Hundreds of thousands of devotees bathed in the River Ganges on Monday despite soaring rates of new Covid-19 cases across India, a second wave that has struck down Bollywood stars, sent migrant workers fleeing from cities and contributed to the slowing of vaccination programmes around the world.
The largest bathing day of the Hindu religious festival Kumbh Mela in the northern Indian city of Haridwar highlighted the immense challenge facing officials in trying to implement social distancing as the daily rate of new Covid-19 cases crossed 160,000 over the weekend, India’s highest point since the beginning of the pandemic.
Police in Haridwar said they had been trying to keep worshippers apart but that it was not practical to issue fines on Monday, an auspicious day when the largest crowds of the festival thronged the banks of the river waiting for their opportunity to bathe in waters they believe can cleanse sins and free them from the cycle of death and rebirth.
“A stampede-like situation may arise if we would try to enforce social distancing at ghats [the steps leading down to the water], so we are unable to enforce social distancing here,” the inspector general of the local police force, Sanjay Gunjyal, told the news agency ANI.
Footage from the riverside showed large, mainly unmasked crowds of men and women jostling for space to stand. “There is no coronavirus,” a pilgrim told NDTV from the bathing site on Monday. “The Ganga will protect you. There is nothing to worry about.”
The scenes jarred with other video, broadcast on Indian television, of people lying in the streets outside some hospitals, unable to find a bed, and warnings from doctors in some states that supplies of oxygen, ventilators and the drug remdesivir, used to treat serious cases, were starting to run low.
Several states have reintroduced evening or weekend lockdowns in response to the record increases, while others including the worst-hit, Maharashtra, are considering more drastic measures. But officials are conscious of the economic impact of quarantines in a country where about 90% of the workforce is informal, and reliant on day-to-day work to earn a living.
The country’s first lockdown, last March, triggered an exodus of migrant workers on a scale that rivalled the partition of the subcontinent more than 70 years ago. Workers are starting to leave again and the rate is likely to increase if harsh lockdowns are reinstated in big cities.
India’s experience has been a showcase of the unpredictability of Covid-19. Early predictions that the subcontinental country – with poor healthcare in many rural areas and dense living conditions in cities – would be swamped by the virus were confounded by a relatively low death rate and a steep fall in new cases through winter, when cases elsewhere in the world surged.
By February, the first wave that peaked six months earlier appeared to have vanished, and scientists were speculating that parts of India’s population of almost 1.4bn had acquired a form of natural herd immunity, with seroprevalence studies suggesting around 22% of Indians had been infected by December.
Then cases started grow faster and in greater numbers than ever, reaching more than 168,000 new infections on Sunday.
The death toll is still relatively low among India’s disproportionately young population, but is likely to soon eclipse the previous wave’s peak of more than 1,200 a day.
Indian health experts say the resurgence is being driven by an infectious new “double mutant” variant, but have also blamed lax attitudes even among those who can afford to maintain social distance, including Bollywood actors such as Akshay Kumar, Alia Bhatt and Katrina Kaif, all of who have tested positive in recent weeks.
“During the earlier peak, one patient could spread the disease to 30-40% of his or her contacts,” Randeep Guleria, a physician and member of the country’s national taskforce on the virus, said at the weekend. “This time, 80-90% of people who come into contact with a patient turn positive.”
Narendra Modi, the prime minister, launched a “festival of vaccines” on Sunday, urging Indians aged over 45 to apply for doses as soon as possible, but pressed on with a programme of several large rallies on Monday in the state of West Bengal, where his party is involved in a bitter election fight with a regional rival.
India has administered more than 100m vaccine doses, but even with the largest manufacturer in the world, the Serum Institute of India, directing most of its supply for domestic use, shortages are being reported in parts of the country.
The scale of the task is also vast: if a rate of about 3m vaccines administered a day was maintained it would take 21 months to inoculate the 75% of the country thought to be required to achieve herd immunity, according to one estimate.
Delivering the 10m a day that some health experts say is required would dwarf the capacity of the country’s vaccine manufacturers, a maximum of 112m doses a month according to government data. An expert panel on Monday approved the emergency use of Russia’s Sputnik V, one of seven vaccines that the government hopes will be produced locally by the end of the year.
The resurgence of the virus in India has had knock-on effects for global vaccination efforts. When rates were low at the beginning of this year, the Indian government allowed the export of nearly 65m doses as gifts or sales to foreign governments. It has reduced those export approvals as case numbers have grown, leaving fewer doses for customers including the UN-backed global vaccine-sharing mechanism Covax, a key source for developing countries.