The Taj Mahal is set to reopen to visitors after a six-month closure, even as the pandemic has accelerated in recent weeks, with India poised to overtake the United States to become the country most affected by COVID-19.
India, home to 1.3 billion people and some of the most populous cities in the world, has recorded more than 5.4 million cases of COVID-19, with around 100,000 new infections and more than 1,000 deaths recorded daily in the world. in recent weeks.
But after a strict lockdown in March that devastated the livelihoods of tens of millions of people, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reluctant to copy other countries and reimpose restrictions on activity.
Instead, in recent months his government has eased restrictions, including on many rail links, domestic flights, markets, restaurants – and now, visiting the Taj Mahal, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The 17th century white marble mausoleum built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the city of Agra, about 200 km from the capital, New Delhi, is India’s most popular tourist spot. It typically attracts seven million visitors a year, but has been closed since March.
Officials say when the iconic monument reopens, strict physical distancing rules will be imposed and the number of daily visitors will be capped at 5,000 – a quarter of the normal rate. Tickets can only be purchased online.
“Circles are being marked, the mask would be a must and no one could enter without a heat shield,” Vasant Swarnkar, archaeologist in charge of the Agra monuments, told reporters.
The Taj Mahal achieved a turnover of 860 million rupees ($ 11.6 million) in 2018-2019.
Elsewhere, however, particularly in rural areas where infections are on the rise, anecdotal evidence suggests that government guidelines for avoiding the virus are more often ignored than adhered to.
“I think, not just in India but all over the world, fatigue with the extreme measures that have been taken to limit the growth of the coronavirus is setting in,” said Gautam Menon, professor of physics and biology at the Ashoka University, predicting that continues to increase as a result.
Many experts say that even though India tests over a million people a day, it is still not enough and the actual number of cases may be much higher than officially reported.
Experts have expressed concerns about antigen testing, which looks for viral proteins and is faster but less accurate compared to RT-PCR, the gold standard for confirming the coronavirus by its genetic code. India has authorized antigen and RT-PCR testing.
The same is true for the number of registered deaths, which currently stands at over 86,000, and many deaths are not properly registered even in normal times in one of the least well-funded health systems in the world. world.
There is, however, some resistance to Modi’s unlocking of the world’s second most populous country, which saw its economy contract by almost a quarter between April and June.
Schools were supposed to resume on Monday on a voluntary basis for pupils aged 14 to 17, but many Indian states, such as Maharashtra and Gujarat, said it was still too early.
“The cases continue to increase rapidly… I have no idea how we can reopen educational institutions now,” said West Bengal Education Minister Partha Chatterjee.
Elsewhere, schools refuse to open or parents hesitate to send their children.
“I am prepared for my son to lose a year of school by not going to school rather than risking sending him,” said Nupur Bhattacharya, mother of nine-year-old boy in the southern town. from Bengaluru.