NOEL KING, HOST:
India confirmed more than 217,000 new COVID cases today alone. And yet millions of pilgrims have come to the banks of the Ganges River to celebrate the Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela. Here is Sushmita Pathak.
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SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: Tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims are packed together along the banks of the Ganges River. They jostle for a holy dip that's believed to erase any sins. But their devotional chanting are interrupted by police whistles...
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PATHAK: ...Trying to ensure social distancing. India is confirming record numbers of new coronavirus cases each day as religious festivals, like the Kumbh Mela, are still continuing. And COVID rules are being flouted.
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SANJAY GUNJYAL: (Non-English language spoken).
PATHAK: The police official in charge of security at the festival, Sanjay Gunjyal, told Indian media ensuring social distancing has been difficult. That's also true for crowds at massive political rallies taking place in several states holding local elections. Epidemiologist Giridhara Babu says he's really concerned.
GIRIDHARA BABU: Be it Kumbh Mela or the political rallies, we should be preventing every type of crowd.
PATHAK: Banning all gatherings should be the government's priority, he says. After last fall's peak, COVID cases declined. Businesses opened up and colleges resumed offline classes. Big weddings started happening again.
BABU: There was a feeling that we have almost won over the virus.
PATHAK: But now cases are rising faster than ever before. And Babu says new variants of the virus are responsible. Social media is full of pleas for help from people trying to find hospital beds for their sick relatives...
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I want to go to the hospital.
PATHAK: ...And videos from inside clinics of patients lying on the floor, even dying outside in the parking lot unable to get in. Several cities have announced restrictions on movement and even curfews. The Taj Mahal and other monuments closed this week. The state of Uttarakhand, which is hosting the Kumbh festival, is restricting gatherings to 200 people except for this one Hindu festival. And now more than a thousand pilgrims have reportedly tested positive.
VINEETA BAL: Imagine those people who have infected each other. They are going back all over the country.
PATHAK: Immunologist Vineeta Bal says it is, quote, "ridiculous" that such a massive gathering was allowed to take place at the worst moment of India's COVID pandemic. Last spring, when a Muslim missionary group held a conference in the capital, New Delhi, India's Hindu nationalists and right-wing media erupted in outrage and blamed Muslims for spreading the virus. But this time, even though cases are much higher and the crowds much larger, their reaction is muted.
BAL: And this time, it is Kumbh Mela. Is anybody talking about it? Absolutely not.
PATHAK: For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Hyderabad, India.
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