India celebrates Diwali amid pandemic and pollution fears

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NEW DELHI – More than a billion Indians celebrated Diwali on Saturday amid twin concerns of a resurgence of coronavirus infections and rising air pollution enveloping the north of the country in a cloud of thick toxic smog. Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is typically celebrated by socializing and exchanging gifts with friends and family, and by lighting oil lamps or candles to symbolize a victory of light over darkness. Fireworks are also an important part of the celebrations.

But this year, the pandemic is shaking up some of the celebrations in India, particularly in New Delhi, the capital, which has seen another spike in coronavirus infections in recent weeks, registering more new cases than any other Indian state.

On Saturday, many temples across the country broadcast online prayer sessions to avoid large gatherings. In New Delhi, worried locals have opted for low-key celebrations. Some even stayed at home and did not visit friends or relatives.

“It’s not the usual Diwali,” said Vishwas Malik, 47, a teacher in New Delhi. “The exchange of gifts is less and we haven’t interacted with people. We haven’t visited people’s homes because of the fear of the coronavirus. ”

In an effort to encourage people to stay at home, New Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and some of his ministers held a prayer ceremony in a large temple. The prayers were broadcast on television and on social media.

Kejriwal said last week that the pandemic was spreading rapidly in the capital due to increased air pollution. He called on people not to detonate firecrackers on Diwali, in the hopes of alleviating the harmful effects of toxic air on those who are most vulnerable during the pandemic. Firecrackers often cause spikes in New Delhi’s notoriously bad pollution.

The link between air pollution and worsening COVID-19 cases remains mostly theoretical for now. But several researchers have said that in addition to factors such as mask wear, social distance, population density and temperature, dirty air should also be seen as a key component of coronavirus outbreaks.

India has confirmed 8.7 million cases of coronavirus, including 129,000 deaths. While it ranks second in the world in total cases behind the United States, daily infections have been on the decline since mid-September.

Buyers have packed markets across the country, sparking concerns among health experts who have warned crowded celebrations could spark a resurgence of the virus that could hit India’s healthcare system. But ahead of Diwali, messages encouraging people to stay home during the festival whistled around New Delhi via WhatsApp.

“This Diwali is more about survival. It’s about being thankful that we can still breathe and be alive for this day. Please stay home, ”one of the posts read.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi continued his custom of celebrating Diwali with Indian soldiers, visiting a military post in the state of western Rajasthan where he distributed candy to troops and took a chariot ride.

“You can be on snow-capped mountains or in deserts, but my Diwali is not complete until I’m partying with you,” Modi said in his address to the troops.

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