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Covid worries as world’s biggest festival to go ahead

Authorities in Uttarakhand are ramping up Covid-19 test, trace and treatment facilities ahead of the Kumbh Mela festival, the world’s largest religious gathering, which is expected to draw millions of pilgrims to the northern Indian state next month.

Held roughly every three years, alternating between the cities of Haridwar, Nasik, Ujjain and Allahabad, Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival centred on bathing in certain sacred rivers, is one of the largest gatherings in the world, and is visible from space. The last festival, held in Allahabad in early 2019, attracted a peak single-day attendance of 50 million people.

Kumbh Mela 2021 will take place in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, on the banks of the Ganges, from 1 to 30 April. Organisers expect more than 150 million visitors from all over India across the 30 days, and the national and state governments have spent more than half a billion euros on preparing the city for the festival, including laying 300km of new roads and building car parks to accomodate over 500,000 vehicles.

Fearing a superspreader event in the Himalayan city, the Indian health ministry last week wrote to the state government of Uttarakhand to say that its daily coronavirus testing capacity of 55,000 people was not enough given the large numbers of expected attendees, and that cases were already rising as pilgrims began arriving early.

“This [virus] positivity rate has the potential to rapidly turn into an upsurge in cases, given the expected large footfall during Kumbh,” it read. “Currently more than 12 states in India have shown a surge in Covid-19 cases during the past few weeks, and pilgrims expected to visit Haridwar during the Kumbh Mela could also be from these states.”

“This positivity rate has the potential to rapidly turn into an upsurge in cases”

In response, local authorities have brought in private companies to increase Haridwar’s testing capacity, and are building field hospitals, as well as a 1,500-bed isolation facility, for those who test positive for Covid-19.

“Six temporary hospitals are being built in the [Kumbh] area,” Uttarakhand’s chief medical officer, SK Jha, tells the Hindustan Times. “Also, ashrams and medical colleges in Haridwar would also be utilised to ensure adequate beds for Covid-19 isolation during the fair, which is expected to witness millions of devotees, especially during the shahi snans [main bathing days].”

The state government, which has already made mask-wearing mandatory for pilgrims, says it will distribute millions of masks for free during the festival.

Organisers will also adhere to a number of standard operating procedures issued by the Ministry of Health, including displaying signage urging attendees to self-report any new symptoms of disease and monitoring the flow of foot traffic.

Kumbh Mela last took place in Haridwar in 2010, when it was attended by an estimated 10 million people.


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