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India virus-tally surge amid holy festival

India has reported a record daily tally of 168,912 new COVID-19 infections, the world’s highest, while worries grew over a further spike as hundreds of thousands gather for a ritual bath in the Ganges river.

India now accounts for one in every six daily infections worldwide.

Monday’s new cases carried the country past Brazil, for an overall tally of 13.53 million, placing it second after the United States, which has 31.2 million.

Experts say that a whole opening of India’s economy after last year’s crippling lockdown, mass religious festivals, and political rallies in states holding elections have worsened the second wave of infections.

In the northern city of Haridwar, nearly a million devotees thronged the banks of the Ganges, a river many Hindus consider holy, to join in the month-long Kumbh Mela festival, risking a surge in infections.

“The crowd here is surging … the police are continuously appealing to people to maintain social distancing,” police official Sanjay Gunjyal told Reuters at the site.

Few wore masks as they jostled for a dip in the waters on a day considered auspicious in the Hindu calendar. Authorities have made virus tests mandatory for those entering the area, where officials said they were battling to hold back crowds. Elections are also due in four big states this month, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi set to travel to the eastern state of West Bengal to address rallies that will draw thousands.

“With 1.2 million active cases, and the daily number reaching 200,000, it’s bizarre to have poll rallies and a full Kumbh Mela,” political commentator Shekhar Gupta said in a Twitter post.

“This will take the virus deeper into villages and small towns. This is the calamity we dodged with a crippling lockdown in the first wave. Now we’re inviting it back.”

Data showed that a death toll of 904 overnight was the highest since October 18, taking the total figure to 170,179. Officials in the worst-hit state of Maharashtra, home to the financial capital of Mumbai, said they were considering a broader lockdown after extensive closures over the weekend.

The state, India’s industrial powerhouse, tallied 63,294 new infections on Sunday, led by a surge in its key cities of Mumbai, Nagpur, and Pune. Maharashtra is among many states to demand more doses of vaccines for immunization campaigns. India has injected more than 100 million doses since mid-January, the highest figure after the United States and China, but much lower its population share than many countries.

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