SAGAR ISLAND, INDIA (AFP) – Hundreds of thousands of Indian pilgrims began packing an island in the Ganges yesterday for a vast religious festival as COVID-19 cases surge nationwide, prompting fears of a superspreader event.
Officials said they expected as many as three million people, including ash-smeared, dreadlocked ascetics, to take a ritual dip in the holy river today, the climax of the annual Gangasagar Mela.
Last April’s Kumbh Mela, a similarly colossal religious festival that the Hindu nationalist government refused to ban, was partly blamed for a devastating spike in cases that killed 200,000, according to official tallies, though some experts fear the actual toll was several times that.
With coronavirus case numbers once again ballooning, a Kolkata court last week ruled that the Gangasagar Mela, which takes place on Sagar Island at the mouth of the Ganges in West Bengal, could go ahead.
The state government yesterday appealed to people to get tested for Covid-19, with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee urging devotees to wear two masks and not “spit on the island, as it spreads the virus”.
As with 2021’s Kumbh Mela, this week’s festival is attracting people from across northern India who, after cramming onto trains, buses and boats to reach the island, will then go home – potentially taking the virus’ highly transmissible Omicron variant with them.
“It’s a big challenge amid the raging surge of the Covid variant to maintain social distancing,” local district magistrate P Ulganathan told AFP.
“There is no doubt that such a gathering where people are in close proximity will increase the spread. We are continuously appealing to people to follow Covid-appropriate behaviour.”