More than 1,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus at the site of a major Hindu festival in India in two days, officials said, as huge crowds of mostly maskless devotees descend on the Ganges River in the northern Uttarakhand state.
The virus was detected in the city of Haridwar, which lies along the river where the weeks-long Kumbh Mela, or the pitcher festival, is being observed, officials said. Of some 50,000 samples taken from people in Haridwar, 408 tested positive on Monday and 594 on Tuesday, the Uttarakhand government said.
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The latest figures came as Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state, tweeted on Wednesday that he had also tested positive for COVID-19.
A second wave of coronavirus infections is sweeping across India, with the country on Wednesday hitting a new high of 184,372 new cases.
With a total of almost 13.9 million COVID-19 infections, India now has the second-highest number of cases in the world. The country’s daily death toll passed 1,000 on Wednesday for the first time since mid-October.
Local authorities in many states have imposed night curfews and clamped down on movement and activities.
‘Our faith is the biggest thing’
Experts have blamed large religious events, packed political rallies in poll-bound states and crowded public places for the surge.
Still, hundreds of thousands of ash-smeared ascetics and devout Hindus jostled to take a dip in the Ganges during the religious festival on Wednesday, hoping to wash away their sins, as India reported another record surge in coronavirus infections.
“Our faith is the biggest thing for us. It is because of that strong belief that so many people have come here to take a dip in Ganga,” Siddharth Chakrapani, a member of one of the Kumbh Mela organising committees, told AFP news agency.
“They believe that Maa (mother) Ganga will save them from this pandemic.”
As huge crowds made their way towards the river on a special day of bathing during the Kumbh Mela, health authorities had to pull back a COVID-19 testing crew.
“We have moved away our sampling team to avoid a stampede-like situation,” said SK Jha, chief medical officer of the northern city of Haridwar, where the event is being held.
“We do, of course, expect cases to rise when the priests and other crowd move away.”
Police said 650,000 devotees had bathed in the river since Wednesday morning and people were being fined for failing to observe social distancing in some areas.
‘It’s already a super-spreader’
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, however, has refused to call off the festival that is scheduled to last the whole month, possibly fearing a backlash from religious leaders in the Hindu-majority country.
“It is already a super-spreader because there is no space to test hundreds of thousands in a crammed city and the government neither has the facilities nor the manpower,” said a senior Uttarakhand official.
Devout Hindus believe bathing in the Ganges absolves people of sins, and during the Kumbh Mela, it brings salvation from the cycle of life and death.
A short distance from the river, Hotel Sachin International had converted itself into a COVID isolation centre. All 72 rooms were packed with more than 150 patients, a hotel executive said.
“We started taking in patients on April 5, and three days ago all our rooms got filled,” the employee said, declining to be identified because of a gag order from local authorities.
The hotel did not respond to an email seeking comment. A doctor from the region said at least four other hotels have been turned into COVID wards.
“What you are seeing is not Kumbh Mela but it’s a corona atom bomb,” tweeted Indian filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, alongside a picture of a sea of devotees. “I wonder who will be made accountable for this viral explosion.”
Comparisons with Tablighi Jamaat row
Critics of the Indian government have also compared the government’s response to the festival to the response last year when Indian Muslims faced rising Islamophobia following accusations that an initial surge in infections was tied to a three-day meeting of an Islamic missionary group, the Tablighi Jamaat, in New Delhi.
This nation, especially our media, owes an apology to the Tablighi Jamaat. https://t.co/Le1TjgP8Cp
— Rohini Singh (@rohini_sgh) April 12, 2021
Some leaders from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and India’s freewheeling TV channels, which have long favoured the government’s Hindu-nationalist policies, labelled Muslims as “jihadis” and “super spreaders” in March 2020 when the seven-day rolling average of coronavirus cases in the country was not even 200 per day.
The blame triggered a wave of violence, business boycotts and hate speech towards Muslims.
“Tablighi Jammat should be banned.” pic.twitter.com/O55GxwC38n
— Kawalpreet Kaur (@kawalpreetdu) April 12, 2021
India’s 200 million Muslims account for 14 percent of the population and are the largest minority group in the Hindu-majority nation.
Worst-hit state imposes curbs
Starting on Wednesday, India’s worst-hit and richest state, Maharashtra, will impose stricter restrictions for 15 days to stem the surge of coronavirus infections that is threatening to overcome hospitals.
In state capital Mumbai, migrant workers at a railway station said they were leaving for their homes in other states after the tighter restrictions were announced.
“Since I don’t have any work, I am not able to pay my rent,” migrant worker Imraan Khan told AFP.
Last year, a sudden, harsh, nationwide lockdown left millions jobless overnight. Stranded in cities with no income or food, thousands of migrant workers walked on highways to get home. Since then, state leaders have repeatedly stressed that another lockdown was not on the cards.
Officials in Maharashtra have stressed that the closure of most industries, businesses, public places and limits on the movement of people did not constitute a lockdown.
But the distinction did little to allay Ramachal Yadav’s anxieties. On Wednesday morning, he joined others at a Mumbai railway station getting on a train back home. “There is no work,” said the 45-year-old.
The scenes playing out in Maharashtra in the past week mirror those developing in other parts of the country: patients gasping for air turned away from hospitals that are running out of oxygen and weeping families waiting for their turn to bid farewell to their loved ones at crematoria.
Compounding concerns is the question of whether India, despite being the world’s largest maker of vaccines, will have enough to immunise its vast population swiftly enough to slow down the virus.
India on Tuesday authorised vaccines that had been given an emergency nod by the World Health Organization or regulators in the United States, Europe, Britain or Japan. Indian regulators also approved Russia’s Sputnik V for emergency use.
But experts said the decision was unlikely to have any immediate impact on supplies available in the country.
“All one can think of is that I hope I don’t fall ill over the next month or so,” said Dr Vineeta Bal, who studies immune systems at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Maharashtra’s Pune city.