A seer died from COVID-19, and 80 other holy men tested positive after observing a massive religious festival where millions of pilgrims ignored Covid-19 advice despite a national surge in infections.
Authorities in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, made the announcement as India reported over 217,000 new cases in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total number of new infections to over two million since April 1.
The Kumbh Mela festival has long raised concerns among health experts, who believe it might become a “super-spreader” as pilgrims return to their towns and villages across India.
Every 12 years, a gathering on the banks of the holy River Ganges in Haridwar draws up to 25 million people, including 4.6 million on two auspicious days this week alone.
The massive crowds of tourists taking a swim in the river, including cannabis-smoking holy men with dreadlocks, have largely defied official advice to keep a safe distance.
Mahamandaleshwar Kapil Dev Das, 65, the head of one of the Hindu akhadas or ascetic councils, was admitted to hospital earlier this week and died from coronavirus on Thursday, according to officials.
“We have had approximately 2,000 positive cases since Monday during random checking of pilgrims at the Kumbh,” Harbeer Singh, a top festival officer, told AFP.
“We’re taking steps and advising people to follow coronavirus preventive practises.”
The officer stated that they had increased testing at the 600-hectare (1,500-acre) event site and insisted on strictly following government procedures, such as requiring negative virus certificates.
Two of the big gathering’s 13 Hindu ascetic councils have now withdrawn due to escalating Covid cases in the district.
Mr Singh claimed that more than 25,000 pilgrims continue to visit every day, and that they expect 2-3 million devotees to attend the final grand bathing event on April 27 before the festival ends.
The Uttarakhand government has exempted the event from the state’s ban on gatherings of more than 200 individuals.
In early April, Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat said that no devotees will be “unnecessarily harassed in the name of Covid-19 restrictions.”
He, too, later tested positive for the virus, which has killed almost 175,000 Indians and infected 14.3 million, the world’s second highest number behind the United States.
Additionally, Uttar Pradesh, home to some 240 million people, on Friday became the latest to announce regulations on gatherings, calling a day-long lockdown on Sunday with fines of 1,000 rupees (US $14) for refusing to wear a mask