Hundreds of thousands of Hindu worshipers flocked to the banks of the Ganges in the Indian state of West Bengal on Friday, braving a surge in Covid-19 infections to bathe in the waters of the holy river.
The Gangasagar Mela, a nine-day festival that runs from January 8 to 16, traditionally attracts millions of people to the banks of the river. Pilgrims believe that its waters will wash away their sins and those of their ancestors. A record 3.5 million people bathed at the site in 2019.
Tens of thousands of people had already arrived at the site ahead of the festival, despite weeks of appeals from medical experts to cancel it and warnings that it would worsen the country’s Covid infection rate, driven by epidemics of the delta and omicron variants. .
“There are safe ways to have masked gatherings outdoors, but a mela of this magnitude with everyone taking a holy bath is not possible to take place in a safe way,” said Bhramar Mukherjee, professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, told NBC News in an email Wednesday.
In a January 7 ruling, the Kolkata High Court said the event could go ahead. But it imposed conditions on attendees, allowing entry only to people with a valid vaccination certificate and a negative test within 72 hours of arrival.
Devotees nevertheless threw themselves into the waters of the Ganges to mark Makar Sankranti, an important day in the Hindu calendar.
“Generally, the principle is that you should avoid going to crowded places,” said Dr. Vikas Bhatia, executive director of the Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in Bibinagar, India. “Yet there are so many festivals in India and people are very eager to attend them.”
The West Bengal Doctors Forum – a group that advocates for the protection of doctors’ and patients’ rights – said in an emailed statement on Wednesday that it feared the festival would put further pressure on the country’s healthcare system. .
“A large number of doctors and other healthcare personnel are already affected by Covid-19 and any further outbreak will put the whole healthcare delivery on the brink of collapse,” he said .
She had also called on the public not to participate in the festival for security reasons.
Some experts have warned that attendees could become “super-spreaders”, bringing the virus back to their hometowns and fueling widespread infections. They said there was a similar rise in cases last spring after more than 9 million people gathered on the banks of the Ganges for the Kumbh Mela festival, the biggest Hindu pilgrimage.
The Gangasagar Mela took place even as similar ceremonies were banned in other parts of India. Two towns in the northern state of Uttarakhand canceled similar riverside festivities earlier this week due to pandemic concerns.
NBC News has contacted the West Bengal government for comment.
Authorities in West Bengal had imposed tougher pandemic measures in response to a rise in infections in early January, closing schools, limiting workplaces to 50% capacity and imposing a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. morning. An international film festival in the city of Kolkata, scheduled to start on January 7, has also been postponed.
India struggles to contain spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant. Cases in West Bengal have increased exponentially since December; the state reported 23,467 cases Saturday, marking a 41-fold increase since Dec. 25.
India reported 264,202 total cases on Saturday. The country has reported nearly 500,000 Covid-19-related deaths, the second highest in the world after the United States, but studies suggest India’s true death toll is far higher than the official tally.
Dr Bhatia said that while he was concerned about too many cases appearing at once, omicron appears to have a lower mortality rate than other variants. He also said hospitals were better prepared for this wave of cases than previous ones and pointed out that India had a high vaccination rate, with the health ministry saying in late December that 90% of adults had received at least one. dose.
He said the government could issue guidelines, but it was up to the public to follow them.
“At the end of the day, people’s health is in their hands,” he said.