COVID cases in India attributed to Kumbh Mela, which has been going on for weeks | News on the coronavirus pandemic

New Delhi, India – Participating in the Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, a major Hindu pilgrimage to India, was a matter of devotion for 36-year-old Neetesh Dubey.

A government teacher by profession, he traveled from Gyaraspur city in central India to Vidisha district in Madhya Pradesh to Haridwar in the north the second week of April to participate in the weeklong festival organized along the banks of the Ganges.

When Dubey arrived at Kumbh, he developed a sore throat and chills which he mistook for the flu. On April 17, Dubey and five of his friends boarded a train for Gyaraspur.

But Dubey’s health continued to deteriorate. A day later, he was diagnosed with COVID-19.

As a second wave of coronavirus began in India in early April, millions of Hindus gathered in Haridwar, a Himalayan city in the state of Uttarakhand, to take a sacred dip in the Ganges.

Worshipers gather for evening prayers on the banks of the Ganges during Kumbh Mela in Haridwar on April 11, 2021 [File: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]

When worshipers returned home on crowded buses and trains, they spread the infection through villages and towns, prompting officials in some states to follow them and quarantine them.

But many did not show up for coronavirus tests, despite public announcements urging worshipers to come forward and get tested.

Several infections and deaths

An official from Madhya Pradesh’s capital Bhopal told Al Jazeera that 83 people from Gyaraspur and neighboring villages had gone to Kumbh and only 61 showed up for tests while the rest reportedly went into hiding.

Sixty out of 61 have tested positive for the virus, he said, requesting anonymity. “After an eventful campaign to find the missing, the remaining 22 people were also tested and sent to quarantine.”

The Gyaraspur results have raised alarm bells in central India, with health officials believing that if positive cases are not found, they could turn into “super-spreaders” of the virus.

Many prominent figures including former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh State Akhilesh Yadav, former King of Nepal Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah and Queen Komal Rajya Laxmi Devi Shah, and Bollywood composer Shravan Rathod have tested positive after attending Kumbh.

Rathod died on April 22 in Mumbai.

The virus also killed at least nine Hindu seers who attended the festival, including Swami Shyam Devacharya Maharaj in the city of Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh on April 16 and Mahant Vimal Giri in Uttarakhand last week.

Ramsakhi Dixit, 37, a resident of Gulabganj town in Vidisha, said he developed symptoms of COVID upon returning from Kumbh and tested positive the next day.

“There were 80 people in the group who were traveling in two buses. Of the 40 people traveling on our bus, only about 20 people have opted for testing and 12 have tested positive, ”he told Al Jazeera by phone. Three other family members who accompanied Dixit have also tested positive for the virus.

Rajesh Rajora, a senior administration official in Madhya Pradesh, told reporters last week that returnees from Kumbh accounted for 12-15% of cases in all districts of the state. In some districts, they accounted for up to 20% of cases, he said.

Coronavirus cases linked to Kumbh Mela have also been reported in other Indian states, including Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha.

Uttarakhand itself recorded 806 deaths a week after the festival ended, while its number of COVID-19 cases doubled in April.

“Many people who traveled to Kumbh from the western Odisha districts – Sambalpur, Nuapada and Balangir – spread the virus by traveling on public buses and trains. They brought the virus to the most remote villages in India, ”Rabi Das, a social activist based in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, told Al Jazeera.

“The authorities have not taken steps to find and identify them. They mingled with the people.

Sambalpur recorded around 200 cases per day for most of April. But as of April 28, it showed a sudden spike in infections, peaking at 641 on Sunday.

‘They invited this calamity’

An investigation by India’s Caravan magazine last week said former Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat was dismissed from his post weeks before the Hindu festival because he called for a restricted Kumbh rally due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Rawat dismissed the report, saying his withdrawal was unrelated to the festival.

Modi prays after taking a sacred dip in the waters of Sangam, at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers, during Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj in 2019 [File: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters]

The state government led by a new chief minister, Tirath Singh Rawat, ran front-page ads in newspapers across India, showing a photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi inviting Hindu worshipers to the festival.

Amid concerns that the festival could turn into a widespread event, Rawat said, “Faith in God will overcome fear of the virus.”

But as cases and deaths attributable to Kumbh increased, Modi’s government was reluctant to cancel the festival.

It was not until the 17th day of the month-long event, when tens of thousands of people had already bathed in the Ganges, that he asked the faithful to keep the festival “symbolic”.

Political observers say the Modi government’s reluctance to cancel the festival was part of the ruling Hindu majority policy of the ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party, which included appeasing religious leaders in the community and gaining their support before regional elections in Uttarakhand and neighboring states of Uttar Pradesh next year. .

“It was part of majority politics regardless of people’s lives. I think they allowed this festival because they had 2022 [Uttar Pradesh] elections lead, ”Apoovanand, who teaches at Delhi University, told Al Jazeera.

“The Modi government celebrates these Hindu festivals as state festivals. They invited this calamity.

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