Poll Position: Making sense of elections and Covid-19 numbers

Kerala’s share in the April-over-March increase in the country’s Covid-19 cases stayed virtually flat, TN’s rose by 0.9 ppts, WB’s by 2.4 ppts and UP’s, a scary 7.9 ppts

The accompanying table looks at infection information over March and April.
The accompanying table looks at infection information over March and April.

Concerns are being expressed on the huge spread of the coronavirus due to two big events—assembly elections and the Kumbh Mela. Elections have taken place in four states and one UT. Also, there were panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh, which, being a big state, involved a large number of people. The Kumbh Mela was special as it comes once in 12 years, and people rushed in, perhaps hoping for divine intervention to see them through, and when the virus turned deadly people returned to their homes. All this happened in April.

Arguments are put forth by analysts on whether or not these events actually spread the virus, with their reasoning that this would have happened anyway. The counterintuitive argument is that even where there are no elections, the spread was rapid. The case of Maharashtra is given, which accounted for 60% of the total incremental caseload in March, when there were no events.

There are also sceptics who believe the numbers are underreported as results depend on the number of people being tested. When the capability to test is limited, there will be underreporting and the picture will become grim in May when nobody would like to hide anything as election results are out. The parties that exhorted people to come to rallies all through April will probably threaten them to stay at home or face dire consequences. This is realpolitik.

The accompanying table looks at infection information over March and April. The increase in the number of confirmed cases in these months is shown and the share of various states is calculated to observe the trends. March is when there was no mela and election campaigns were on a small scale. April was the month of heightened activity where infection levels rose for sure.

The spread across states would come out here. May would probably be the month that will have a combination of both lockdowns as well as greater testing and identification of infected people, which will be known four weeks from now. Only states/UTs which have a share of above 1% in incremental cases have been included here. Goa witnessed marginal increase from 0.3% to 0.5%, while Himachal Pradesh maintained a ratio of 0.5%.

In March, Maharashtra accounted for 60% of the caseload; it went in for a lockdown that started as limited hours of operation to night curfews to finally full lockdown with only four hours of business being permitted. Kerala and Punjab have a share of above 5%, which can be attributed to NRIs coming back, carrying new strains of the virus, or the aftermath of farmers’ agitation outside Delhi during winters. Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat had shares of 3-4% each. Clearly, the problem was not widespread, and Maharashtra was the eyesore. It was alleged that social distancing norms were not followed, and the state paid a price for the same.
April was very different.

The reason for the spread across states is definitely not within the realm of economics, especially when it comes to states that were not involved with any of these big-bang events. At the national level, there was an increase in caseload by 6.4 times, which is disturbing. This multiple has some interesting observations.

The first is Maharashtra, which was the most infected state in March. It witnessed a multiple of 2.86 times in April; it means the lockdown had a major impact on the spread of the virus. In fact, the daily count did not cross the 70,000-mark this month even though it rarely went below 60,000 as the infection spread in the interiors. Not surprisingly, the share of Maharashtra came down to 26.7% in April.

Second, the northern states tended to show a higher multiple which gets reflected in higher shares in April. The Kumbh Mela typically finds more followers in the Hindi-speaking belt than the southern states, which could probably be one reason for this surge. Uttar Pradesh fared the worst in terms of number, and with a multiple of 48 had a share of 9.1% in total new infections.

Third, central India (Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh) fared better even though their shares went up as the multiple was 8.2 and 11.5, respectively.

Fourth, in states where elections were held, the picture is mixed. In Kerala, the share remained virtually flat at 6%, while for Tamil Nadu the share increased by less than 1%. For West Bengal it was an increase from 1% to 3.4%, which, though, not as scary as in Uttar Pradesh, is a concern and has to be monitored closely. Assam witnessed an increase from 0.1% to 0.5%, while it was flat at 0.2% for Puducherry.

Fifth, Gujarat and Punjab have done better with multiples of 7 and 2.35, respectively, and the curbs put in terms of lockdowns have worked to an extent in slowing down the spread.

Sixth, other southern states Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have shown some stability with multiples of less than 20. Lockdowns that restrict free movement of people would definitely help to ensure that the infection does not spread to the interiors.

Seventh, while Uttarakhand does not appear to have reached ominous levels, the government has to be careful as the Kumbh Mela originated in this state and several devotees came from the interiors which are fast catching infection. The multiple of 24 sends a warning here. Lastly, Delhi is the only state after Uttar Pradesh to increase its share in total cases by almost 5%.

On the positive side, there were nearly 40 lakh recoveries in April, of which Maharashtra had a share of 36%, followed by Delhi at 9.3%, Chhattisgarh at 6.8%, Madhya Pradesh at 4.6% and Tamil Nadu at 4.2%.

The month of May will really be crucial and local lockdowns will deliver a negative shock for business. But they may help to control the spread of the virus. Admittedly, it is a bigger challenge as the percolation is to the interiors, which are even more ill-equipped to treat patients than the urban areas that have been exposed of late. Truly, it is a grim situation, and the country has to be prepared for further shocks.

Chief Economist, CARE Ratings, and the author of ‘Hits & Misses: The Indian Banking Story’. Views are personal

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First published on: 05-05-2021 at 05:15 IST