Millions of Hindu devotees congregated in north India on Monday to take a dip in the Ganges river, even as the country registered the world's highest daily tally of coronavirus cases .
By mid-afternoon, more than 750,000 believers had bathed in the river at Haridwar, 230km northeast of New Delhi, as a deadly second wave of infections crosses the country. Unmindful of social distancing, the devotees gathered to celebrate the Kumbh Mela or Pitcher Festival, firm in the belief that the Ganges would not only cleanse their sins but also protect them from the virus.
Television news channels showed police and other officials expressing helplessness in controlling the surge in crowds participating in the two-month festival. India recorded more than 170,000 coronavirus cases on Monday, or one in six of all such new infections globally.
"We are appealing to people to observe Covid-appropriate behaviour, but because of the massive crowds it is near impossible to contain them," said senior police officer Sanjay Guniyal. He said a stampede would ensue if police attempted to enforce order amongst tens of thousands of devotees lining the river banks.
Health experts had appealed for the Kumbh festival, which takes place every 12 years, to be cancelled. Prime minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government had ignored their counsel, however, saying safety rules would be followed, despite the colossal crowds involved.
Daily coronavirus fatalities across India have increased to about 1,000, and hundreds of hospitals in at least 12 of 29 states said they were simply unable to cope as they faced shortages of medical staff, beds, life support systems, intensive care units, drugs and oxygen.
Media reports from the worst affected regions such as western Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, declared that hospital corridors were overflowing with untended patients and virus-affected people were coming in "droves".
A night curfew has been imposed across Mumbai and the federal capital New Delhi, but health experts said a broader lockdown was needed to break the virus chain in many more places.
India’s vaccination programme too is faltering, with less than four per cent of its population of more than 1.3 billion estimated to have been vaccinated.
At least 10 states reported over the weekend that tens of thousands of people were being turned away from vaccine centres due to shortages, even though federal health minister Harsh Vardhan denied there was a scarcity. He accused local governments, ruled by opposition parties, of fear-mongering.
Specialists, however, said that if inoculations did not accelerate soon, it could take India more than two years to immunise up to 70 per cent of its vast population, with disastrous consequences in the intervening period.
With an overall tally of 13.5 million coronavirus cases India has, over the past fortnight, overtaken Brazil, and is now second only to the US, which has so far reported almost 32 million Covid-19 infections.
However, according to Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, India’s coronavirus tally is anticipated to double over the next two months.
Medical experts in Delhi said complacency, after daily nationwide virus cases had dipped significantly to below 10,000 in February, largely accounted for the fresh outbreak. A large number had shed their masks and resumed their normal lives, underestimating the virus’s resilience .
The federal government also appeared either unwilling or unable to manage events.
Elections in four states, including politically critical West Bengal,have dded to the crisis, prompting massive political rallies addressed by Mr Modi, with few wearing masks or practising social distancing.