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Diwali: India's festive mood raises fears of surge of coronavirus

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A man wearing a face mask sells sheaves of rice used to perform rituals during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, in Kolkata, India, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.
A man wearing a face mask sells sheaves of rice used to perform rituals during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, in Kolkata, India, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Bikas Das
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India's overall tally of new coronavirus cases remained steady on Saturday, but officials were watching a surge of cases in the capital that comes as people socialize during the festival season.

New Delhi has seen a spike in recent weeks, recording more new cases than any other Indian state. The rising numbers coincide with a busy festival season nationwide, with millions celebrating Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, on Saturday.

Health experts warn of crowded festival celebrations causing a virus resurgence that batters India’s health care system.

India's Health Ministry reported 44,684 new positive cases in the past 24 hours and 520 deaths. Of those, 7,802 new cases were reported in New Delhi, with 91 deaths.

India’s has seen 8.7 million infections since the pandemic began — the second-most in the world — but daily new infections have been on the decline from the middle of September. The county has also seen more than 129,000 virus deaths.

COVID-19 beds in government-run hospitals are nearly full and the availability of intensive care unit beds with ventilator support in the city has reached an all-time low, according to the government data. The New Delhi government has said that cases are projected to rise to nearly 12,000 daily by the end of November.

India's festival season this year started on a subdued note with Dussehra celebrations last month, but traders said people were now coming out of homes and were flocking to shopping areas in key Indian cities, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Lucknow and Patna, ahead of Diwali.

The crowds filling shopping areas have raised hopes of India's distressed business community after months of lockdown losses but also spawning fears of a massive coronavirus upsurge.

Among the millions of shoppers, a large number of people were seen ignoring masks and social distancing norms in major Indian cities and towns.

In upscale areas, authorities and traders authorities have put up coronavirus protocols in place, but the crush of people waiting to get in was a major cause of concern for traders. There are announcements over the public address systems to wear masks and maintain safe distance.

In neighboring Nepal, another predominant Hindu nation, people appear to have responded better to a government appeal to celebrate the festival indoors and only with immediate family and avoid large gatherings or public celebrations.

Many areas in the Himalayan state have prohibited the tradition of "Deusi-Bhailo” where groups of girls and boys go to their neighbor’s houses to sing and dance and in return get money and sweets. The festival is spread over five days in Nepal with different days for worshipping the crows, gods, cows and brothers.