At one of the largest gatherings of people in the world continues in the northern Indian city, Haridwar, almost 3 million Hindu pilgrims bathed in the Ganges River as part of this year’s Kumbh Mela festival, raising concerns that the festival could become a super spreader event.
One of the largest gatherings of people in the world continues in the northern Indian city, Haridwar amid a sharp rise in coronavirus cases and a weakening supply of vaccines. Almost 3 million Hindu pilgrims have bathed in the Ganges River as part of this year’s Kumbh Mela festival, raising concerns that the festival could become a super spreader event. On Monday, the festival’s second-holiest day, India’s Health Ministry reported nearly 170,000 new coronavirus infections. India’s total caseload has become the second-highest in the world after the United States.
On the banks of the Ganges, Hindu prayer music is interrupted by whistles from police, trying unsuccessfully to enforce social distancing rules, as millions of devotees thronged the banks of the Ganges, a river many Hindus consider holy, to participate in the months-long ‘Kumbh Mela’ or pitcher festival.
Hindus believe the river is holy and bathing in it will cleanse them of their sins and bring salvation. The Kumbh Mela takes place every 12 years and the venue is chosen from amongst four cities, including Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. Haridwar’s turn to host the gathering came amid a sharp rise in the number of coronavirus infections, with India consistently reporting more than 100,000 cases daily in the past few weeks.
With a spike in new covid cases, India accounts for one in six of all new infections globally, although the figure is still well below the U.S. peak of nearly 300,000 new cases on Jan. 8. As India’s second wave of infections builds, with fewer than 4% estimated to have been vaccinated among a population of 1.4 billion, experts say the situation could have a long way to go before it starts getting better.
“After cases declined in January-February, we were very comfortable,” said a panel of high court judges in the western state of Gujarat, calling on authorities to take urgent steps to rein in the outbreak. “Almost everyone forgot that there was ever corona,” added the panel, headed by Chief Justice Vikram Nath.
A senior police official told ANI news agency that it was very difficult to ensure social distancing on the river banks.
“We are continuously appealing to people to follow Covid-appropriate behaviour. But due to the huge crowd, it is practically not possible to issue challans [fines],” inspector general of police Sanjay Gunjyal said.
He said that a “stampede-like situation” could arise if the police tried to enforce social distancing on the river banks.
Officials said by Monday evening more than 3.1 million devotees had bathed in the river, with many more expected to follow suit. Monday – Somvati Amavasya – marks the biggest bathing day during the two-month-long festival.
The government had earlier said that only people with Covid negative reports would be allowed at the festival and strict measures like social distancing would be followed. But a number of people, including top saints, have already tested positive.Even as the virus surges to its worst level, daily life remains unaffected in most parts of the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other politicians have addressed massive campaign rallies in several states holding local elections. When Muslim scholars held a congregation in New Delhi last year, before India’s lockdown, politicians and many from India’s Hindu majority blamed Muslims for spreading the coronavirus.
Last month, when reporters asked Uttarakhand’s chief minister about COVID-19 concerns ahead of the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival, he said no one would be stopped from coming because of the pandemic. He said, “Pilgrims’ faith will overcome the fear of the virus.”