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Tragedy in India as COVID-19 surges amid religious festivals and election rallies

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has 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.

Criticism has mounted over the Indian government’s handling of the health crisis, as religious festivals and election rallies continue amid increasing reports of shortages of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and vaccination doses.

According to India Today, several hospitals across India are without ventilator beds and ICU beds with the healthcare system in crisis as the country plummets into a second COVID-19 wave.

Amid a growing demand for medical oxygen, India Today reported the central government on Saturday issued an emergency order to ensure an uninterrupted supply of oxygen cylinders across state borders.

“The third such order in 24 hours, this order also enabled manufacturers and suppliers to supply medical oxygen to hospitals anywhere in the country,” the paper reported.

The latest spike comes as UK health officials are investigating a COVID-19 variant originating in India.

Experts have warned about the spread of more contagious variants of the disease, especially during large-scale gatherings for religious festivals and political rallies.

Susan Hopkins of Public Health England (PHE) said: “We have not got enough data about this variant yet to be able to clarify whether it’s a variant of concern. We have put it as a variant under investigation.”

India registered an unprecedented 234,692 COVID-19 infections over its most recent 24 hour reporting period, taking the total number of cases in the country to nearly 14.8 million, second only to the United States.

Deaths in India from the virus rose by more than 2000 to 177,150 on Monday (AEST).

After hundreds of thousands of Hindus gathered for several days along the banks of the Ganges in a northern state for the Kumbh Mela religious festival, Mr Modi on Saturday called for restraint, saying on Twitter the festival should now be kept “symbolic”.

Responding to Mr Modi’s appeal, one religious leader Swami Avdheshanand urged devotees not to 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.

On Saturday, Mr Modi was scheduled to hold two election rallies in the 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.

Indian variant ‘under investigation’

Meanwhile, UK health officials are investigating a COVID-19 variant originating in India but as yet they do not have enough evidence to classify it is as a variant of concern.

“To escalate it up the ranking we need to know that it’s increased transmissibility, increased severity, or vaccine-evading, and we just don’t have that yet, but we’re looking at the data on a daily basis,” Ms Hopkins said.

PHE has said it has identified 77 cases of the variant in the UK.

Earlier, environment minister George Eustice said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s trip to India later this month should go ahead despite rising cases in the country.

“It is important that business and the business of politics if you like does continue,” he said, adding that an expert committee periodically reviews decisions about whether to permit travel to certain countries.

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