ECI needs to be prudent on ‘polls during pandemic’ talk

By: |
November 7, 2020 5:00 AM

CEC says Bihar polls a template for elections in Covid-19 times, but similar gatherings linked to spurts in transmission

The ECI needs to bear in mind that Covid-19 trends in the US reflect poll-linked Covid-19 surge; indeed, a study by Stanford University researchers links nearly 30,000 new cases and 700 deaths to Donald Trump’s rallies.The ECI needs to bear in mind that Covid-19 trends in the US reflect poll-linked Covid-19 surge; indeed, a study by Stanford University researchers links nearly 30,000 new cases and 700 deaths to Donald Trump’s rallies.

The Election Commission of India’s (ECI’s) regulation of polls is exemplary in many ways. But, how it has gone about conducting pandemic-time polls may not prove to be in that tradition; indeed, chief election commissioner Sunil Arora’s boast that the Bihar Assembly elections could be a template for the election management bodies of other democracies could prove quite premature. In India, as also abroad, events that involved gathering of people—even routine things such as reopening of schools—have proved to be Covid-19 super-spreaders.

As this newspaper has pointed out before, the decision to ease some of the original restrictions on campaigning and rallies by political leaders seems to have been the undoing of the Covid-19 crowd management strategy for the polls. Allowing virtually gatherings of any size in outdoor venues and 200 persons in indoor ones, allowing larger fleets of vehicles on the campaign trail, etc, ensured that all distancing norms collapsed. This was evident in the packed rallies of parties across the political spectrum—from the RJD (Tejashwi Yadav’s) to the BJP’s (prime minister Narendra Modi’s). Ironically, Modi had exhorted the nation, in the run-up to the festival season and the polls, to maintain ‘do gaz ki doori’ (a distance of six feet). Against such a backdrop, the fact that Bihar slowed down testing in the run-up to the elections indicates that the true picture on new infections could be still eluding us. At end-September, Bihar was running nearly 1.7 lakh tests daily; but, while campaign momentum was nearing its peak, testing dropped to the 1-lakh-and-below level right up to October 20-21. It has since increased, though steady at 1.3-1.4 lakh per day, but is still averaging significantly lower from a month-ago period. This, and the likelihood that it has continued its reliance on the less-effective rapid antigen tests (RAT) (as an earlier analysis by FE showed, nearly 90% of the tests in the state were RAT), could be the reason why the state is reporting lower daily new infections. That wider testing is key to detecting cases is evident from the fact that states like Delhi and Kerala have reported sharp upward movement in cases detected as they expanded testing.

Maharashtra and Kerala both reported a spurt in cases after Ganesh Chaturthi and Onam celebrations, respectively. Indeed, in the run-up to the Durga Puja celebrations in West Bengal, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan had cited Kerala’s example to caution the masses on the need for distancing and other measures to curb Covid-19 transmission. Even the Kolkata High Court intervened, virtually putting the Puja’s public-festival orientation in a straitjacket. Despite that, infections in the state are showing a post-festival spurt; on Friday, West Bengal had a positivity rate of 8.7% compared to 8% a month earlier. Pre-festival commercial and social activity, as well as Puja-time gathering despite the restrictions on pandals, could have contributed to this. The ECI needs to bear in mind that Covid-19 trends in the US reflect poll-linked Covid-19 surge; indeed, a study by Stanford University researchers links nearly 30,000 new cases and 700 deaths to Donald Trump’s rallies. Against such a backdrop, Arora could have certainly been more circumspect before patting himself on the back so hastily—at the very least, he could have been more measured while talking about critics of the ECI’s poll-related decisions; as per The Indian Express, he called them “cynics” with “doomsday predictions”.

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