West Bengal festival could lead to spike in Covid cases, Indian health experts say

Harvest festival is one of the biggest religious gatherings in the country

Millions of pilgrims gathered in India’s West Bengal on Thursday before a Friday bathing ritual on a sacred river island, prompting health experts to warn the event could cause a spike in Covid-19 cases.

At least three million Hindu pilgrims converged at Sagar Island for the annual festival, where many will immerse themselves at the confluence of the sacred Ganges River and Bay of Bengal on Friday.

The harvest festival, called the Ganga Sagar Mela, is one of the biggest religious gatherings in the country and is the first major Hindu festival of the year, during which worshippers pay tribute to the sun god.

But the festival, which is celebrated some 130 kilometres from the state capital Kolkata, is taking place as Covid-19 cases reach record levels across the country, with experts blaming the Omicron variant for the increase.

India reported 247,000 new daily cases on Thursday, the highest number since the second wave in May.

More than 22,000 of the new cases were registered in West Bengal, representing a 40 per cent jump in the past week.

Several Indian states have imposed new measures and banned all gatherings to stop the spread of the virus.

Last week, the Calcutta High Court rejected a medical organisation's plea to cancel the festival, though it stipulated that pilgrims must be vaccinated or show a negative PCR test dated within 72 hours of the event before being allowed on the island.

Pilgrims perform rituals during the Hindu religious festival of Gangasagar Mela on Sagar Island, West Bengal. AFP

But tens of thousands of pilgrims without masks have been swarming the venue since last month.

The gathering has sparked fears of the event becoming a super spreader, with comparisons drawn to last year’s Kumbh Mela, where over nine million pilgrims, mostly without masks, gathered over the course of several months.

The religious gathering was blamed for exacerbating the Covid-19 crisis as India was gripped by the second wave of the pandemic between April and May, when about 250,000 people were killed and more than 25 million were infected.

“I am against the fair this time … it will 100 per cent exacerbate the Covid situation and increase the number of infections. Already there are so many cases in the state,” Dr Anima Halder, principal of infectious diseases at Beliaghata General Hospital in Kolkata, told The National.

“People are coming from different states for the [event]. There is no doubt the congregation will spread more infections,” Dr Halder said.

State Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday urged pilgrims to prioritise their health and follow Covid protocols as they attend the fair.

“It is estimated that about 30 lakhs [three million] pilgrims would come to the island to take the holy dip … this is the time to avoid large gatherings. People should not go to Ganga Sagar without undergoing RT-PCR tests,” she said.

Local authorities said they were following court guidelines and have made arrangements to ensure social distancing and pandemic norms are followed.

“We have made all the arrangements and set up medical screening camps at entry points and testing facilities, isolation centres and dedicated Covid control rooms. Our teams will enforce pilgrims to wear masks, sanitise and maintain social distance,” Dr P Ulanganathan, the district magistrate, told The National.

Updated: January 13th 2022, 6:28 PM