The Taj Mahal is set to reopen to visitors after a six-month closure, even as the pandemic has accelerated in recent weeks with India set to overtake the US to become the nation worst-hit by COVID-19.
India, home to 1.3 billion people and some of the world’s most crowded cities, has recorded more than 5.4 million COVID-19 cases, with approximately 100,000 new infections and more than 1,000 deaths recorded daily in the past several weeks.
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But after a strict lockdown in March that devastated the livelihoods of tens of millions of people, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reluctant to copy some other nations and reimpose curbs on activity.
Instead, in recent months his government has eased restrictions, including on many train routes, domestic flights, markets, restaurants – and now, visiting the Taj Mahal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The 17th-century white marble mausoleum built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the city of Agra, about 200km from the capital, New Delhi, is India’s most popular tourist site. It usually draws seven million visitors a year but has been closed since March.
Officials say when the iconic monument reopens, strict physical distancing rules will be imposed and daily visitor numbers will be capped at 5,000 – a quarter the normal rate. Tickets can only be bought online.
“Circles are being marked, the mask would be a must and nobody would be able to enter without thermal screening,” Vasant Swarnkar, a senior archaeologist in charge of Agra’s monuments, told reporters.
The Taj Mahal earned a revenue of 860 million rupees ($11.6m) during 2018-2019.
Elsewhere, however, particularly in rural areas where infections are soaring, anecdotal evidence suggests that government guidelines on avoiding the virus are more often ignored than adhered to.
“I think, not just in India but all over the world, fatigue with extreme measures that were taken to restrict the growth of the coronavirus is setting in,” said Gautam Menon, professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University, predicting that infections will keep rising as a result.
Many experts say that even though India is testing more than a million people a day, this is still not enough and the true number of cases may be much higher than officially reported.
Experts have raised concerns around antigen tests, which look for virus proteins and are faster but less accurate compared with RT-PCR, the gold standard for confirming the coronavirus by its genetic code. India has allowed both antigen and RT-PCR tests.
The same goes for the recorded number of deaths, which currently stands at more than 86,000, with many fatalities not properly recorded even in normal times in one of the world’s worst-funded healthcare systems.
There is, however, some resistance to Modi’s unlocking of the world’s second-most populated country, which saw its economy contract by almost a quarter between April and June.
Schools were meant to resume on Monday on a voluntary basis for students aged 14 to 17, but many Indian states, such as Maharashtra and Gujarat, have said it is still too soon.
“Cases are still increasing rapidly… I have no idea how we can reopen educational institutions now,” West Bengal’s Education Minister Partha Chatterjee said.
Elsewhere, schools are refusing to open or parents are wary of sending their children in.
“I am prepared for my son to lose an academic year by not going to school rather than risk sending him,” said Nupur Bhattacharya, the mother of a nine-year-old boy in the southern city of Bengaluru.