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India's festive season spawns fears of renewed virus surge

Just weeks after India fully opened up from a harsh lockdown and began to modestly turn a corner by cutting new coronavirus infections by near half, a Hindu festival season is raising fears that a fresh surge could spoil the hard-won gains.

“I’d be very worried about what we are going to see in India,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health and a leading infectious disease expert.

The festivals draw tens and thousands of people, packed together shoulder-to-shoulder in temples, shopping districts and family gatherings, leading to concerns among health experts who warn of a whole new cascade of infections, further testing and straining India’s battered health care system.

People wait to leave as it rains after shopping at a wholesale flower market ahead of the Hindu festival of Dussehra, in Bengaluru, India, Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. Weeks after India fully opened up from a harsh lockdown and began to modestly turn a corner by cutting new infections by near half, a Hindu festival season is raising fears that the disease could spoil the hard-won gains. Health experts worry the festivals can set off a whole new cascade of infections, further testing and straining India’s battered health care system. (AP PhotoAijaz Rahi)

The Hindu festival season is traditionally laced with an unmatched fanfare and extravaganza, with socializing being the hallmark of the celebration. But this year's festivities have started on a pale note.

So far, the colorful and elaborate rituals for Durga Puja and Dussehra have been scaled down. The celebrations, bereft of all the grandiose, have been muted. The towering displays of religious sculptures are rare, and at many places, prayers have gone virtual, with organizers livestreaming the sessions for the devotees.

In many states, police barricades have been erected around the usually buzzing places of worship to avoid large gatherings.

Effigies of mythical demon king Ravana stand for sale by the side of a road ahead of the Hindu festival of Dussehra, in New Delhi, India, Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. Weeks after India fully opened up from a harsh lockdown and began to modestly turn a corner by cutting new infections by near half, a Hindu festival season is raising fears that the disease could spoil the hard-won gains. Health experts worry the festivals can set off a whole new cascade of infections, further testing and straining India’s battered health care system. (AP PhotoManish Swarup)

But this could change.

Nearly 1 billion Indians will soon celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, and the country’s biggest. Socializing is key part of the most highly anticipated event of the year, with malls and markets buzzing with shoppers. It also traditionally brings in a massive increase in consumer spending across India.

Even though the government is expecting the festival to help resuscitate the ailing economy, it is also worried about people packing together, foregoing social distancing and masks.

Effigies of mythical demon king Ravana stand for sale by the side of a road ahead of Hindu festival Dussehra, in New Delhi, India, Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. So far, the colorful and elaborate rituals in the festival season have been scaled down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The celebrations have become muted. The towering displays of religious sculptures are rare, and at many places, prayers have gone virtual, with organizers live streaming the sessions for the devotees. (AP PhotoManish Swarup)

Such concerns prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address the nation in a televised speech earlier this week, warning people of “any laxity” during the festive season that "could strain India’s health system.”

India is second to the United States with the largest coronavirus outbreak. Last month, the country hit a peak of nearly 100,000 cases in a single day, but since then daily infections have fallen by about half and deaths by about a third.

Some experts say the decline in cases suggests the virus may have finally reached a plateau but others question the testing methods. India's testing rate has remained constant but it is relying heavily on antigen tests, which are faster but less accurate than traditional RT-PCR tests.

A woman holds a child as she stands in queue to offer prayers at Bhadrakali temple during Navratri, or festival of nine nights, in Ahmedabad, India, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. Weeks after India fully opened up from a harsh lockdown and began to modestly turn a corner by cutting new infections by near half, a Hindu festival season is raising fears that the disease could spoil the hard-won gains. Health experts worry the festivals can set off a whole new cascade of infections, further testing and straining India’s battered health care system. (AP PhotoAjit Solanki)

Even as the reasons behind the decline are not fully clear, India is still clocking more than 50,000 cases a day, making any new surge all the more important.

These fears stem largely from India's initial success story — until it wasn't.

In June, the southern coastal state of Kerala was cheered for flattening the curve, generating worldwide appreciation, even from the United Nations. But in a stunning reversal, it now fares as the second-worst state in active coronavirus cases in the country.

Volunteers pack prasad, or devotional offering made to a deity typically consisting of food that is later shared among devotees, to be sent to the homes of devotees in an effort to prevent large gatherings at the temple during the Durga Puja festival in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. Weeks after India fully opened up from a harsh lockdown and began to modestly turn a corner by cutting new infections by near half, a Hindu festival season is raising fears that the disease could spoil the hard-won gains. Health experts worry the festivals can set off a whole new cascade of infections, further testing and straining India’s battered health care system. (AP PhotoManish Swarup)

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan blamed “gross negligence” during the 10-day Onam festival celebrations in late August for Kerala's virus surge. Since then, reported infections there have jumped by five times, far outpacing the nationwide trend.

Kerala’s story has alarmed health experts who fear similar problems in the runup to Diwali that could reverse the gains.

“If we don’t avoid socializing during the upcoming festival season, I fear we will be back to where we started,“ said Dr. T. Jacob John, a retired virologist. “There is a significant risk ahead of us.”

A flower vendor stands with a bunch of garlands for sale as shoppers walk past at a wholesale flower market ahead of the Hindu festival of Dussehra, in Bengaluru, India, Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. Weeks after India fully opened up from a harsh lockdown and began to modestly turn a corner by cutting new infections by near half, a Hindu festival season is raising fears that the disease could spoil the hard-won gains. Health experts worry the festivals can set off a whole new cascade of infections, further testing and straining India’s battered health care system. (AP PhotoAijaz Rahi)

For the many faithful, scaled-down celebrations aren't bringing home festival cheer and the urge to step out is only growing.

Sumita Chaterjee’s family has avoided outdoor gatherings for months after the 64-year-old resident of New Delhi and her granddaughter survived the virus in late June.

But now the family is planning to forego the restraint and take part in a ritual where the idol of goddess Durga will be immersed in a community pool on Sunday. The entire neighborhood is expected to take part in the ritual.

A boy checks his mobile phone as his sister and brother sit by a deserted worship venue for Durga Puja festival in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. The Hindu festival of Durga Puja, a time for devotional dancing in front of the idols of Goddess Durga, the eight-arms deity worshipped for her graciousness as well as her fearsome power, is bereft of all the grandiose that accompanies the rituals because of the coronavirus pandemic. There are no majestic idols, fairs, or cultural performances either. (AP PhotoManish Swarup)

Associated Press journalists Annirudha Ghosal and Rishi Lekhi contributed to this report.

Devotees offer prayers during Durga Puja festival in Gauhati, India, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. Weeks after India fully opened up from a harsh lockdown and began to modestly turn a corner by cutting new infections by near half, a Hindu festival season is raising fears that the disease could spoil the hard-won gains. Health experts worry the festivals can set off a whole new cascade of infections, further testing and straining India’s battered health care system. (AP PhotoAnupam Nath)

FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, file photo, Indians, wearing face mask and maintaining physical distance, participate in religious rituals during Navratri festival celebrations in Ahmedabad, India. Weeks after India fully opened up from a harsh lockdown and began to modestly turn a corner by cutting new infections by near half, a Hindu festival season is raising fears that the disease could spoil the hard-won gains. Health experts worry the festivals can set off a whole new cascade of infections, further testing and straining India’s battered health care system. (AP PhotoAjit Solanki, File)

FILE- In this Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, file photo, Hindu women, some wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, perform rituals outside a temple in Kolkata, India. Weeks after India fully opened up from a harsh lockdown and began to modestly turn a corner by cutting new infections by near half, a Hindu festival season is raising fears that the disease could spoil the hard-won gains. Health experts worry the festivals can set off a whole new cascade of infections, further testing and straining India’s battered health care system. (AP PhotoBikas Das, File)

FILE- In this Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, file photo, devout Hindus wearing masks as a precaution against the coronavirus stand in a queue to offer prayers at the Vindhyavasini temple in Mirzapur in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The Hindu festival season that draws tens and thousands of people, packed together shoulder-to-shoulder in temples, shopping districts and congregations, has lead to fears and a sense of foreboding among health experts who warn of a whole new cascade of infections, further testing India’s already battered healthcare system. The fears of such a prospect, in fact, prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address the nation in a televised speech earlier this week. Pointing to Western countries, he appealed to Indians not to lower their guard during the festive season and warned people of “any laxity” that "could strain India’s health system.” (AP PhotoRajesh Kumar Singh, File)

Indians crowd a wholesale market ahead of the Hindu festival of Dussehra in New Delhi, India, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. Just weeks after the country of 1.4 billion people fully opened up with a far greater semblance of normality and managed to modestly turn a corner by cutting the new infections by near half, a virus that has killed more than 118,000 Indians and sickened nearly 8 million is expected to return with a renewed surge. The reason: a Hindu festival season that draws tens and thousands of people, packed together shoulder-to-shoulder in temples, shopping districts and congregations, leading to fears and a sense of foreboding among health experts who warn of a whole new cascade of infections, further testing India’s already battered healthcare system. (AP PhotoAltaf Qadri)

Indians crowd a wholesale market ahead of the Hindu festival of Dussehra in New Delhi, India, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. The Hindu festival season that draws tens and thousands of people, packed together shoulder-to-shoulder in temples, shopping districts and congregations, has lead to fears and a sense of foreboding among health experts who warn of a whole new cascade of infections, further testing India’s already battered healthcare system. The fears of such a prospect, in fact, prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address the nation in a televised speech earlier this week. Pointing to Western countries, he appealed to Indians not to lower their guard during the festive season and warned people of “any laxity” that "could strain India’s health system.” (AP PhotoAltaf Qadri)