COVID cases across India being traced to weeks-long Kumbh Mela

Dozens of cases across the country being traced to the mega Hindu festival held at the banks of Ganges in Haridwar city last month.

Participating in the Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, a major Hindu pilgrimage in India, was a matter of devotion for 36-year-old Neetesh Dubey.

A government teacher by profession, he travelled from central India’s Gyaraspur town in Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha district to Haridwar in the north in the second week of April to take part in the weeks-long festival held along the banks of the Ganges River.

When Dubey arrived at the Kumbh, he developed a sore throat and chills which he mistook for flu. On April 17, Dubey and five of his friends boarded a train back to Gyaraspur.

But Dubey’s health continued to deteriorate. A day later, he was diagnosed with COVID-19.

As a second wave of the coronavirus began in India in early April, millions of Hindus congregated at Haridwar, a Himalayan city in Uttarakhand state, to take a holy dip in the Ganges.

Devotees gather for evening prayer on the banks of Ganges River during Kumbh Mela in Haridwar on April 11, 2021 [File: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]When the devotees returned home in crowded buses and trains, they spread the infection in villages and towns, prompting officials in some states to track and quarantine them.

But many did not turn up for coronavirus tests, despite officials making public announcements urging devotees to report and be screened.

An official in Madhya Pradesh’s capital Bhopal told Al Jazeera that 83 people from Gyaraspur and adjoining villages had gone for Kumbh and only 61 turned up for the tests while the remaining allegedly went into hiding.

Sixty out of 61 tested positive for the virus, he said, requesting anonymity. “After a hectic drive to trace the missing, the remaining 22 people were also tested and sent for quarantine.”