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India’s Covid-19 cases hit new record as crowds gather for Hindu festival

India’s new coronavirus infections hit a record on Wednesday, as crowds of pilgrims gathered for a religious festival despite oxygen shortages and strict curbs in other areas. 

India reported 184,372 cases in the last 24 hours, according to health ministry data, taking the total number of Covid-19 infections to 13.9 million. Deaths rose by 1,027, to a toll of 172,085.

Despite the rising number of cases, with hospitals struggling to cope with oxygen shortages, the Indian government has allowed the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival – where crowds gather to take a holy dip in the Ganges river – to proceed.

Hundreds of thousands of Hindus gathered to bathe in the Ganges on Wednesday, the third key day of the weeks-long festival, in the Himalayan city Haridwar.

Sanjay Gunjyal, the inspector general of police at the festival, said around 650,000 people had bathed on Wednesday morning.

“People are being fined for not following social distancing in non-crowded ghats (bathing areas), but it is very hard to fine people in the main ghats, which are very crowded,” he said.

There was little evidence of social distancing or mask-wearing, according to witnesses.

In response to concerns raised earlier this week that the Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, could turn into a “superspreader” event, the state’s chief minister, Tirath Singh Rawat, said “the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus”.

More than a thousand cases have been reported in Haridwar district in the last two days, according to government data.

From reporting less than 10,000 cases per day earlier this year, India has been the world’s worst-hit country since April 2, with health experts blaming a widespread failure to heed curbs on movement and social interaction.

New restrictions in commercial capital and richest state 

India’s richest state Maharashtra – home to the commercial capital, Mumbai, and the current epicentre of the second wave – imposed stringent restrictions from Wednesday to try to contain the spread of the virus.

The new restrictions will force all “non-essential” shops, malls and e-commerce deliveries to pause operations from Wednesday until May 1.

Shooting for movies, television shows and advertisements in Bollywood will also grind to a halt, in what will be a blow to India’s flagship film industry.

Bars and restaurants were shut earlier this month, and public gatherings of more than five people are banned.

The new measures follow Maharashtra’s move to impose a state-wide weekend lockdown that confined the state’s 125 million people to their homes until the end of April unless shopping for food or medicine, or travelling.

Hospitals flooded, delays in global vaccine deliveries

Elsewhere, overstretched private hospitals are turning patients away, placing an increasing burden on government facilities.

In the western state of Gujurat, local media showed a long queue of ambulances waiting outside Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, with some patients being treated there while they waited.

A hospital source, who declined to be named as he is not authorised to speak publicly, said this was because a lot of private hospitals were short of oxygen and were sending their patients to the public hospital.

The surge across India is particularly alarming because the country is a major vaccine producer and a critical supplier to the UN-backed COVAX initiative. That programme aims to bring shots to some of the world’s poorest countries.

Already the rise in cases has forced India to focus on meeting its domestic demand – and delay deliveries to COVAX and elsewhere, including the UK and Canada.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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