Incredible scenes from a religious festival in India have sparked concerns the event could worsen the already dire coronavirus situation in the country.
As cases continue to explode in the nation of 1.36 billion, hundreds of thousands of ash-smeared ascetics and devout Hindus converged on the Ganges river to partake in a religious festival this week.
Images show the adherents jostling to take a dip in the river on Monday (local time) after the country reported another record surge in Covid infections.
Despite being outdoors and police issuing fines to people for failing to observe social distancing in some areas, local authorities have conceded the large crowds could lead to a superspreader event.
As huge crowds made their way towards the river on a special day of bathing during the weeks-long “Kumbh Mela” festival, health authorities had to pull back a Covid-19 testing crew, Reuters reported.
“We have moved away our sampling team to avoid a stampede-like situation,” S.K. Jha, chief medical officer of the northern city of Haridwar where the event is being held, said.
“We do, of course, expect cases to rise when the priests and other crowd move away.”
According to the BBC, hundreds of devotees, including nine top saints, have already tested positive.
Indian festival 'already a superspreader'
Police said 650,000 devotees had bathed in the river on Wednesday while millions are expected to attend throughout the festival.
More than 1000 cases have been reported in Haridwar district on Monday and Tuesday, according to government data.
Despite criticism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government 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 superspreader because there is no space to test hundreds of thousands in a crammed city, and the government neither has the facilities nor the manpower,” a senior official told Reuters.
Ambulances queue outside hospitals as 'situation gets worse'
The country reported 184,372 cases in the 24-hour period to Wednesday, health ministry data showed.
That record was broken in the following 24 hours with 199,376 new cases announced overnight.
The latest figures take the country's total infections to 14.2 million while deaths rose by 1037, to a toll of 173,153, according to India's Covid tracker.
In different parts of the country, there are reports on lengthy ambulance queues forming outside hospitals as a growing number of Covid patients wait to be admitted.
From reporting less than 10,000 cases per day earlier this year, India has been the world's worst-hit country since April 2 by new daily cases, with the government blaming a widespread failure to heed curbs on movement and social interaction.
India has recorded the second most infections in the world, behind the US and just ahead of Brazil.
Earlier this week the country hit 100 million vaccine doses with the Health Ministry claiming India is the fasted nation to hit the milestone, doing it in just 85 days.
However given the immense population of the nation, the rollout has a very long way to go.
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