India has reported 141,986 new daily COVID-19 cases – the most since the end of May – as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus overtakes the Delta version in major cities.
The health ministry on Saturday also reported 285 new deaths, taking the total to 483,463 and total infections stood at 35.37 million.
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Coronavirus cases fuelled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant are rocketing through India, prompting the federal government and states to swiftly reintroduce a string of restrictions.
Night curfews are back as restaurants and bars run at half their capacity. Some states have closed schools and cinemas and large gatherings are to be downsized.
But India’s political leaders are busy on the campaign trail ahead of crucial state polls, addressing packed rallies of tens of thousands of people, many without masks.
The scenes are strikingly similar to last year’s election season, when the Delta variant ravaged the country and made India one of the world’s worst-hit countries.
Last year’s surge was partly fed by large crowds at election rallies, where politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, often appeared without masks and addressed teeming crowds.
That wave left the country’s health system battered, with people begging for oxygen and hospital beds. Crematoriums ran out of space. Daily deaths crossed 4,000 during the peak of the crisis, with at least 200,000 people dying between March and May, a number widely believed to be a vast undercount.
Warning from officials
Health officials say the new surge is causing fewer deaths and many cases are asymptomatic. But they warn against taking the Omicron variant too lightly, and say numerous cases, even if milder, could still pressure the country’s fragile health system.
Overall, new daily cases have increased nearly fourfold in the last week. Hospital admissions are rising and medical staff in some states have been asked to cut short their winter holidays.
Cities are experiencing a massive surge, with Mumbai, India’s financial capital, surpassing its previous highest daily count. New COVID-19 cases in five states immersed in election campaigning – Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur – have shot up.
Over the past few weeks, Modi has addressed huge gatherings in several cities, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state that is ruled by his Bharatiya Janata Party. The party’s political opponents have also hit the campaign trail, flouting health guidelines.
Earlier this week, the Congress party organised a marathon in which thousands of people ran without masks and were packed so tightly they collapsed onto each other.
The chief minister of New Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, contracted the virus after he was seen maskless while leading political rallies in multiple states.