News analysis

Elections in India intensified spread of Covid-19 pandemic's second wave

People gathering with no adherence to physical distancing norms have fanned the spread of the second wave of Covid-19 in India.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - It was a day India reported nearly 370,000 fresh coronavirus infections. Uttar Pradesh, its most populous state, was among the top four in a list of states with highest caseloads that day.

Yet, on May 2, thousands gathered and jostled at polling centres across Uttar Pradesh, where votes for recently held village council elections were being counted.

Visuals of so many people gathering with no adherence to physical distancing norms were an ominous reminder of how elections have fanned the spread of the second wave of Covid-19 in India.

Assembly elections were held in the states of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal and the union territory of Puducherry in March and April.

Of these, West Bengal went through an excruciatingly long eight-phase election between March 27 and April 29, a period when daily new cases in the state went up from around 800 to more than 17,000 now.

An analysis this week by Associate Professor Deepankar Basu, in the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, showed that the five regions with elections reported a much higher rate of increase in infections than those without.

Between March 15 and April 1, when campaigning was under way, regions with elections reported an 8.06 per cent growth in the average daily number of Covid-19 cases, compared with 5.87 in those without.

This number increased to 9.26 per cent for the former category, while it dropped slightly to 5.35 per cent for the latter between April 1 and 15. From mid-April until April 29, these figures stood at 7.99 per cent and 3.01 per cent respectively.

This difference in the trajectories of the Covid-19 outbreak in the election and non-election regions, argued Prof Basu, "lines up with the timing of the election process and provides evidence that election rallies contributed, at least in part, to the rapid rise in cases in many states".

Other analyses have also suggested a direct epidemiological causality between elections and the pandemic's spread. Professor Giridhara R. Babu, head of Life Course Epidemiology at the Public Health Foundation of India, told The Straits Times there is no reason to doubt that election rallies did aid in transmission.

"These are typically super-spreader events, with most people not wearing masks and in very crowded settings. Given the nature of how fast the current variants are spreading, it is very unlikely that they won't spread in these rallies," he said, adding that elections were, however, one among many super-spreader events.

"We simply opened up everything and each venue became a super-spreader venue, and each day saw a super spreader event," Professor Babu said.

Dates for the elections were announced by the Election Commission of India (ECI) on Feb 26, as the number of daily cases was beginning to go up. Political parties, however, paid little heed to this warning sign and organised many large rallies with minimal social distancing and very little mask-wearing.

Leaders from different parties, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, were seen at these rallies without masks.

In early April, Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma, a top leader from the Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam and also its health minister, had even said that masking was not necessary because Covid-19 was "not present" in Assam.

"Actions are more important than words. So, if role models are not wearing masks and people are happy having large crowds, then that sets in a different message that it is okay to do this," said Prof Babu.

As warnings from the ECI to respect Covid-19-appropriate behaviour went unheeded, the commission on April 22 restricted big public events, limiting political meetings to 500 people on the condition they are held in accordance with Covid-19 safety rules.

In the state of Tamil Nadu, the commission was reprimanded last month by the Madras High Court for not taking adequate action to stop big public rallies there. "Your institution is singularly responsible for the second wave of Covid-19," the court said, adding that it "should probably be booked for murder". 

The ECI has complained to the Supreme Court against these remarks.

In mid-April, the commission had turned down an appeal from Ms Banerjee urging it to merge the three remaining phases of the election in West Bengal into one. It cited numerous logistical challenges to support its decision.

A similar commitment to holding elections amid the raging pandemic was also seen in Uttar Pradesh, where the State Election Commission (SEC) organised panchayat, or village council, elections between April 15 and 29, with millions of voters involved in the exercise. The elections were meant to be held in December last year, but were put off because of the pandemic.

In February, the Allahabad High Court asked the SEC to organise them by April 30 this year. Dr Dinesh Chandra Sharma, president of the Uttar Pradeshiya Prathamik Shikshak Sangh, which represents the interests of nearly 500,000 teachers, many of whom were sent on polling duty in these elections, said cases were low when the court had issued its order.

"Had the commission gone to the court later, citing the second wave, I am sure the court would have looked into it," he told ST. His association sent a letter to the SEC and the state's chief minister on April 29 with around 700 names of teachers who had died after polling duty last month and called for the counting of votes on May 2 to be delayed by a few weeks.

On May 1, the Supreme Court allowed the counting of votes to proceed after the SEC said it had taken a decision "to go ahead" and cited adequate arrangements to ensure Covid-19-appropriate behaviour.

"But you have seen how good the arrangements were," Dr Sharma said, referring to widely shared visuals of overcrowding at counting centres on May 2.

Both the ECI and the SEC did not respond to a query from the ST.