By Aftab Ahmed
NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s health ministry warned on Sunday that a large gathering of worshipers for a Hindu festival could trigger an increase in coronavirus cases, as the country registered the newest infections in nearly four months.
The ministry said up to 40 people had already been tested positive for COVID-19 around Mahakumbh site a few weeks starting this month and reaching peaks in April in the sacred Himalayan town of Haridwar, near Ganges.
The festival takes place only once in 12 years. Millions of Hindus are expected to gather the land next month, as bathing in the river during this period is believed to remove people from their sins and bring salvation from the cycle of life and death.
In a letter to the Uttarakhand state government where Haridwar is located, the ministry told local authorities their daily coronavirus testing of 55,000 people in Haridwar was not enough given the large number of pilgrims expected and that the cases were already growing.
“This positivity rate has the potential to quickly turn into an increase in cases, given the big steps expected during Kumbh,” the ministry said in a statement, citing the letter.
“Currently more than 12 states in India have shown an increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and pilgrims expected to visit Haridwar during Kumbh Mela may also be from these states.”
The Uttarakhand government says it has made it mandatory to wear masks for worshipers, distribute millions of masks for free and also keep cleaning public areas, in addition to the following rules set by the federal government.
India reported 43,846 new cases of coronavirus in the last 24 hours, with its richest state Maharashtra again accounting for about 60% of infections.
Deaths rose by 197, the highest in more than two months, to 159,755, data from the health ministry showed.
New COVID-19 cases in India peaked at nearly 100,000 a day in September and had fallen steadily by the end of last month.
But now five states – Maharashtra, Punjab, Karnataka, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh – account for almost 78% of new cases. Maharashtra alone, home to India’s financial capital, Mumbai, reported 27,126 cases and 92 deaths.
As cases increase, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticized for exporting more vaccines than the number of people inoculated at home so far.
Under pressure to boost local supplies, the Serum Institute of India has told Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Morocco that deliveries of further doses of AstraZeneca vaccine to them will be delayed. [L4N2LJ01V]
India has so far donated 8 million doses and sold nearly 52 million doses in a total of 75 countries. She has administered more than 44 million doses since the start of her immunization campaign in mid-January.
(Reporting by Aftab Ahmed; Additional Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Kim Coghill)
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