Thousands of Hindus take holy dip in India, defying COVID surge | Coronavirus pandemic News

Hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees have gathered on the banks of the Indian Ganges for a sacred swim despite a 30-fold increase in coronavirus cases in the past month.

Hindus believe that bathing in the frigid waters of the sacred river during the Makar Sankranti festival, which is celebrated every year on January 14, removes sins and frees them from the cycle of death and rebirth.

On Friday, a large number of devotees were diving in the river in the eastern state of West Bengal, which is reporting the highest number of cases in the country after Maharashtra in the west.

Hindu pilgrims gather to swim at the confluence of the Ganges and the Bay of Bengal, on the occasion of the Makar Sankranti festival in West Bengal [Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]

Officials said they expected about three million people to attend the climax of the festival on Sagar Island, where the two rivers of Ganges meet the Bay of Bengal.

“At the crack of dawn, there was a sea of ​​people. Holy water from the Ganges was sprayed from drones on pilgrims…to prevent crowding,” Pankim Hazra, a local official, said.

“But the saints and a great many people were bent on diving…the pilgrims, most of them without masks, outnumbered the security personnel.”

Also in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Hindu devotees, led by abbots and ash-stained ascetics, gathered at the Sangam, the confluence of three rivers – the Ganges, the Yamuna and the fabled Saraswati – in the city of Prayagraj, 200 kilometers (124 miles) northeast of the state capital Lucknow, To participate in the festival of Magh Mela, one of the holiest pilgrimages in Hinduism.

Indians gather for sacred swimming, defying the spread of the Corona virusThe event raised fears that pilgrims could become infected and bring the virus back to their cities and villages in other parts of the country. Hindu devotees bathe in Sangam [Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP Photo]

Millions of Hindus are expected to celebrate the 47-day festival. Many of them would remain on the banks of the Ganges for a month to live the life of an ascetic, believing that they would be saved.

“I can’t breathe with a mask,” said Ram Val Tripathi, who came with his family from a village in Uttar Pradesh, after emerging from the river.

“Every year I come for a holy dip. How could I have missed this year?”

The event raised fears that pilgrims could become infected and bring the virus back to their cities and villages in other parts of the country.

The Associated Press reported Friday that 77 policemen and 12 cleaners deployed to attend the event have tested positive for the virus.

“This would be ultra-widespread. Utkarsh Mishra, a lawyer who filed the petition at Allahabad High School, said the government should not allow a gathering of people in that large number because religious gatherings in the past two years have been responsible for the spread of the deadly virus across the country.” Uttar Pradesh demands the cancellation of the festival.

Health experts had earlier appealed for the festival to be canceled in Uttar Pradesh as well, but the government went ahead saying safety rules would be followed.

Critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party say the festival has been allowed despite mounting infections because the government is not willing to anger Hindus, the party’s biggest supporter, ahead of crucial seven-stage state elections in Uttar Pradesh. Starting from February 10th.

Indians gather for sacred swimming, defying the spread of the Corona virusA man performs to receive the alms of pilgrims at the confluence of the Ganges and the Bay of Bengal on the occasion of the Makar Sankranti festival in West Bengal. [Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters]

Also in West Bengal, doctors unsuccessfully appealed to the state Supreme Court to overturn the decision to allow the Hindu festival this year, fearing it could become a “super-spread” event of the virus.

Last year, a similar gathering in the northern Indian holy city of Haridwar in the state of Uttarakhand contributed to a record spike in coronavirus cases. Fearing an increase in infections, the Uttarakhand authorities have already banned the event.

Deaths from the current wave of infections in India are still a small part of what they were during the surge in April and May last year, with 315 deaths recorded on Thursday compared to up to 4,000 cases per day at the peak.

However, infections are increasing rapidly, with nearly 265,000 new cases reported on Friday. Some models predict that India could see up to 800,000 cases per day in a few weeks, double the rate seen nine months ago.

The increase is mostly increased by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, but hospitalizations are low, with most people recovering at home.

Eager to avoid another painful shutdown of millions of workers who depend on a few dollars in daily wages, authorities in various parts of India have sought to restrict gatherings.

In the capital, New Delhi, all bars, restaurants and private offices have been closed, and the capital is set to enter a second weekend curfew on Friday night.

In the financial capital Mumbai, gatherings of more than four people have been banned.

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