After recording more than 13 million COVID-19 cases, India overtook Brazil as the second worst affected country this week.
On Monday, tens of thousands of Indians gathered to take a ritual bath together at the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious pilgrimage that happens once every 12 years.
In the last month, millions of Indian devotees have gathered in the holy city of Haridwar in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand for the Kumbh Mela. Amid a deadly second wave of coronavirus, images of thousands of Indians bathing together in the river Ganges are drawing criticism.
Officials estimate that more than three million attendees have taken part in the ‘Shahi Snan’, a ritual bath based on the belief that taking a dip in the holy river Ganges can cleanse devotees of their sins and bring them salvation. Now, 102 attendees, including devotees and saints, have tested positive.
Though health experts had rallied to cancel the Kumbh Mela festival amid rising cases, the Uttarakhand administration decided to go ahead with it, with the state’s Chief Minister assuring the public that all guidelines would be followed. This included mandatory negative COVID-19 reports, thermal screening, and AI-enabled CCTV cameras to track those not wearing face masks. However, ground reports and photos from the festival reveal that basic social distancing guidelines are not being followed.
Kumbh Mela Inspector General (IG) Sanjay Gunjyal also admitted that it was difficult to ensure social distancing norms during the second ‘Shahi snan’ held on April 11, with concerns that a "stampede-like situation" could have occurred if the police tried to enforce guidelines. Experts are worried that the bathing ritual could help Covid cases spread faster, especially as pilgrims return to their cities and villages in other parts of the country.
As visuals from the festival emerged, social media users and journalists were quick to point out that while last year’s Tablighi Jamaat —an Islamic evangelical congregation— was called a “jihadi” and “super spreader” event, politicians and some mainstream media news channels have refrained from speaking against the Kumbh Mela.
India is currently reeling under the pressure of its highest single-day spikes in COVID-19 cases, with multiple states running out of vaccines and hospital beds.