Taj Mahal reopening cancelled amid record daily virus cases in India

Indian health workers collect nasal swabs in Gauhati on Saturday. (AP pic)

NEW DELHI: India’s top tourist attraction the Taj Mahal will remain shut, officials said Sunday, as the vast nation registered a record daily number of coronavirus cases and opened a sprawling treatment centre in the capital to fight the pandemic.

The health ministry reported just under 25,000 cases and 613 deaths in 24 hours – the biggest daily spike since the first case was detected in late January.

The surge took India’s total tally to more than 673,000 cases and 19,268 deaths, pulling the country closer to surpassing badly-hit Russia, the world’s third-most infected nation.

The jump in infections came as local authorities in northern Agra city said the Taj Mahal, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, would remain closed to visitors even though the national government said it had permission to reopen on Monday.

The shining marble mausoleum south of the capital New Delhi has been closed since mid-March as part of measures to try and combat the pandemic.

“The Taj Mahal, which is in the Taj Ganj police station jurisdiction, is a ‘containment zone’,” a document released by Agra’s District Magistrate Prabhu N Singh stated late Sunday.

Containment zones are where high infection rates have been detected, with all activity except essential services halted.

Other major monuments, including Agra Fort and Sikandra, the home of the tomb of Mughal emperor Akbar the Great, would also stay shut, the document said.

The Taj Mahal and other major Agra monuments are located within highly populated residential areas, many of which are categorised as containment zones.

Mega virus facility

In the capital New Delhi, medical staff started treating patients at a spiritual centre converted into a sprawling isolation facility and hospital with 10,000 beds, many made of cardboard and chemically coated to make them waterproof.

About the size of 20 football fields, the facility on the outskirts of the city will treat mild symptomatic and asymptomatic cases.

State government officials fear Delhi, home to 25 million people, could record more than half a million cases by the end of the month.

The city has repurposed some hotels to provide hospital care. It is also converting wedding halls and has several hundred modified railway coaches standing by.

A strict lockdown in place since late March has gradually been lifted, allowing most activities after the economy nose-dived during the shutdown.

But the number of cases across the vast nation of 1.3 billion people has climbed steeply.

Schools, metro trains in cities, cinemas, gyms and swimming pools remain closed and international flights are still grounded.

Authorities have made wearing masks mandatory in public places, while large gatherings are banned and shops and other public establishments are required to implement social distancing.

The western state of Maharashtra, the worst-hit state and home to financial hub Mumbai, recorded over 7,000 new cases while Southern Tamil Nadu state and Delhi recorded more than 4,200 and 2,500 fresh cases respectively.

Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capital, are the worst-affected cities.

The national government says it has tackled the virus well but critics allege India is conducting very few tests, leaving the true scale of the pandemic unknown.

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