Around three million people are expected to attend a religious event in India amid the Omicron surge
Massive crowds of pilgrims have been flooding the delta of the Ganges river, desperate to take a dip in its waters. Drones have been deployed to spray water on them and reduce crowding.
Up to three million Hindu devotees may congregate on northern India's Sagar Island to bathe in the waters of the Ganges for religious reasons, according to official estimates as reported by AFP on Friday. There was already "a sea of people" present as worshippers gathered to mark the Makar Sankranti (or Magh Mela) festival, a local official in the Indian State of West Bengal told the news agency, adding that most of the pilgrims were not wearing masks.
People from numerous regions visit the event, which runs for many days. Defying pandemic rules, they travel on crammed buses, boats, and trains to the island and then back home.
Drones are being deployed at the site to spray water on pilgrims and reduce crowding by the river, but this doesn't stop them from taking the actual dip in the Ganges. "They believe that God will save them and bathing at the confluence will cleanse all their sins, and even the virus if they are infected," a police official told AFP.
According to organizers, only those with vaccination certificates and negative PCR test results are allowed to attend, and thermal screening has been put in place. However, there are concerns that no proper security checks can be enforced, as those might lead to stampede-like situations. "Despite the arrangements, many devotees are taking the holy bath and flouting the limit of 50 persons at a time, but we're unable to prevent them from doing so," a senior official told local media.
Nearly 80 police officers and cleaning personnel deployed for the festival have tested positive for coronavirus, AP reported on Friday. "This is going to be a superspreader," a lawyer who has petitioned a court to cancel the festival, Utkarsh Mishra, said.
While public gatherings are banned in some parts of the country, where infections with the highly transmissible Omicron variant have been on the rise, the local government in West Bengal allowed the festival this year. The Calcutta High Court asked the administration to insist that devotees opt for a so-called 'e-bathing' this time, Indian media reported. Some have applied to receive e-bathing kits via post, but the majority wanted to attend in person.
A similar Hindu gathering last year is believed to have sent infections with the devastating Delta variant all across the country. On Thursday, nearly 265,000 new cases of coronavirus were recorded, with some estimates suggesting the numbers might surge to 800,000 in just a few weeks' time.