Bihar elections: Crowds throng rallies amid coronavirus fear

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday asked people not to be complacent during the festive season. He urged them to continue wearing masks and follow social distancing.

But the message doesn’t seem to have reached the northern state of Bihar where large crowds have thronged political rallies ahead of state elections, scheduled to begin on 28 October.

All parties, including Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have ramped up campaigning. Footage from some of the rallies shows people jostling to get a glimpse of politicians, and hardly anybody appears to be wearing masks.

Virologists and doctors have called this “callous” and say that such complacency can have devastating consequences, enabling the virus to spread much faster.

India has recorded more than seven million cases so far, but its daily case count has been steadily dropping in recent weeks even as testing has remained consistent. Although some have said this suggests that the worst of the pandemic is over, others have cautioned against celebrating too soon.

The Election Commission has also warned politicians against flouting Covid-19 safety rules. But it seems to have had little impact as crowds continue to gather at rallies.

A spike in the number of cases in July and early August had completely overwhelmed the state’s healthcare system. Some families were forced to arrange oxygen cylinders for patients, and some people died without getting any treatment.

“The state has a high population density and that means people live in large joint families. Many young people will go back to their parents after attending these rallies and may carry the infection home,” Experts noted.

The ongoing festive season and weather will also play a role in how the virus spreads in the state. Air quality in northern India significantly worsens November onwards as temperatures drop. And several studies have suggested that pollution increases Covid mortality and infection rates.

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