Festivals in India, Thailand spark fears of virus surge

Haridwar city in India records over 1,000 infections in two days as thousands gather for Kumbh Mela

NEW DELHI Festivals can be religious, festivals can be fun, but these days you can add another description - deadly.

Yesterday, hundreds of people tested positive for the coronavirus in India, at the site of one of the world's biggest religious festivals, officials said, as huge crowds of mostly maskless Hindu devotees descended on the Ganges river.

The virus was detected in more than 1,000 people in just 48 hours in the city of Haridwar, which lies along the holy river where the Kumbh Mela is being observed, officials said.

A new wave of infections is sweeping across India, with experts blaming massive religious events, packed political rallies in poll-bound states and crowded public places.


The government yesterday postponed high school exams for those aged 15 to 18, which were to be held next month and June, amid the resurgence of the virus.

Despite rising virus cases, pilgrims have gathered in huge numbers to take part in the holy celebration.

On Monday and Tuesday, massive crowds of worshippers were cheek by jowl as they packed the river's banks to take a dip in the waters as part of a bathing ritual.

"Our faith is the biggest thing for us. It is because of that strong belief that so many people have come here to take a dip in Ganga," Mr Siddharth Chakrapani, a member of one of the Kumbh Mela organising committees, told AFP.

"They believe that Maa (mother) Ganga will save them from this pandemic."

Of some 50,000 samples taken from people in Haridwar, 408 tested positive on Monday and 594 on Tuesday, the Uttarakhand state government said.

The latest figures came as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath tweeted yesterday that he had tested positive for Covid-19.

India overtook Brazil this week to become the country with the second-highest number of cases in the world.

The vast nation of 1.3 billion people yesterday reported more than 184,000 infections in the past 24 hours - the biggest single-day rise since the start of the pandemic - to take the total to almost 13.9 million cases.

India's daily death toll passed 1,000 yesterday for the first time since mid- October.

Meanwhile, Thailand yesterday reported 1,335 new cases, the biggest daily rise since the start of the pandemic and the third record rise this week.

The spike in cases comes as Thais celebrate the Songkran new year holidays and the authorities have urged people to avoid unnecessary travel and reduce gatherings to help limit the outbreak, which includes the highly transmissible B117 variant first identified in Britain.

"The period after Songkran is a critical time to control the outbreak, if not we could see 10,000 to 20,000 cases per day," senior health official Opas Karnkawinpong, said, urging people to work from home for two weeks after the holidays.

Starting today, malls there will close earlier than usual at 9 pm to help curb the outbreak, a retail industry group said.

The country has had 35,910 infections and 97 deaths so far. - AFP, REUTERS