As hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees flocked to participate in the Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar city this month, international media reported that the gathering was allowed to take place despite the massive surge in coronavirus cases in India. The mela has continued though India on Thursday recorded more than 2 lakh new cases – a global record since the pandemic broke out in January 2020.
“Photographs from Monday showed large crowds gathering to bathe in the Ganges, with police powerless to enforce social distancing measures,” Time magazine said. It also focused on a police officer’s quote that said it was “practically not possible” to enforce Covid guidelines due to huge crowds.
The New York Times reported that coupled with the religious festival in Haridwar, political rallies in states heading to elections have fuelled the coronavirus crisis. While the Delhi High Court ruled that wearing a mask inside a vehicle was compulsory even if the driver was alone, Union Home Minister Amit Shah was seen waving at a huge crowd in West Bengal without a mask, the newspaper pointed out.
The report also mentioned that Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat said the “faith of devotees will overcome the fear of Covid-19”. Rawat had tested positive for the coronavirus days later in March.
The New York Times also carried a picture of a sea of devotees taking a dip in the Ganges River.
Several lakhs of devotees are visiting the Kumbh Mela each day but only a few are being tested and other basic Covid-19 related protocols such as wearing masks, thermal screening, and checking negative test reports have been ignored. The mela is scheduled to continue till April 30.
Infections in Haridwar have jumped to more than 2,000 in the past five days
The Associated Press went with the headline: “Huge gatherings at India’s Hindu festival as virus surges.”
“Critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party say the festival has been allowed at a time when infections are skyrocketing because the government isn’t willing to anger Hindus, who are the party’s biggest supporters,” the report said, highlighting the stark contrast in the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s response to Kumbh Mela and the Tablighi Jamaat gathering.
The congregation that took place at the Nizamuddin Markaz in New Delhi was blamed for thousands of coronavirus infections around the country in the initial weeks of the nationwide lockdown which began on March 25, 2020. The event had renewed stigma against Muslims, triggering a wave of business boycotts and hate speech towards them.
ABC News also tweeted a video of pilgrims gathering at the Kumbh Mela, flouting physical distancing guidelines.
An editorial in The Washington Post said India is “engulfed” by Covid-19 infections but still people without face masks bathed in the Ganges river. “News reports say some people are lying in the streets outside of some hospitals, unable to find a bed, amid warnings from doctors that supplies of oxygen and ventilators are low,” the editorial noted India’s situation.
Al Jazeera also wondered if Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused to call off the gathering because of possible backlash from religious leaders in the country. “Hundreds of thousands of ash-smeared ascetics and devout Hindus jostled to take a dip in the Ganges during the religious festival on Wednesday, hoping to wash away their sins, as India reported another record surge in coronavirus infections,” its report said.
A member of the Kumbh Mela organising committee, meanwhile, told AFP that “faith is the biggest thing for us” despite the rapid jump in coronavirus cases. “It is because of that strong belief that so many people have come here to take a dip in Ganga,” Siddharth Chakrapani added.
The AFP described the crowd of devotees at the Kumbh Mela as being “cheek by jowl” as they took a dip in the holy waters. “Huge crowds of mostly maskless Hindu devotees descended on the River Ganges,” the report said.
The BBC reported that hundreds of devotees, including nine saints, have tested positive for the coronavirus at the religious gathering. “There has been growing criticism of the government for allowing the gathering to take place even as India records huge surges in daily cases,” it said, noting the concerns raised by health experts.
It added that the second wave of the pandemic was “wreaking havoc” in India, with shortages of vaccines, hospital beds, life-saving drugs and medical oxygen reported across states.