Wednesday, May 12, 2021
Hindus believe taking a dip in the Ganges will cleanse them of their sins.
When millions of devout Hindus gathered last month in the Himalayan town of Haridwar to participate in the Kumbh Mela festival even as India battled a devastating second wave of coronavirus, many feared that it would turn out to be a “super-spreader event”.
Those fears, it now seems, are coming true, with reports of Kumbh returnees testing positive – and possibly spreading the infection – coming from many parts of the country.
When Mahant Shankar Das arrived in Haridwar on 15 March to participate in the festival, cases of Covid-19 were already rising in many parts of India.
On 4 April, just four days after the festival officially began, the 80-year-old Hindu priest tested positive for Covid-19 and was advised to quarantine in a tent.
But instead of isolating, he packed his bags, boarded a train and travelled 1,000km (621 miles) to the city of Varanasi.
There, his son Nagendra Pathak met him at the railway station and they rode a shared taxi to their village 20km (12 miles) away in the adjoining district of Mirzapur.
Speaking to me on the phone from his home recently, Mahant Das said he was “now hale and hearty” and that after his return, he had remained at home in quarantine.
He insisted that he did not pass on the virus to anyone else, but within days, his son and a few other villagers also developed Covid symptoms.
Mr Pathak, who’s also made a full recovery, says their village has seen “13 deaths in the past fortnight from fever and cough”.
The infections in the villagers may – or may not – be linked to Mahant Das, but health experts say his behaviour was irresponsible and that by travelling in a crowded train and sharing a taxi, he may have spread the virus to many along the way.
Epidemiologist Dr Lalit Kant says “huge groups of mask-less pilgrims sitting on the river bank singing the glories of the Ganges” created an ideal environment for the virus to spread rapidly. “We already know that chorus singing in churches and temples are known to be super-spreader events.”
More than nine million pilgrims attended the festival in Haridwar in April
In Haridwar, officials said 2,642 devotees had tested positive, including dozens of top religious leaders.
Akhilesh Yadav, former chief minister of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state, and Nepal’s former King Gyanendra Shah and former Queen Komal Shah, were among those who tested positive after returning home.
Bollywood composer Shravan Rathod died in a Mumbai hospital soon after his return from Kumbh. Nine Hindu seers from one group also perished.
With growing fears that the Kumbh returnees could start to infect others, several worried state governments ordered a 14-day mandatory quarantine and warned of strict action against those who withheld information about their travels.
Some made the RT-PCR test mandatory for them, but few states have a database of travellers and no state has a foolproof system of testing and tracing those entering its borders.