India is currently hosting a vast COVID "superspreader" event despite having the world’s highest overall case numbers, an official has warned.
The country’s new coronavirus infections hit a record level on Wednesday and its Mumbai is set to be locked down at midnight, but hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims still went to the Kumbh Mela festival.
They gathered to bathe in the Ganges River in the northern city of Haridwar, despite an official warning the event had caused coronavirus cases to spike.
Haridwar chief medical officer S.K. Jha said infections in the city have already jumped to more than 500 a day since the celebration officially began this month, from just 25-30 last month.
A senior official in Uttarakhand state, where Haridwar is located, said: "It is already a superspreader because there is no space to test hundreds of thousands in a crammed city and the government neither has the facilities nor the manpower."
Watch: People take a dip in Ganges river for Indian festival
Police said 650,000 devotees had bathed in the river since Wednesday morning, and that people were being fined for failing to observe social distancing in some areas.
Devout Hindus believe bathing in the holy Ganges absolves people of sins, and that during the Kumbh Mela it brings salvation from the cycle of life and death.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has refused to call off the festival, which is scheduled to last the whole month, possibly fearing a backlash from religious leaders.
Jha said a COVID-testing crew had to be pulled back to avoid a “stampede-like situation” among visitors, and that he expected this to cause cases to rise when they all moved away.
Indian filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma posted a picture of devotees at the festival, tweeting: "What you are seeing is not Kumbh Mela but it's a corona atom bomb.
"I wonder who will be made accountable for this viral explosion."
Hotels around the festival have become isolation shelters for those found infected and are run by a team of 300 medical staff who conduct 40,000 random tests daily.
"We started taking in patients on April 5, and three days ago all our rooms got filled," a hotel executive said.
A doctor from the region said at least four other hotels have been turned into COVID wards.
Chhattisgarh state – one of several hinterland regions struggling with a surge in cases – set up a temporary 370-bed hospital in an indoor stadium.
India has reported 184,372 cases in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed, taking total infections to 13.9 million.
Deaths rose by 1,027, for a toll of 172,085.
After reporting less than 10,000 cases per day earlier this year, India has been the world's worst-hit country since 2 April.
The government blames a widespread failure to heed curbs on movement and social interaction among the population of 1.39 billion people.
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