India's new Covid-19 cases hit seven-month high as court allows Hindu festival

Pilgrims queueing to test for Covid-19 ahead of the upcoming annual Hindu religious festival Gangasagar in Kolkata on Jan 7, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI/KOLKATA (REUTERS, AFP) - India reported 141,986 new Covid-19 cases on Saturday (Jan 8), the most since the end of May, as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus overtakes the Delta version in the cities.

The health ministry also reported 285 new deaths, taking the total to 483,463. Total infections stand at 35.37 million.

An Indian court on Friday (Jan 7) rejected a bid to cancel a major Hindu festival despite fears the vast gathering could spread coronavirus infections.

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to attend the annual Gangasagar Mela festival, which begins on Saturday on an island where the holy river Ganges enters the Bay of Bengal.

It marks the harvest season and will reach a climax next weekend ahead of the new moon on Jan 17.

Kolkata-based doctor Avinandan Mondal sought a court order to ban the festival over coronavirus concerns, with infection rates surging in a country that saw a deadly wave last year.

New cases passed 100,000 on Friday and the authorities in several megacities have brought in restrictions as they seek to slow the spread of the virus.

But the Calcutta High Court rejected the request, instead asking the regional government - which estimated attendance at no more than 500,000 and supported the gathering - to issue advertisements warning people about the risks of attending.

"People from all states in the country will attend the religious festival and take a holy dip," environmentalist Subhash Dutta told AFP.

"They may carry variant viruses and this religious festival may end up being the biggest superspreader in the coming days," he added.

The Sagar island site is one of the most sacred places in Hinduism and it receives millions of pilgrims each year.

People board trains and buses, trek and finally take boats to reach the sacred island spot to offer prayers, bathe and to visit many old temples in the region.

Last year's deadly wave of infections in India was preceded by the huge 12-yearly Kumbh Mela festival, when millions of Hindus from all over the country descended on the banks of the Ganges in the northern city of Haridwar.

The pilgrimage saw people walking the revered river in the morning without masks and showing scant regard for social distancing.

The mass gathering was blamed for a significant surge in infections for weeks as people returned to distant towns and villages all over the country.

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