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India's COVID cases surge amid Hindu fair and election rallies

South Asian nation becomes second after US to breach daily 200,000 mark

Hindu devotees take a dip in the Ganges River during the Pitcher Festival in Haridwar, India, on April 14, 2021.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- India's COVID-19 cases are rising exponentially as a vicious second wave of the pandemic finds fertile grounds at a mega religious gathering of hundreds of thousands in the north and at mass election rallies in other regions.

On Thursday, daily new infections reached an all-time high of 200,739, breaching the 200,000 mark for the first time. The first wave peaked in mid-September at more than 97,000 daily cases.

India is now one of only two countries to go beyond the 200,000 mark, along with the U.S.

The nation of over 1.3 billion has so far confirmed over 14 million infections and more than 173,000 deaths. Its caseload is the world's second highest, after the U.S.

More alarming is the fact that it took India only 11 days to reach 200,000 daily infections after first reporting 100,000 cases on April 5. In terms of fatalities, the nation is the fourth-worst hit, after the U.S., Brazil and Mexico.

Worries have surfaced that the daily numbers could increase further as the Kumbh Mela, which translates as 'Fair of the Pot,' a religious gathering, is ongoing in the northern city of Haridwar. Over a million Hindu devotees took a dip in the Ganges River on Wednesday, one of the most auspicious days of the fair, with many flouting social distancing safeguards.

Hindus believe taking a dip in the holy river during the festival frees a person of sins and helps attain salvation.

Also stoking fears of the daily infection toll further climbing are massive poll rallies, including some being addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opposition leaders. West Bengal, where the race is especially fierce, is among the states hosting political rallies.

"It's irresponsible in the extreme to not cancel the Kumbh & stop poll rallies in Bengal now," tweeted political commentator Shekhar Gupta, pointing out that even at a "much reduced" fatality rate of 1% India could see 2,000 plus deaths a day.

Supporters of Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the eastern state of West Bengal and chief of the Trinamool Congress party, attend a campaign rally in Kolkata, India, on April 7.   © Reuters

With cases spiraling upward, night curfews, weekend lockdowns as well as closures of schools, colleges and shopping malls have been reinstated in many localities. The curbs come as hospitals are stretched beyond capacity, bodies pile up at crematoriums and vaccine shortages are reported in several states.

Experts have called for India to step up its inoculation efforts. Since the drive began on Jan. 16, more than 100 million people have received their first dose of a vaccine, and over 14 million have been injected with the mandatory second dose. People 45 and older are eligible for the jabs.

Authorities in Delhi, which in recent days has been reporting the highest surge among the country's biggest cities, have called on the federal government to allow all adults to receive vaccine shots. A month ago, the national capital was reporting about 400 daily cases. On Wednesday, it cited more than 17,000 new infections.

A worker sprays a flammable liquid on a funeral pyre of a man who died from COVID-19, at a crematorium on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, on April 15.   © Reuters

"The vaccination needs to be done at war-footing, allowing all [adults] to be inoculated," according to Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who recently said 65% of Delhi's cases are among people younger than 45.

Swati Sharma, 28, who works as a public relations professional in the capital, is among those waiting for the vaccine to be made available to younger people. "I'll definitely go for it once I'm allowed to," she told Nikkei Asia, adding that she and her 31-year-old husband suffered from COVID-19 during the first wave last year. "Having been infected once," she went on, "we do not want to face the disease again and are eagerly waiting for the government" to open vaccinations to all adults.

Amid demands for lowering the age limit, some say shots should be given to those who require them the most. "The vaccine needs to be administered to all those who are vulnerable irrespective of the age groups they are falling into," Archana Jyoti, a New Delhi-based health columnist, told Nikkei, adding there are people in all age brackets with compromised immunity.

On Tuesday, India's drug regulator approved Russia's Sputnik V vaccine for emergency use, potentially giving India access to three vaccines. The first two are Covishield, the local name of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, and Covaxin, developed by Indian drugmaker Bharat Biotech.

The same day, the Modi government also announced in a separate statement that it was fast-tracking emergency approvals for foreign-produced COVID-19 jabs authorized by the World Health Organization or regulators in the U.S., Europe, the U.K. or Japan to "expand the basket of vaccines for domestic use and hasten the pace and coverage." The move could pave the way for possible imports of Pfizer, Moderna and other vaccines.

Calling the government's move the "right decision," Abhishek Kumar Sinha, a medical doctor overseeing COVID-19 sampling and contact tracing in the eastern city of Sonepur, told Nikkei that India needs "a big quantity of vaccines to inoculate all above 18 as soon as possible to tide over this crisis."

The second wave could weaken India's economic recovery. The country's gross domestic product contracted 24.4% year-on-year from April to June last year, the worst quarter on record, before managing to return to positive growth of 0.4% in October-December.

Moody's Investors Service said in a Tuesday note that the second wave presents a risk to its growth forecast of 13.7% for the current financial year that began in April "as the reimposition of virus management measures will curb economic activity and could dampen market and consumer sentiment."

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