MUMBAI, April 17 (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday appealed to devotees to keep a key Hindu festival symbolic as the country reported more than 200,000 new COVID-19 infections for the third straight day.
India reported 234,692 COVID-19 infections over the last 24 hours, taking the total number of cases to nearly 14.5 million, second only to the United States. Deaths in the country from COVID-19 rose by 1,341 to 175,649.
Criticism has mounted over the Indian government’s handling of the health crisis, as religious festivals and election rallies continue amid increasing reports of shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and vaccination doses.
After hundreds of thousands of ascetics and devout Hindus gathered for several days along the banks of the Ganges in a northern state for a religious festival Kumbh Mela, Modi on Saturday called for restraint, saying on Twitter the festival should now be kept “symbolic”.
Responding to Modi’s appeal, one of religious leader Swami Avdheshanand urged devotees to not gather in large numbers. Devout Hindus believe bathing in the holy Ganges absolves people of sins, and during the Kumbh Mela, it brings salvation from the cycle of life and death.
Experts have warned about the spread of more contagious variants of the disease, with especially during large-scale gathering for religious festivals and political rallies.
On Saturday, Modi was scheduled to hold two election rallies in eastern state of West Bengal where state elections are ongoing. In recent weeks, such rallies have attracted thousands of people, few of whom follow COVID-19 safety protocols.
“Stop spreader rallies,” the Times of India said in an editorial on Saturday, adding: “Business as usual is an unaffordable luxury until this virus is conclusively tamed.”
After imposing one of the world’s strictest lockdowns for nearly three months last year, India’s government relaxed almost all curbs by the beginning of 2021, although many regions have now introduced localised restrictions.
“This is Narendra Modi’s biggest crisis yet. It is bigger than any security threat, external or internal, or even the economic attrition of 2020,” prominent editor and political commentator Shekhar Gupta wrote in a column on Saturday. (Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav; Additional reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Aditya Kalra, Kim Coghill and Lincoln Feast.)