Mumbai: Between announcement and final results, active Covid-19 infections in six states that held elections amidst a virulent second wave grew at more than double the national average over the same period, according to an Article 14 analysis.
Infections in Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh (UP) grew at an average of 4,345% compared to 2,012% nationally between 27 March and 29 April, our analysis of coronavirus data sourced from state government bulletins and databases like Covid19 India showed. Elections were held over this period to state assemblies in five states; UP held elections to its 58,159 village panchayats or councils.
Active cases in all six states had declined by between 14% and 64% between January and February, a monthly analysis starting January showed, even as cases grew nationally.
The Election Commission had announced poll dates for Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal on 26 February, and the UP election commission announced panchayat polls on 26 March. Counting of votes for all the six states happened on 2 May.
Our analysis revealed:
Of the six states, the highest increase was seen in Assam, where active cases rose by 8,893%.
This was followed by Puducherry, where active cases rose by 5291% and UP, where active cases rose by 4,978%.
West Bengal, which saw an eight-phase campaign, saw an 3,455% increase in active cases.
However, in West Bengal districts which saw five or more rallies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi or chief minister Mamata Banerjee in April, active cases, on average, increased by 6,459%.
Of the six states, four—Kerala, Tamil Nadu, UP and West Bengal—are currently among 10 states with the highest number of active cases across the country, according to Covid19India.org, a volunteer-driven database.
As we said, all the six states reported declines in active cases over the first two months of 2021.
For instance, in West Bengal, there were 5,868 active cases on 27 January, which, in a month, fell by 43% to 3,333 active cases on 27 February. A similar trend was evident in UP, where active cases fell 66% over the same period.
The decline in these states came even as new infections were growing at a pace of 5% nationwide.
The trend altered in February. Nationally, active cases grew by 278% between 27 February and 1 April. In UP, too, active cases grew at 455%, while in Tamil Nadu, cases rose by 322% in the same period.
The Bengal Story
In West Bengal, active cases had nearly doubled from 3,333 on 27 February to 6513 on 1 April.
By 18 April, Bengal had over 49,000 active cases, an increase of 1,389% since when polls were announced.
Elections here had seen heavy-duty campaigning by all parties, who organised large public meetings and roadshows with no evidence of safety protocols.
In April alone, Banerjee held at least 34 public meetings, while Modi held 13.
There were five West Bengal districts with five or more meetings by Modi and Banerjee—North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Hooghly, Purba Bardhaman and Nadia.
Article 14 found that the average increase in active cases in these districts between the end of February and 2 May was 6,459%, nearly double the average increase in the state, according to WB state government data.
For instance, while active cases in the state grew 3,455%, in Hooghly, which saw 5 meetings by Banerjee and 1 by Modi, active cases rose by 6,915%, from 80 cases on 27 February to 5,612 cases on 2 May.
In Nadia district, where Banerjee held three meetings and Modi two, active cases rose by 9,607%, from 54 to 5,242.
In North 24 Parganas, a district with one of the highest caseloads in West Bengal, active cases increased from 954 in February to 23,300 on 2 May, an increase of 1,588%.
Throwing Caution To Wind
As election campaigns rolled on across the six states, the country’s coronavirus cases showed a clear upward trend.
According to Covid19india.org, the seven-day average of new infections crept up from nearly 15,500 cases in the beginning of March to over 65,000 cases on 1 April. In a week, the average reached 100,000 cases, but political parties offered little recognition of the rising cases.
In the worst-hit state of Assam, then health minister and now Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in a 3 April interview with The Lallantop, said there was no need to wear masks in Assam.
Reminded about the Centre’s insistence on following Covid-appropriate behaviour, Sarma said: “In the context of Assam, Covid doesn’t exist today. So, why create unnecessary panic? When it happens, I’ll tell people to wear masks.”
Data analysed by Article 14 shows that by 1 April active cases in Assam had nearly doubled to 537 from 273 on 27 February.
In West Bengal, chief minister Mamata Banerjee acknowledged rising coronavirus infections but blamed it on out-of-state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers. On 16 April, Banerjee alleged that the BJP was “bringing outsiders—people from Gujarat and Rajasthan,” who were causing the spike.
On 9 April, home minister Amit Shah, unmasked, conducted a crowded roadshow in Kolkata’s Bhawanipore area with supporters packing the streets. Talking to a Republic World correspondent from atop a van, Shah said: “See, this crowd you can see, be it in North or South Bengal, Jungle Mahal or Sunderbans, Kolkata or Siliguri, everywhere you can see such enormous crowds (in BJP rallies).”
When the camera person did not pan over the crowd, Shah chastised him: “Peeche dikhao, bhaiya.” Show the crowds at the back.
“These crowds tell you that the entire Bengal is standing with the BJP…You should show these visuals on your channel,” said Shah.
In later interviews, he deflected questions over mass gatherings amid the virus surge to the EC, and blamed the criticism on “vested interests”.
In an interview to the Indian Express on 18 April, Shah said it was “not right” to link the surge to the polls. “Is there an election in Maharashtra? It has 60,000 cases while here (in Bengal), it is 4,000,” he said.
“Which are the states where elections took place?” said Shah. “And those that didn’t have any election have witnessed the surge. How do you explain that?”
He went on to repeat similar claims in interviews to Times Now and CNN-IBN.
The Election Commission’s Inaction
On 9 April, the EC reportedly sent an “advisory” to political parties, urging them to comply with Covid-appropriate behaviour “in all seriousness”, and warned it would ban campaigns that violate norms of mask-wearing, use of sanitisers and physically-distanced events.
On 16 April, the EC restricted political campaigning to 7 pm from 10 pm previously and extended the “silence period” of no campaigning to three days before voting day from the existing two day period.
But on 27 April, after campaigning was over, an EC statement said that while it had “directed all to adhere” to Covid-19 measures, local governments were responsible for the “enforcement of Covid-19 measures... assigned to the state disaster management authority”.
This inaction is now being questioned.
On 12 May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that “political mass gatherings which increased social mixing” in India were one of the “several potential contributing factors” driving the increase in coronavirus infections and deaths in the country. could have contributed to the surge in coronavirus infections in India. A day earlier, on 11 May, the Allahabad High Court blamed the EC, higher courts and the government for allowing packed election events, failing “to fathom the disastrous consequences” of holding polls amid the pandemic.
Even as the campaign was winding down, on 26 April, the Madras High Court said the Election Commission was “singularly responsible” for the second wave. Pointing to the EC’s failure to enforce Covid-appropriate measures in electioneering events, like facemasks, sanitisers and physical distancing, a two-judge bench said:. “Were you on another planet when the election rallies were held? Your officers should be booked on murder charges probably.”
Giridhara Babu, MBBS, an epidemiologist at the Public Health Foundation of India, said while it was difficult to pinpoint the exact effect of crowded campaign events on the spread of the virus, mass-gatherings “of any kind, be it political, religious or social” were “perfect and fertile ground” for the spread of the virus.
“Any crowd will facilitate faster transmission of the virus. Especially if there is no lockdown, it will be like a chain reaction,” said Babu. “They will get infected in a super-spreader event and they will continue to infect multiple people who will transmit to others. So, it will become a chain reaction, starting from that one-point source of the super-spreader event.”
Babu warned that low testing in states might ensure the true extent of infection might never be captured. For instance, in Bengal, state government data indicate that testing has remained low over the four months to May. When polls were announced on 27 February, Bengal conducted 20,013 tests, which went up marginally to 25,766 tests by 1 April. On 2 May, the state conducted 56,209 tests.
A comparison of this data, Babu said, indicated that “probably during the polls, people were busy, no review was being done and not enough tests were being done.”
“That is why, the cases detected were also probably low(er),” said Babu.
(Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)