Hit with a second wave of infections, the country has become the new coronavirus hotspot

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ON APRIL 12th and 14th more than 4m people bathed in the waters of the Ganges at Haridwar in northern India. Both were auspicious days for a “shahi snan”, or “holy dip”, a ritual part of the triennial Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival. This year’s may be brought to a close before its scheduled climax on April 27th. The festival coincides with India’s emergence as the centre of the global covid-19 pandemic. Rules such as compulsory masks and social-distancing are in place, but widely flouted. “The faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus,” said Tirath Singh Rawat, chief minister of the state of Uttarakhand.

India’s capacity for mass piety constantly surprises. But so does covid-19. The speed with which it is roaring back in India is staggering. On March 1st, the number of new cases reported was around 12,000. By April 1st it was more than 80,000. On April 13th, it was about 185,000. Testing in rural areas is almost non-existent, so the official tally of cases is likely to be a drastic undercount. Even so, India now eclipses America and Brazil, the two next most afflicted countries, in terms of new infections. (Though, controlling for population, confirmed cases are still nearly twice as prevalent in America and three times as prevalent in Brazil.)

Of India’s 28 states, Maharashtra, the richest, has been worst affected, with 63,000 new infections reported on April 11th alone. But the problem is nationwide. A big producer of vaccines, India is rolling out a mass-vaccination campaign. More than 100m doses have been dispensed. It is administering more than 3m a day. But experts say that flattening the infection curve in a country of 1.4bn would take around 10m daily jabs.

It does not help that the current wave appears to be powered by more virulent strains of covid-19. Genetic sequencing of virus samples from the state of Punjab in March found that 80% of patients there were infected with the fast-spreading B.1.1.7 strain first detected in Britain last year. Other worrying variants have emerged, including one in Maharashtra dubbed the “double mutant”. Happily, India’s capacity to test for and treat the disease is also growing rapidly. Yet labs and hospital beds are concentrated in India’s largest metropolises. Local lockdowns are in place in some parts of India, and in Maharashtra tough curfew-like restrictions were imposed on April 13th until the end of the month. But with big extended families, cramped living spaces and mass religious gatherings, India does not take easily to social-distancing. Nor do its politicians. It is always election season, and the pandemic has not stopped campaigning—this week the prime minister, Narendra Modi, has been among the politicians speaking to big rallies in the state of West Bengal.

Luckily for India, its death rates from covid-19 appear relatively low, even allowing for significant undercounting. That is probably in part because its population is relatively youthful and thus less susceptible to the disease. Diet, climate and previous exposure to pathogens may also play a role. But there is also a natural lag of several weeks between infections and deaths, so fatalities are likely to rise substantially later this month. The pandemic’s second wave in India will get worse before it gets better.