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India’s First Election During COVID-19 Pandemic: Experts Point Out Worrying Signs In Bihar

While the government maintains there is no sense of panic in Bihar over the disease, experts say the number of daily cases is still high.
A health worker collects a swab sample from a man for coronavirus testing, at Gardiner Hospital, on August 26, 2020 in Patna.
A health worker collects a swab sample from a man for coronavirus testing, at Gardiner Hospital, on August 26, 2020 in Patna.

The political campaign in Bihar, which will be the first state in India to hold assembly elections since the Covid-19 outbreak, began in earnest last week with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar holding a virtual rally and the Congress organising a virtual meeting in East and West Champaran districts.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also inaugurated three petroleum sector projects on Sunday via video conferencing and praised Kumar for ushering in ‘sushasan’ (good governance).

The campaign is picking up steam even as coronavirus cases in the state keep rising. The state has reported over 1.6 lakh cases so far, with 836 deaths. For the past two weeks, Bihar has been reporting more than 1,500-odd cases a day.

While the government maintains that there is no sense of panic in Bihar over the disease, the number of daily cases in the state continues to be a worrying sign. Experts told HuffPost India that panic in the state could be less because the recovery rate is high, but they pointed out that the state’s number of tests per million is still low. Another point of worry is that while Bihar has massively ramped up testing since the initial months, these are mostly antigen tests, which have a higher probability of false negatives.

With the elections due before the end of November, experts also said that no improvement in rate of transmission of virus is likely by then.

According to a government update, the recovery rate of Covid patients has touched more than 90% in the state and the testing capacity has crossed 1 lakh per day. During his rally last week, Nitish Kumar said that 11,350 RT-PCR tests are being done on a daily basis and the government intends to increase it to 20,000 a day. RT-PCR tests, which take longer to process results than antigen tests, are considered the gold standard, but Kumar’s count suggests that the state still has a long way to go to catch up to the number of antigen tests it’s conducting.

Last week, the central government reiterated that states should compulsorily conduct RT-PCR retests on all symptomatic individuals whose antigen tests give a negative result.

Indian Medical Association (Bihar) secretary Dr Sunil Kumar told HuffPost India that the recovery rate in Bihar is good and if people properly follow rules — wearing masks and maintaining social distancing — there’s no need to panic.

Dr. Vikash R Keshri, public health and health policy expert, however, said that while Bihar is doing well in terms of tests per day, its figures for tests per million could improve as other states — Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka — are testing a much higher proportion of people per million per day.

According to The Wire’s Covid-19 tracker, Bihar’s tests per million stands at around 37,322. The number of Covid-19 tests per million in the national capital is over one lakh and Andhra Pradesh’s number is around 82,000.

Bihar is, however, being lauded for being ahead of other states in several parameters (see here and here). Hindustan Times pointed out that the state’s test positivity rate was the lowest at 0.9% and the growth rate for Covid-19 cases in the state is also the lowest at 1.3%.

Opposition leaders, however, have questioned the government’s data and the use of antigen tests, with former Union minister Yashwant Sinha accusing the Nitish Kumar government of “suppressing Covid data”. Sinha last month said that the state government was hiding the number of Covid cases for political reasons, according to The Times of India.

Manoj Kumar Jha of the Rashtriya Janata Dal told Frontline that most of these tests are rapid antigen tests. He added that even if the government numbers of high recovery and low death rate are right, the problem on the ground remains serious because facilities for institutional care remain abysmally poor.

With the state preparing for elections now, Keshri warned that with its high population density, poor socio-economic indicators and weak health systems infrastructure, Bihar cannot afford to lower the guard.

Opposition parties have also expressed concerns over the timing of the polls. The Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) last month sought postponement of polls. Congress leader Akhilesh Prasad Singh said that the situation in Bihar was not conducive for Assembly elections.

Rashtravadi Janata Party has filed a plea in the Supreme Court, seeking postponement of the polls due to Covid-19 and flood situation in the state. The top court had on 28 August dismissed a similar plea, saying that the Election Commission “will consider everything before taking any decision”.

Even BJP ally Lok Janshakti Party wrote to the Election Commission in July, saying that the priority now should be saving people’s lives and not holding the elections. The party said that the pandemic has already acquired dangerous proportions and experts believe that it is likely to be more severe by October-November, according to PTI.

Keshri said that while it’s difficult to predict with certainty if the situation will improve by November, considering the biological nature of coronavirus, it is unlikely to go away.

He added that November is the beginning of winter season in Bihar, which is the flu season as well. “We shouldn’t expect much improvement in infectivity or rate of transmission of virus in November. Looking at the example of Delhi, where a resurgence in the number of cases is observed, lowering the guard is definitely not the best option at this time.”

Election Commission guidelines

The Election Commission’s broad guidelines for the conduct of elections during Covid-19 include thermal scanning of voters at the entrance and mandatory wearing of face masks.

The guidelines, issued last month, also said if the temperature of a voter is higher than the set norms of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare at first reading, then it will be checked twice. If the temperature remains high, the voter will be provided with a token/certificate and asked to come for voting in the last hour of polling. Voters will also be provided with gloves for signing on the voter register and pressing the EVM button.

The commission also issued guidelines for campaigning ahead of the polls. For door-to-door campaigns, a group of five persons including candidates and excluding security personnel, is allowed.

Public gatherings and rallies are also allowed, subject to adherence to Covid-19 guidelines.

Political parties are likely to adopt different strategies for campaigning. Bihar’s deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi told Hindustan Times in an interview last week that over 70% of BJP’s campaign will be physical.

RJD, meanwhile, has started holding meetings in small groups. “We had pointed out the issue to the Election commission of India and urged it to allow a level playing ground to all parties. Our party is not that resourceful and neither are its voters. RJD leaders have already started holding meetings in small groups at panchayat levels,” RJD spokesman Mrityunjay Tiwari was quoted as saying by Hindustan Times.

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact indiasupport@huffpost.com.