Delhi chief minister criticised in India for claims of 'new Singapore variant' of Covid-19

Several politicians as well as other Indians have called Mr Arvind Kejriwal out for the comment.
Several politicians as well as other Indians have called Mr Arvind Kejriwal out for the comment.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has found himself widely criticised in India for his ill-informed remark suggesting a "new form of corona found in Singapore" was particularly harmful to children and could cause a third wave of infections in India.

The new variant the minister was referring to was, in fact, first found in India.

Several politicians as well as other Indians have called him out for the comment, including those who are concerned this controversy may aggravate racial tensions in Singapore and affect family members living there.

Member of Parliament Priyanka Chaturvedi tweeted on Wednesday (May 19) to say Singapore has been "a longstanding ally and has given rock-solid support to India" as it battled a devastating second wave of the pandemic.

"Many Indians have made Singapore their home. Such irresponsible and unfounded accusations without expertise or authority about the nation damages our bilateral relations," added Ms Chaturvedi, a member of Shiv Sena, a political party that is part of a coalition governing the western state of Maharashtra.

Mr Kejriwal had on Tuesday tweeted to flag his concern with the new form of "corona" found in Singapore, calling on the Indian government to cancel flights from Singapore and prioritise options for vaccinating children.

Singapore's Ministry of Health has since clarified there is no "Singapore variant". The strain that has been found to be more prevalent in many of Singapore's Covid-19 cases and affecting children more in recent weeks is the B1617 variant, which was first detected in India.

Leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including those from the government, have been especially critical of Mr Kejriwal.

Dr S. Jaishankar, the country's foreign minister, said "irresponsible comments from those who should know better can damage longstanding partnerships". "So, let me clarify - Delhi CM (Chief Minister) does not speak for India," he added in a sharp rebuke on Twitter on Wednesday.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs even tweeted that India's High Commissioner in Singapore had clarified to Singapore's Foreign Affairs Ministry that "Delhi CM had no competence to pronounce on Covid variants or civil aviation policy".

Mr Kejriwal's remarks have blown up into an acerbic political battle between the Aam Aadmi Party, which he represents, and its rival BJP, as both the parties seek to blame each other for the mismanagement of the pandemic in Delhi.

He has not commented on this issue but his party colleague and Delhi's Deputy Chief Minister Manisha Sisodia tweeted on Wednesday to say that while Mr Kejriwal was concerned about children, the BJP-led union government was worried about its ties with Singapore.

Mr Sisodia made no mention of the fact that there is no "Singapore variant" or that it is the B1617 strain that has caused concern.

Commenting on how the Indian government had last year failed to prevent the entry of a strain detected first in the United Kingdom, and which became widely prevalent in India, Mr Sisodia said: "Singapore is not the issue. The issue is the safety of our children. Today, the central government remains ignorant again about this forthcoming danger and is careless about our children's safety.

"I wish the BJP and the central government were as concerned about the country's children as they are about their image abroad," he added.

Even as this fracas went on, some Indians expressed their worry about how this controversy could lead to tensions in multiracial Singapore. There have been some recent unprovoked racist attacks, including on an Indian Singaporean woman who was assaulted this month after being shouted at for not wearing a mask while brisk walking.

Ms Namrata Joshi, a Delhi-based film writer who has close relatives living in Singapore, said she admires its "peaceful, inclusive and friendly" climate, which she has experienced on her annual holidays to the country.

"Kejriwal's comment, I feel, is not just a diplomatic disaster," she told The Straits Times. "I am concerned it could become a people-to-people animosity breeder."