Thousands gather for dung-throwing festival in India as Covid soars

India’s two biggest cities shut down as record number of Covid cases hits 200,000 a day, forcing patients to SHARE hospital beds

  • Patients have been packed two to a bed at one hospital in Delhi, where, along with Mumbai, new lockdown rules have been imposed to curb the spread 
  • Soaring deaths and cases come just months after India thought it was over peak
  • Despite the perilous situation, footage has emerged of villagers in Andhra Pradesh hurling cow dung at each other as part of religious celebrations 
  • Similar recent mass gatherings, including hundreds of thousands bathing in the Ganges, have been blamed for being ‘super-spreader’ events 

India’s two biggest cities have been shutdown amid spiralling Covid infections which saw a record 200,000 new cases on Thursday.

Patients have been packed two to a bed at one hospital in Delhi, where, along with Mumbai, stringent new lockdown rules have been imposed to curb the spread.

The soaring deaths and cases come just months after India thought it had seen the worst of the pandemic – and have forced the country to delay exports of vaccines abroad. 

Despite the perilous situation, footage has emerged of villagers in Andhra Pradesh hurling cow dung at each other as part of religious celebrations. 

Similar recent mass gatherings, including hundreds of thousands bathing in the Ganges, have been blamed for being ‘super-spreader’ events.  

At Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital (LNJP) in Delhi, one of India’s largest COVID-only facilities with more than 1,500 beds, a stream of ambulances ferried patients to the overflowing casualty ward on Thursday. 

Thousands of villagers gathered in Kairuppala, a village in southern India, on Wednesday to take part in an annual festival where participants pelt each-other with cow dung (pictured)

The festival, which is supposed to guarantee peace, good health and prosperity, was allowed to go ahead despite India’s soaring Covid second wave

India reported 200,739 new cases of Covid on Thursday amid a rapidly-spreading second wave of Covid that doctors fear is being driven by a new mutation

Deaths are also beginning to spike and have remained above 1,000 for two days in a row, with medics fearful that they are fighting a more-deadly version of the disease

Some also arrived in buses and three-wheeled autorickshaws.

The youngest patient was a new-born baby.

‘We are definitely over-burdened. We are already working at full capacity,’ said the hospital’s medical director, Suresh Kumar.

From an initial 54 beds, the hospital now has over 300 for COVID-19 patients in critical condition. Even that is not enough.

Unrelated patients share beds, while bodies of the recently deceased lie outside the ward before being taken to the mortuary.

‘Today we have 158 admissions in Lok Nayak alone,’ Kumar said. Almost all were severe cases.

Delhi announced stay-at-home orders for the weekend, though essential workers will be able to move about if they have a pass from local authorities.

Restaurants, malls, gyms and spas will be shut down. Movie theaters will close on weekends, but can operate on weekdays at a third of their capacity.

Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s top elected official, said that despite rise in infections, 5,000 hospital beds are still available in the capital and more capacity is being added.

But still, more than a dozen hotels and wedding banquet halls were ordered to be converted into COVID-19 centres where doctors from nearby hospitals will treat the moderately ill.

‘The surge is alarming,’ said S.K. Sarin, a government health expert in New Delhi.

The moves in the capital came after similar measures were imposed in the worst-hit state of Maharashtra, home to financial capital, Mumbai.

The bustle of India’s biggest city ebbed after authorities closed most industries, businesses and public places Wednesday night and put limits on the movement of people for 15 days. Train and plane travel was still allowed, however.

In recent days, the city has seen an exodus of panic-stricken day laborers, hauling backpacks and flocking to overcrowded trains.

Dozens of other towns and cities have also imposed nighttime curfews.

The surge in cases was weighing on hospitals in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and several other states, where many reported a shortage of oxygen tanks. Imran Sheikh, a resident of the city of Pune in Maharashtra, said he was asked to supply his own oxygen tank for a relative undergoing COVID-19 treatment.

Cremation and burial grounds in the worst-hit areas were finding it difficult to cope with the increasing number of bodies arriving for last rites, according to Indian media reports.

Shahid Jamil, a virologist, said the recent local and state elections with massive political rallies and a major Hindu festival during which hundreds of thousands of devotees bathed in the Ganges river were super-spreader events.

Today new footage emerged of the dung-throwing event – known as pidakala samara – taking place in the village of Kairuppala, in Andhra Pradesh – the day after lunar new year celebrations.

It marks a mythological marriage dispute between two deities which was resolved by village elders, according to legend, and villagers believe that re-enacting the dispute and its peaceful conclusion each year will bring peace, health and prosperity. 

The packed event was allowed to go ahead despite India’s soaring Covid infection rate.

The 200,739 new infections recorded Thursday are about twice the number of daily cases that were recorded during the last peak, in September.

The Health Ministry also reported 1,038 deaths from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, pushing the toll over 173,000.     

Dr Shashank Joshi, who is leading India’s Covid response in hardest-hit city of Mumbai, described the soaring infections as a ‘tsunami’ that has caught the government completely unawares.

The health system is already close to be overwhelmed, he said, with hospitals pleading for supplies of key medicines including oxygen to keep patients alive.

Dr Joshi told The Guardian that the second wave is affecting both young and old, with even children – previously spared the worst affects of Covid – now being brought into hospital with severe infections.

It comes just two months after the government was toasting its own success in fighting Covid as cases and deaths appeared to be in decline – though medics warned at the time that patchy testing meant many were being missed.

While the new surge has not been fully explained, medics theorise that it could be down to a new variant of the disease which is both more infectious and more deadly.

Similar virus mutations in the UK, Brazil and South Africa sent cases and deaths soaring in those countries and forced governments to take tougher measures to combat the infections.

India has been slow to respond to the spike, with Maharashtra state – the worst-hit – the only one so-far ordered into lockdown, which began yesterday.

For the next 15 days only essential services will be allowed to operate, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said, while gatherings have been limited to four people and non-essential use of public transport outlawed.

Indian medical workers in the city of Mumbai, which has been hardest-hit by the Covid second wave, prepare a body for cremation on Tuesday

Health authorities in Mumbai say hospitals are running short of key supplies including oxygen as the city is overwhelmed by a wave of Covid

But mass gatherings have continued elsewhere unabated, with thousands of Hindu devotees gathering to pray on the banks of the Ganges earlier this week during the festival of Kumbh Mela.

And in Andhra Pradesh, New Year celebrations such as pidakala samara have been allowed to go ahead with no sign of social distancing or mask wearing.

The festival traces its origins back to a mythological marriage between two deities of different castes who wished to marry, sparking a war between people of the village.

Village elders eventually resolved the dispute and the marriage was solemnised, restoring peace to Kairuppa.

Each year, the village is divided along religious and caste lines and each side lines up to hurl cow dung cakes – which are made a month ahead of time – at the other.

After the fight is over, processions are led out and village elders ritually bless the marriage of Lord Veerabhadra Swamy and Kalika Devi which is thought to bring peace, health and prosperity to the village.

Police said 100 people were injured in this year’s celebrations, though none were seriously hurt. 

Other traditional New Year celebrations in Andhra Pradesh state include leading donkeys through a pond of sludge that is poured around a temple, before washing and adorning the animals, which are then worshipped.

In total, India has reported more than 14million cases of Covid – the world’s second-highest total after the US.

The country has also recorded 173,000 deaths, the fourth highest total in the world, though experts warn that is almost certainly a gross underestimate.

It is thought that just 20 per cent of deaths in India are medically registered with an official cause of death given, with experts saying the true death toll could be two or three times the official figure. 

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