Thousands take holy dip in India's Ganges River amid Covid surge

Hundreds of thousands of Hindu worshipers flocked to the banks of the Ganges River in the Indian state of West Bengal on Friday, braving a surge in Covid-19 infections, to bathe in the holy river’s waters.

The Gangasagar Mela, a nine-day festival held from January 8-16, traditionally draws millions to the banks of the river. Pilgrims believe its waters will wash away their sins and those of their ancestors. A record 3.5 million people bathed at the site in 2019.

Tens of thousands had already arrived on site in the run-up to the festival, despite weeks of pleas from medical experts for it to be canceled and warnings that it would worsen the country’s Covid infection rate, which is being caused by outbreaks of both the Delta and Omicron variants.

“There are safe ways to have masked gatherings outside, but a mela of this magnitude, with everyone taking a holy dip, is not safely feasible,” Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, told NBC News in an email Wednesday.

A Hindu devotee prays in the Ganges near Allahabad, India on Friday.Sanjay Kanoja/AFP via Getty Images

In a Jan. 7 decision, the Kolkata Supreme Court said the event could go ahead. However, it has imposed conditions on participants, allowing entry only to those with a valid vaccination record and a negative test within 72 hours of arrival.

Nonetheless, devotees threw themselves into the waters of the Ganges to celebrate Makar Sankranti, an important day in the Hindu calendar.

“The general principle is that you should avoid going to crowded places,” said Dr. Vikas Bhatia, Executive Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Bibinagar, India. “Nevertheless, there are so many festivals in India and people are very keen to take part.”

The West Bengal Doctors Forum – a group working to protect the rights of doctors and patients – said in an emailed statement on Wednesday that it feared the festival would put a further strain on the country’s healthcare system.

“A large number of doctors and other health workers are already affected by Covid-19 and any further increase will bring the entire health care system to the brink of collapse,” it said.

She had also appealed to the public not to attend the festival for safety reasons.

Some experts warned that participants could become “super-spreaders” who could carry the virus back to their hometowns and trigger widespread infections. They said there was a similar spike in cases last spring, after more than 9 million people gathered on the banks of the Ganges for the Kumbh Mela festival, the largest Hindu pilgrimage.

The Gangasagar Mela took place despite similar ceremonies being banned in other parts of India. Two cities in the northern state of Uttarakhand canceled similar riverside celebrations earlier this week due to pandemic concerns.

NBC News has reached out to the West Bengal government for comment.

West Bengal authorities had imposed tougher pandemic measures in response to a spike in infections in early January, closing schools, limiting workplaces to 50 percent of capacity and imposing a 10pm to 5am curfew. An international film festival in the city of Kolkata, scheduled to start on January 7, has also been postponed.

India is struggling with containment Spread of the highly transmittable Omicron variant. Cases in West Bengal have risen exponentially since December; The state reported 23,467 cases Saturday, a 41-fold increase since Dec. 25.

A health worker sprays disinfectant near Kolkata, India, on Thursday as Hindu holy men look on.Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP – Getty Images

India reported a total of 264,202 cases as of Saturday. The country has reported nearly 500,000 Covid-19-related deaths, the second highest in the world after the US, but studies suggest India’s true death toll is far higher than the official figure.

dr Bhatia said that while he is concerned that too many cases are popping up at once, omicron appears to have a lower mortality rate than other variants. He also said hospitals are better prepared for this wave of cases than previous ones, noting that India has a high vaccination rate, with the health ministry saying in late December that 90 percent of adults had received at least one dose.

He said the government can issue guidelines but it’s up to the public to comply.

“Ultimately, people’s health is in their own hands,” he said.

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