NEW DELHI: Indian doctors raised alarm on Friday at what might turn into a coronavirus superspreader event, after more than 300,000 people took a holy dip on the River Ganges amid record high numbers of new daily COVID-19 cases.
The annual festival is taking place in West Bengal, with people from different parts of the country arriving to Gangasagar island on the confluence of the river and the Bay of Bengal to take a holy bath, believing it will wash away their sins.
Although the main event took place on Friday, thousands more pilgrims are expected to perform the ritual over the weekend.
The country recorded over 264,000 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, a 30-fold rise in a month, as infection figures rapidly increased fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant.
“People from various states come to the Gangasagar festival and we fear that this might be just another superspreader,” Dr. Avinandan Mondal, a West Bengal-based doctor and public health expert, told Arab News.
Last year, a religious festival of the same scale held in the northern state of Uttarakhand fueled the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19, which caused havoc across India, causing its second viral wave.
“I saw the severity of the second wave when I was in the hospital. At that time, the number of oxygen beds available with me was 20 and (the number of) people gasping for breath was 180,” Mondal said. “I had to choose who (was) going to live and who is going to die. I don’t want to see that situation again.”
Dr. Prabhakar Dorairaj of the Public Health Foundation of India, said the country is facing an “unpredictable” third wave of COVID-19 due to omicron, and that public gatherings should be avoided at all costs.
“If we don’t stop the gatherings then the cases will keep on rising despite the cases reaching (their) peak,” Dorairaj told Arab News.
Authorities in the district where the Gangasagar event is taking place say all precautions are in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“We are making sure that there is proper social distancing and people follow all the COVID protocols,” South 24 Parganas District magistrate Dr. P Ulganathan said.
“So far we don’t have any positive cases and we are strictly checking COVID reports.”
Despite petitions against holding the festival, a high court in West Bengal cleared the way for it, demanding that all pilgrims have negative COVID-19 tests.
Srijib Chakraborty, a lawyer based in the state capital Kolkata who appealed to the court to stop the event, said he fears it would end up being another superspeader event, like the one in Uttarakhand.
“I feel that this festival could have been avoided,” he said. “No religion is more important than human lives. If we survive, we can have a festival next year and if we don’t survive then who is going to take part in the festivities?”