India Covid: Kumbh Mela Pilgrims Turn into Super-Spreaders
While millions of devout Hindus gathered last month in the Himalayan city of Haridwar to participate in the Kumbh Mela ceremony even as India battled the second deadly coronavirus, many feared it would turn into a “ubiquitous event.”
That fear, it seems now, is being fulfilled, with reports from Kumbh returnees who have tested – and probably spread the infection – from many parts of the country.
By the time Mahant Shankar Das arrived in Haridwar on March 15 to participate in the ceremony, Covid-19 cases were already on the rise in the country.
On April 4, an 80-year-old Hindu priest was diagnosed with Covid-19 and was asked to be alone in a tent.
But instead of separating himself, he packed his bags, boarded a train, and traveled 1,000 miles (621 miles) to the town of Varanasi.
His son Nagendra Pathak met him at the train station, and they boarded a shared taxi to their village 20km (12 miles) away in the district near Mirzapur.
Speaking to me on a phone call from his home recently, Mahant Das said he was “still famous and kind-hearted” and that after his return, he was living at home separated.
He emphasized that he had not transmitted the virus to anyone, but within a few days, his son and a few other local people also developed symptoms of Covid.
Mr. Pathak, who is also fully recovered, says his district has witnessed “13 deaths in the past two weeks from the flu and cough”.
Infections in the area may have been linked to Mahant Das – but health experts say his behavior was normal and that by traveling on a packed train and sharing a taxi, he may have spread the virus to more people on the way.
Epidemiologist Dr. Lalit Kant states that “large groups of pilgrims with no candy sitting on the river bank singing the splendor of the Ganges” make it ideal for the virus to spread quickly. “We already know that choir singing in churches and temples is known as the most widespread event.”
More than nine million names went to the festival in Haridwar in April
In Haridwar, officials say 2,642 devotees have been tested, including several senior religious leaders.
Bollywood composer Sravan Rathod died at a Mumbai hospital shortly after his return from Kumbh. Nine Hindu monks from the same group also perished.
With growing fears that Kumbh’s returnees could start infecting others, concerned state governments have ordered a 14-day mandate separation and warned of stern action against those who withhold information about their travels.
Some have made RT-PCR testing compulsory for them, but few counties have a traveler database, and no state has an unreasonable system for testing and tracking those who enter its borders.
Rajasthan authorities blame visitors for the rapid increase in Covid cases in government, especially in rural areas
At least 24 Kumbh tourists were tested positive on their return from the eastern region of Odisha.
At least 34 of the 313 passengers returning to the same train were optimistic in Gujrat. 99% – returnees tested in the central city of Madhya Pradesh were found to be infected. Officials are now in a hurry to see 22 more missing. “It’s a disaster,” said Dr. Kant. “Groups of travelers traveling on crowded trains and buses will reduce the recurrence of the number of diseases. I can say without a doubt that Kumbh Mela is one of the reasons for this high crime rate in India.”
Mahant Das was reprimanded when I asked him if it was better to cancel Kumbh when India recorded a significant outbreak of daily conditions and hospitals turned patients away due to lack of medical oxygen, beds, and life-saving drugs.
“How is it right for the government to hold election and election rallies in West Bengal at that time? Why is it that only we, the devotees, are told that it is wrong to convene?” She asks.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reluctance to suspend the rally is because Hindu religious leaders may have backed down like Mahant Das. Priests, seers, and self-sacrificing priests are among the prominent supporters of the party and play a key role in mobilizing Hindu votes during elections, said critics.
April 12, the first significant day of the festival – when more than three million volunteers fetched water from the Ganges River in the belief that bathing there will help them find salvation – India filed more than 168,000 new cases, surpassing Brazil as the world’s second-highest number of points.
The ceremony was postponed only a week after the death of a nun who was leading one of the participating groups. Mr. Modi called on spectators to turn the ceremony into a symbolic event. But the damage had already been done.
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Last week, event organizers said 9.1 million visitors had visited Haridwar as the Uttarakhand High Court had ruled that the state had become “ridiculous for allowing Kumbh Mela among the rampant epidemics.”
There were initial concerns that capturing Kumbh was fraught with danger.
The former prime minister of Uttarakhand, Trivendra Singh Rawat, told me that he had planned for Kumbh to be limited from the beginning because experts “told me the epidemic would not end soon.”
“The festival attracts people not only in India but also in other countries. I was afraid that healthy people would visit Haridwar and bring back the disease with them everywhere.”
But a few days before the ceremony, his place was taken by Tirath Singh Rawat, who famously said, “with the blessings of Ma Ganga [the Ganges, the goddess of the river] on the march, there will be no corona.”
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The new minister said, “no one will be suspended,” a negative report from Covid did not need to be forthcoming, and that it would be enough to follow safety rules. But as millions descended on the city, officials struggled to set safety targets.
Haridwar medical officer, Dr. Shambhu Kumar Jha, told me that the treatment of the crowds had become “tough” because people did not bring bad reports and that they “could not bring back a devout person who had come all the way through the faith.”
“You can’t hang people because you want to go to a religious ceremony, can you?” he asks.
“There were standard operating procedures by the provincial government and the high court, and we tried our best to implement them,” he added.
“With so many crowds, SOPs are almost untrustworthy. They look pretty good on paper, but it’s impossible to use them,” Anoop Nautiyal, founder of the Uttarakhand-based research team, told the BBC.
Mr. Nautiyal, who has been compiling details of the Department of Health since the state recorded its first case on March 15, 2020, says Uttarakhand recorded 557 points a week from March 14 to 20, just as pilgrims had begun arriving. Claims rose sharply after that, with 38,581 cases recorded between April 25 and May 1 – the last week of the festival.
“It would be not right to say that all the cases are caused by the festival, but the increase is in line with the festival,” he said.
I asked Dr. Kant if there was any789o8761thing India could do now to seize the damage done by allowing the meeting.
“Someone said the donors would take the coronavirus as prasad [God’s blessing] and spread it. It is said that missionaries carry the infection everywhere,” he said.
“I don’t think anything can be done now to rectify this situation. Our ship has gone too far at sea. We can’t even go back to the safety of the harbor. It’s awful, and it’s horrible. I just pray that the infection will be small and people can overcome it.”
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