Huge gatherings at India’s Hindu festival as virus surges
NEW DELHI (AP) — Tens of thousands of Hindu devotees gathered by the Ganges River for special prayers Monday, many of them flouting social distancing practices as the coronavirus spreads in India with record speed.
The Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, is one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism. The faithful congregate in the northern city of Haridwar and take a dip in the waters of the Ganges, which they believe will absolve them of their sins and deliver them from the cycle of birth and death.
The Kumbh Mela, which runs through April, comes during India’s worst surge in new infections since the pandemic began, with a seven-day rolling average of more than 130,000 new cases per day. Hospitals are becoming overwhelmed with patients, and experts worry the worst is yet to come.
Critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party say the festival has been allowed at a time when infections are skyrocketing because the government isn’t willing to anger Hindus, who are the party’s biggest supporters.
With the surge showing no sign of slowing, India’s confirmed infections since the pandemic began surpassed Brazil’s total on Monday to make it the second-worst hit country in the world.
The current surge has hit hardest in Western Maharashtra state, home to the financial capital Mumbai. The state has accounted for nearly half of the country’s new infections in the past two weeks.
Amid concerns the Kumbh Mela festival could turn into a superspreader event, Uttarakhand state’s chief minister, Tirath Singh Rawat, last week said “the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.”
Health experts had appealed for the festival to be canceled, but the government went ahead saying safety rules would be followed. There are concerns that pilgrims could get infected and then take the virus back to their cities and villages in other parts of the country.