Bengal Polls: Vote Do Aur Jaan Bhi, With COVID Surge & Low Testing
Since the beginning of the elections, daily new COVID-19 cases in the state have grown over 1,300%.
(Editor's Note: Since this video was recorded, the number of new daily COVID-19 cases in West Bengal has increased 13 times or 1,300 percent since the first phase of the state elections on 27 March. On 21 April, there were 10,784 new cases of COVID-19 in the state.)
The West Bengal Assembly elections have been stretched out over eight phases, spanning a month, from 27 March to 29 April. As of 22 April, six phases of this election have concluded. During this time, the state saw massive election rallies by all the contenders in the electoral fray – the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Sanjukta Morcha (consisting of the Congress, the Left and the newly formed Indian Secular Front).
All these rallies had one thing in common. They were congregations of thousands, sometimes lakhs of people, most without masks and any semblance of social distancing. Maybe that is why, since the election began and the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, Bengal has seen a surge in coronavirus cases. And the real numbers may be far worse than what we are seeing now.
Low Testing Amidst 1,300% Daily Surge Since Beginning of Elections
When the West Bengal elections began on 27 March, the state saw 812 new COVID-19 cases in 24 hours. By the end of the fifth phase on 17 April, this number stood at 7,713 – almost 8 times more.
This surge continued over the next few days, with the total number of new cases in 24 hours crossing the 10,000-mark on 21 April.
These numbers may not seem large when one compares to other affected states like Maharashtra, Delhi, or Gujarat, but that comparison does not hold because Bengal is, on a daily basis, testing less than half the number of people that these states are testing.
As of 17 April, Bengal was testing only about 47,000 people a day. On 21 April, it tested around 50,000-odd people.
On the same day, Delhi (a Union territory, and not even a full state) tested 78,000, and Maharashtra tested 2.72 lakh people.
Even states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, almost the same size as West Bengal, tested almost double – at 1.12 lakh and 1.5 lakh respectively.
Therefore, the real numbers in Bengal may be a lot more than projected now. With COVID protocols going for a toss due to the elections, the number of cases may multiply at a higher rate as well.
What Our Netas Did...Or Did Not Do... to Tackle the Crisis
COVID-19 ceased to be a topic of discussion for leaders and political parties contesting in this election. As a consequence, it stopped being an issue in the minds of the voters as well.
While mass rallies, held by the likes of the prime minister, home minister, and chief minister, no less, were a bad idea to begin with, what was worse is that they didn't stop even after the second wave was declared.
Instead, politicking ruled the roost when these leaders were questioned about the same.
Home Minister Amit Shah, when asked by a local TV channel if mass rallies should be held during a pandemic, dismissed the topic completely. “You wouldn’t be asking this question if the BJP was not winning,” he told the reporter. Similarly, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, said that Bengal had “no corona” and that the present surge was caused by “outsiders” that the BJP has brought to the state for election campaigns.
On 17 April, as the number of new daily cases in the state set a new record, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a rally in Asansol, said that "there were people till as far as his eyes could see". He congratulated those attending the rally for the same.
After public criticism, all parties have announced certain curbs in their campaign plans, but given the enormity of the situation, they seem to be too little.
For example, Mamata Banerjee, on 18 April, announced that she will not be holding any more rallies in Kolkata and that her rallies in other places will be restricted to less than 30 minutes.
It is not clear how the reduced duration of the rallies or just giving Kolkata a miss will help bring down infections. Especially when all other leaders of the TMC are still campaigning as they were.
Similarly, the BJP has announced that it will only allow 500 people in its election rallies. However, ground experience tells all of us that such restrictions are almost impossible to implement. The prime minister has four such rallies scheduled in the state on 23 April.
Congress' Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, who just held one rally in the state this election season, has announced that he will not be conducting any more.
The Left Front was the first party in the state to suspend all its big campaigns. They announced that they'd focus on digital campaigns and small door-to-door campaigns.
The Apathy of the Election Commission
While political parties dilly-dallying on campaign restrictions is understandable, the Election Commission (EC), thought to be a neutral, nodal body, has not stood by the voters either.
After being pulled up by the Calcutta High Court, the EC held an all-party meet to discuss COVID protocols during campaigns. After the meeting, the Commission announced a ban on rallies...but only between 7 pm and 10 am!
The EC also refused another significant demand raised by political parties and citizens alike. After the fourth phase of the elections on 10 April, it was suggested that the remaining four phases be clubbed into one.
This idea was opposed by the BJP and, surprisingly, also by the Left Front. The TMC supported the proposition and has since written multiple times to the EC to consider it. The EC has said that such a change is schedule will "not be feasible."
Detractors also say that the TMC is asking for a shortened election now because it is strong in most of the seats that are yet to go to polls.
In short, most parties opposed a shortened election, and the one that supported it, did not do it in your interest. However, one of them will govern the state come 2 May...probably as you contract COVID on your way to the polling booth!
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