating Diwali without any boundaries across the globe."

Festival organizers in B.C. have staged virtual events ranging from online storytime and prayers to dance performances.

Politicians and health officials have spent the past few days urging Canadians to celebrate holidays, like Diwali, virtually this year in a bid to curb the rise in COVID-19 cases.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a video statement posted to social media Saturday that he understands celebrations will look different this year.

"At the heart of this festival is the idea that light, good and knowledge will always triumph over darkness, evil and ignorance. And as we continue to deal with the impacts of the pandemic, this message couldn't be more important," he said.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh urged those celebrating Diwali and the Sikh celebration of Bandi Chhor Divas to do so while respecting health guidelines.

He said doing so will help allow future celebrations to take place in-person.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief medical officer of health, said she understands the difficulty of not being able to celebrate with friends and family, but says doing so is important as Canada sees a rise in COVID-19 cases.

Her plea follows similar statements from provincial health officials.

In B.C., provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said a surge of COVID-19 cases over the past week shows the importance of not meeting up in person to celebrate.

"As (Thursday's) modelling update clearly showed, this is a critical time for everyone in our province. We need to act now to protect our loved ones, our elders and our communities,'' Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix said in a joint statement on Friday.

Modelling data showed the number of cases in B.C. has doubled every 13 days in the past few weeks, making it harder for contact tracers to keep up and break the chains of transmission.

In Ontario, Peel region saw a spike in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving and is starting to see a jump it attributes to Halloween celebrations, officials said Friday, raising concerns about the consequences if people gather for Diwali.

Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton, Ont., which is in Peel region, said he's "got a lot of concern" about both Diwali and Bandi Chhor Divas, which are largely celebrated by South Asian and other Hindu communities.

More than half of Brampton is South Asian, according to Statistics Canada. So is 40 per cent of the population in neighbouring Mississauga, Ont.

The City of Toronto is also advising against large indoor gatherings during the holiday.

— With files from Denise Paglinawan.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 14, 2020.

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