Indians are crowding markets and taking packed flights to holiday destinations again despite calls from authorities urging restraint and caution amid rising cases of the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
In the coastal state of Goa, hugely popular as a tourist destination for its beaches and offshore casinos, hotels are running at nearly 90 percent occupancy, with some 90 flights landing in the western state daily, pushing air traffic volumes back to pre-pandemic levels.
“For a year, people haven’t celebrated anything. This year we have holiday-makers as well as people celebrating their milestone birthdays and weddings. In terms of occupancy, we are back to pre-COVID levels,” Nilesh Shah, who heads a top travel body in the state, told Reuters news agency.
Shah estimated that more than a million tourists had entered Goa in December alone as COVID-related restrictions eased in most of India and coronavirus cases hit a year-and-a-half low.
“There are festivals, there is the New Year and we are seeing that there could be trouble because of that,” Vinod Kumar Paul, a senior government official who advises Modi on the pandemic, told a news conference on Friday.
On Friday, the eastern state of Odisha announced fresh restrictions, banning all social gatherings till January 2 and limiting the number of people allowed into a church for Christmas. This follows similar curbs announced by the Indian capital territory of New Delhi this week.
On Thursday, an Indian court urged Modi’s government to suspend political rallies in states facing elections due to the rise in Omicron infections.
Elections to the state assembly in Uttar Pradesh, home to more than 220 million people, are scheduled for early 2022 but final dates are yet to be announced. Three other states are also scheduled to hold local elections at the same time.
Omicron cases in vaccinated people
India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said an analysis of 183 Omicron variant infections showed that 87 were in fully vaccinated people and three involved individuals who had booster doses.
Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan told reporters on Friday that Asian countries are seeing COVID-19 cases decline overall, unlike in North America and Europe.
Despite being home to some of the world’s largest vaccine makers, India has relied largely on two vaccines: the AstraZeneca vaccine made by Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech’s domestically developed vaccine.
In all, India has recorded 34.8 million COVID-19 cases and nearly 480,000 deaths during the pandemic so far.
The country was overwhelmed by two massive outbreaks in September 2020 and in April-May this year. It recorded more than 400,000 new cases in 24 hours at the peak of its second surge in May. In the past two weeks, the country has averaged about 7,000 new cases a day.
Modi’s government has raced to inoculate all of the country’s 944 million adults and has given at least one dose to 88 percent and two doses to 61 percent of them.