Shoppers shrug off pandemic, pollution ahead of India's biggest festival

New Delhi (AFP) –


Crowds packed New Delhi markets on Thursday ahead of India's biggest holiday of the year, shrugging off record coronavirus cases and toxic smog in the capital.

Shoppers looking for food and last-minute gifts before the Diwali festival of lights said they were fed up with being cooped up, no matter the deadly threats around them.

New Delhi recorded 8,600 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, the highest number since the pandemic started and 85 deaths, and experts said the teeming markets could easily become "super-spreaders".

India has reported nearly 8.7 million infections, the world's second-highest caseload behind the United States, and there are fears that a Diwali surge could hit major cities across the country of 1.3 billion.

Nearly a week of "hazardous" level air pollution has only added to health fears.

Loudspeaker warnings to wear masks and maintain social distancing serenaded bargain hunters who packed the narrow lanes of Lajpat Nagar market, one of the busiest in the city of 20 million people.

- Not afraid -

Some winced in pain from swabs put up their nose as they took a Covid-19 test at an open-air centre set up in one street.

But university student Harsimran Singh said it was almost like a normal chaotic Diwali.

"I am not surprised to see the market full," he said. "We are Indians, we are not afraid of anything."

"People just don't care," said Tanisha, a 19-year-old student. "People want to come out."

"I am so bored at home that I am not scared to shop," she added.

While the 128,000 recorded pandemic fatalities in India is among the world's lowest death rates, experts worry that the number of cases -- currently about 47,000 a day -- will skyrocket in coming weeks.

Some say India could see 200,000 new cases a day during its short winter.

"Even in summer, super-spreader events with crowds of people will always pose a big risk of transmission," said K. Srinath Reddy, head of the Public Health Foundation of India.

"But this gets greatly enhanced because of the cold weather as well as the pollution."

"For a variety of reasons, (in winter) the immunity goes down, the viral susceptibility goes up, the virus survival on outside surfaces increases and we now are in great danger of all of these factors joining together," he added.

Reddy said that Diwali posed a "great danger" because of the crowds, the cold and the air pollution, which studies have linked to increased coronavirus deaths.

But the government is also desperate to reboot an economy now in recession.

Calls have been made for emergency measures to counter the pollution levels but they have yet to be introduced.

Traditional Diwali firecrackers have already been banned in the capital and other cities with hazardous air pollution, and traders say they cannot afford more losses.

"People are there but they are not spending as much," said clothes shop owner Harsh Kumar.

Even before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced one of the world's most stringent lockdowns in March, the economy was struggling with sluggish growth and record unemployment.

The government announced new measures to boost employment on Thursday, adding to $266 billion in public spending already promised to get the economy turning again.