India's Taj Mahal reopens despite virus outbreak

The Taj Mahal reopens in India despite the virus outbreak

The Taj Mahal, an iconic monument of India, reopened Monday after six months of closure linked to the coronavirus, in a country which is seeking to find a certain normalcy despite the surge in contamination.

India, with 1.3 billion inhabitants, has more than 5.4 million cases of coronavirus, the second most affected country in the world after the United States, and records nearly 100,000 additional new cases every day.

But after the national confinement decreed at the end of March, released in stages since the beginning of June and which has deprived tens of millions of people of income, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hardly inclined to imitate other countries by tightening the screw again. .

On the contrary, the government is gradually loosening the grip to freshen up the economy, lifting restrictions on domestic flights, trains, markets or restaurants. And authorizing again, from Monday, the visit of the Taj Mahal closed since March 17.

Built in the 17th century in northern India, in Agra (about 180 km south of New Delhi), this white marble mausoleum is the most visited monument in the country with seven million visitors per year.

An architectural jewel of Indo-Islamic art, it was built by the Mughal Emperor Shâh Jahân in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631, and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

“All the protocols related to the COVID-19 disease, such as masks or physical distancing, will be applied”, assured the authorities by announcing its reopening a fortnight ago.

Only 5,000 visitors will be admitted each day, a quarter of the usual attendance. Entrance tickets will need to be booked online and visitors will be admitted in two time slots.

“The marking of (distancing) circles is underway, the mask will be compulsory and no one will be able to enter without checking the temperature,” Vasant Swarnkar, head of archaeological services for the monuments of Agra, told reporters.

Weariness

But these precautions are not necessarily respected everywhere in the country, in particular in rural areas where contamination is increasing.

“In India, but also around the world, weariness is setting in with the extreme measures taken to counter the advance of the coronavirus,” explains Gautam Menon, professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University who expects a increase in cases.

Many experts estimate that the number of cases in India, despite testing more than a million people every day, far exceeds official figures. The same goes for the number of deaths (more than 86,000 currently), many of which are not recorded correctly even in normal times.

There is, however, some resistance to government relaxations.

Schools resumed Monday for pupils aged 14 to 17, on a voluntary basis. But many states, such as Maharashtra and Gujarat, feel it is too early.

“The cases are still increasing rapidly,” West Bengal Education Minister Partha Chatterjee explained, “I don't see how we could reopen educational institutions now”.

Elsewhere, schools refuse to open, or parents are suspicious. “I am ready to see my son lose a school year by not going to class rather than taking the risk of sending him to school,” Nupur Bhattacharya, mother of a nine-year-old boy, told Bangalore.

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