Election rallies cancelled as India sees Omicron surge
Election rallies were cancelled in India's heartland Thursday as authorities fret over a sudden Covid surge, driven by the Omicron variant, which has seen confirmed infections nearly triple in two days.
Indian megacities Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, although without a corresponding rise in hospitalisations, but fears are growing about a spread to rural areas in coming days.
India reported 90,928 new daily COVID-19 cases on Thursday, up nearly four-fold since the start of the year, mostly from cities where health officials say the Omicron variant has overtaken Delta. The bulk of those infected have shown no or only mild symptoms and have recovered quickly at home, officials said.
Teeming crowds have thronged campaign events for next month's poll in Uttar Pradesh — the country's most populous state with over 200 million people and a pillar of support for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has traversed key cities to cut the ribbon on infrastructure projects and partake in Hindu religious rituals to boost the state government's prospects.
But with several cities imposing coronavirus curfews and health experts warning of exponential infection growth, several parties have brought their public campaigns to a halt.
"Owing to concerns over the growing number of Covid cases, all... rallies of the party have been cancelled," Ashok Singh, a spokesperson for the opposition Congress, told AFP.
The federal health ministry on Wednesday identified Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru as some of the main regions of concern, although state officials worry the disease will soon spread to the countryside where health facilities are weaker.
Kolkata, a city of about 15 million, accounted for half of the new cases in the eastern state of West Bengal until a few days ago, but cases are now rising in neighbouring districts. The state has reported one of the highest rates of infections in India.
"We are watching the situation in the districts and rural belts where the numbers are also growing," said Ajay Chakraborty, director of the West Bengal health services who has isolated himself at home after contracting the virus.
Another opposition group said it had switched to virtual campaigning while the BJP cancelled a rally planned for Thursday in Noida, a satellite city of the capital New Delhi that has seen a spate of new cases.
Party spokesman Manish Shukla denied the virus was the reason for calling off the Noida event -- where Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, seen as a potential Modi successor, was set to appear.
"It was cancelled due to some other technical reason," he told AFP, without giving further detail.
But recent electioneering has sparked concern in some quarters of the BJP.
"Imposing curfew in the night and calling (hundreds of thousands) of people in rallies during the day - this is beyond the comprehension of the common man," party lawmaker Varun Gandhi tweeted last week.