India's Political Parties Rally On Despite Omicron
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Covid-19 cases are surging in India. Still, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his political opponents are on the campaign trail. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party plans the “biggest ever political rally” in the northern state of Punjab (which is also under a range of virus curbs). As many as 300,000 people are expected at Wednesday’s gathering, organizers told local media. Meanwhile, the capital, New Delhi, is under a strict nighttime and weekend curfew. Its Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who belongs to a rival party and is just back from a heavy few days of campaigning across the north, announced on Tuesday he’d tested positive for the virus.
We’ve seen this movie before.
In April 2020, as India reeled from a wave of hospitalizations and deaths and its citizens took to social media to beg for oxygen, a maskless Modi boasted of huge crowds at an election rally in the state of West Bengal. At the time, India had the world’s fastest growing Covid caseload and by the time the deadly second wave had run its course, experts estimated the country’s actual death toll ranged between 1.3 million to a staggering 5 million, three to 10 times the country’s official count.
Yes, this latest surge is probably mostly fueled by the omicron variant and, yes, perhaps it is less deadly. But with a medical system as underfunded and rickety as India’s — public health spending is less than 2% of gross domestic product, compared to 5.4% in China and a global average of nearly 10% — this is still a recipe for disaster. Hospital admissions are ticking up and exhausted doctors and nurses are being called in from their winter leave to prepare for a spike in cases.
India’s democracy is often called raucous: Political rallies are enormous; parliaments can descend into chaotic shouting matches (admittedly no different to others that operate under a Westminster-style system like the U.K. and Australia); and troll farms are notorious for their vehemence and reach.
But under Modi, politics has taken on a different tone altogether. Anti-Muslim hate speech and violence is on the rise; Christians are now also being attacked; and governments led by Modi’s BJP are either silent on these crimes or, worse, its members are active participants. Journalists are routinely labeled “anti-national,” activists are jailed and political opponents say institutions from the courts to the election commission have been stripped of their independence. It is in this climate that Modi has determined that hard-fought state election campaigns should continue — Covid or not.
Health experts and epidemiologists are despairing. “The one thing we know for sure about omicron is that it is significantly more transmissible than any of the variants that came before it — for this reason, anything that might promote transmission should be rigorously controlled, large gatherings among them,” Gautam Menon, a professor in the physics and biology department of Ashoka University in Bengaluru, told me.
He lamented that India had not learned from what he described as “the devastating second wave,” noting: “It is hypocritical to say that numbers at wedding parties should be restricted, but to impose no such curbs on political rallies.”
India is not alone in its selective application of Covid-safe rules for election events. In France, which is in the grip of a presidential campaign as virus cases escalate, compliance with pandemic measures is voluntary and each party has interpreted the guidelines differently, as the Financial Times reported.
Meanwhile, the frustrations surrounding India’s health data are as fresh as ever, two years into the pandemic. Scientists are still asking Modi’s administration for vital information to track the epidemic and develop appropriate health responses, including genome sequencing for variants and more accurate death figures.
There is one silver lining, though. Omicron is hitting a population that’s been significantly impacted by the delta variant and survived, while 44% of the population is fully vaccinated. The last sero-survey released in New Delhi in November indicated 97% of those tested had Covid antibodies.
Still, this third wave is building into a crisis just as Indian families mark the one-year death anniversaries of those who didn’t make it through the second wave. This coincides with state elections due to be held in February and March in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and the critical state of Uttar Pradesh, which — with a population the size of Brazil’s — is seen as a bellwether for the 2024 federal election.
The failure of governments at all levels to provide even the most basic care to those in need is sure to be fresh on people’s minds as they head to the polls.
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Ruth Pollard is a columnist and editor with Bloomberg Opinion. Previously she was South and Southeast Asia Government team leader at Bloomberg News. She has reported from India and across the Middle East and focuses on foreign policy, defense and security.
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