Kumbh Mela: Millions of pilgrims head to Haridwar, India to dive into the Ganges as coronavirus cases rise

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Up to 5 million visitors were expected to descend into the city on Monday – an auspicious day in the ongoing Kumbh Mela religious festival, which has been delayed this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

At the festival, devotees wash away their sins in the sacred river waters, which are said to turn into “amrita” – the nectar of immortality – on auspicious days like Monday.

At least 650,000 people had already bathed in the river early Monday, according to the police inspector. General Sanjay Gunjyal. Throughout the day, there will be around 11,000 to 18,000 people in the water at any one time, spread across the 15 main riverbanks, said Mukesh Thakur, a senior police official.

Massive crowds are causing concern as India struggles to contain a worrying second wave, with cases rising dramatically every day.

“Social distancing is proving to be very difficult,” Gunjyal said. “If we try to enforce it, it can lead to a scramble for the world – which is why, despite our will, we are unable to implement social distancing on these shores. ”
He added that authorities “continually called on people to wear masks and behave appropriately in Covid.”

India reported 168,912 new cases on Monday, its highest single-day figure for the sixth day in a row, according to data from the country’s health ministry.

The second wave, which started in March and accelerated rapidly last week, far exceeded India’s first wave last year, when at its peak in September, daily cases exceeded 97,000.

Trying to contain the risk

In Haridwar, Uttarakhand state, authorities have introduced measures to try to contain the risk during Kumbh Mela.

This includes artificial intelligence cameras on different riverbanks and 15,000 security personnel deployed to manage crowd control, Thakur said.

Mass religious festival takes place in India, despite fears of Covid as country enters second waveMass religious festival takes place in India, despite fears of Covid as country enters second wave

“The camera has sensors that alert us when the number of cars in parking lots or foot traffic crosses a certain threshold and we can communicate with people on the ground to start diverting crowds,” Thakur said. “The cameras also detect if people are not wearing masks and the ground officers immediately issue tickets to these people. ”

However, Gunjyal said it was impossible to issue tickets to everyone on Mondays due to the size of the crowd, with photos showing many people defying the rules of wearing masks.

Other restrictions were aimed at preventing people with the virus from accessing the festival.

Before entering Haridwar, all festival participants were required to register online and provide a medical certificate confirming their medical condition. Visitors from states with increased infections were required to provide negative Covid-19 test results and checkpoints were set up at transport hubs to conduct random tests on passing people.

Yet all of these restrictions might not be enough to prevent the virus from spreading among the masses of people who eat, wash and pray together nearby. Haridwar is already starting to see an increase in infections; 2,209 cases have been reported in the city since the festival began on April 1, according to data from the Uttarakhand state health department.

“The second wave of coronavirus is underway in the country … in Uttarakhand also, the impact of (Covid) has increased, more than 500 cases have started to arrive daily”, said the director of the police of Uttarakhand , Ashok Kumar, earlier this month, urging people to follow safety instructions.

“Let’s not let it get to a point where we need a lockdown again because it’s hurting everyone. “

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