Huge crowds at India’s Kumbh festival as coronavirus pandemic surges

As India counted another record rise in coronavirus cases on Monday, hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims joined a river-bathing ritual during the Kumbh festival in the hill town of Haridwar.

There were fears that the month-long festival could turn into a super spreader event.

The positivity rate of random tests is rising at the festival and as many as 300 cases have been detected in Haridwar over the past week, festival health officer Arjun Singh Sengar told dpa.

The pilgrims led by ash-smeared ascetics and gurus from across India thronged the bathing ghats of Haridwar on an auspicious “shahi snan” (main bathing) day of the Kumbh festival, billed as the largest religious gathering on Earth.

By evening Monday, more than 2 million people had taken a dip in the river, an official at the police control room said.

According to Hindu mythology, as gods and demons fought over a pitcher (kumbh) of amrita (nectar of immortality), a few drops spilled at four places: Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik, where the festival is staged at designated intervals with a full version once every 12 years.

Officials in Haridwar said the numbers are much lower than usual due to Covid-19 restrictions but were huge nonetheless.

Standard operating procedures were in place: People were being checked at borders for Covid-negative test certificates.

Pilgrims at the bathing ghats – which are steps leading to the river – were being regulated and repeatedly asked to wear masks and practise social distancing.

Television images on Monday, one of the two major bathing dates this week, showed tens of thousands of people – a majority of them not wearing masks – crowding against each other as they made their way into the river.

Police were struggling to get them to maintain Covid-19 protocols. “We are trying to thin the crowds, but we do not wish to cause a stampede,” local police official SK Gunjiyal was quoted as saying by NDTV news channel.

“To organize Kumbh is a challenge, but holding it in times of Covid-19 is still a bigger challenge owing to ensuring Covid-appropriate behaviour,” Sengar said.

While many pilgrims are fastidiously following rules, others are blinded by faith.

“When you are by the side of Mother Ganges, what fear can you possibly have? She is our mother. Why should we be scared?” a pilgrim told one of the news channels.

“No one is afraid of Covid here, there’s no such thing as Covid, it’s all a drama,” another one told NDTV news channel.

“I did my RT-PCR test as required 72 hours before coming here,” said another pilgrim. “Many people are taking off their masks while bathing, what can you do? How can you stop them?”

Police said given the large numbers it was not possible to fine people for not wearing masks.

India is currently seeing a fast-spreading second wave of the pandemic with some states putting in place partial lockdowns while others like West Bengal and Uttarakhand grapple with large crowds at election rallies and the Kumbh festival.

Since the beginning of April, India has reported more than 1 million new cases taking its total caseload to 13.5 million, second to only the United States.

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