Blaming Election Rallies For Covid Is Either Motivated Or Lazy Thinking
The Election Commission of India needs to be complimented for sticking to its guns on holding elections on time despite being repeatedly castigated by motivated individuals and the courts.
There are murmurs from some quarters about the possibility that the already announced elections to five state assemblies, including Uttar Pradesh, may turn out to be super-spreaders of Covid, especially of the highly-transmissible and rampant Omicron threat.
Even as the Election Commission of India (ECI) has banned political rallies until 15 January, and may yet impose further curbs on election meetings in order to enforce Covid-appropriate behaviour, some media outlets are fretting about the seven-phase polling, while others have called for a postponement. Barkha Dutt of Mojo Story had this to say on Twitter: “In my opinion elections should be postponed. There’s something morally egregious about schools closed and polling booths open.”
Neither observation seems well-thought-out, even though the case for reducing the number of phases in polling in general remains strong. Our elections are too stretched out, and holding them over extended phases could potentially impact voting trends in polls held during the later phases.
However, at the peak of Omicron, which is likely to coincide with the election campaign, spreading out polling dates and rallies will actually help keep infections to a minimum. The ECI and polling staff will be in a better position to prevent over-crowding and mass gatherings if they do not have to oversee campaigning and voting everywhere on the same day or days.
As for the claim that elections must be postponed, there are two counters: except in a situation where a lot of hospitalisations and casualties are expected due to Covid, the case for postponement is weak. Just as we cannot endlessly privilege lives over livelihoods by imposing draconian lockdowns, we can’t make elections an optional affair whenever a calamity is threatened.
At some point, we must look at Covid in the eye and say “You cannot disrupt our lives forever.” Thanks to some of the lessons learnt in the massive second wave, which overwhelmed the healthcare system, we should have the capability now to prevent another catastrophe even assuming the elections provide a spike in infections. From all accounts, Omicron also seems to be doing less damage than Delta (at this stage, one must add).
But there are even better reasons to believe that elections may not be the super-spreader events they have been assumed to be — without much evidence. Here’s why.
First, the virus, though airborne, is less likely to spread in open, well-ventilated areas than in confined spaces. Election rallies and open-air canvassing, even if they involve some amount of crowds milling about in close proximity and with poor masking, are unlikely to cause any additional spikes beyond what we are already witnessing due to social and other functions that cannot be prevented.
What the ECI can do is threaten to impose costs on political parties that simply throw caution to the winds and allow a free-for-all in the name of holding election rallies. A threat to cancel all rallies post 15 January should ensure some degree of compliance with Covid protocols. One can expect some amount of non-compliance, but nothing for us to think elections must be put off.
Second, the comparison with school closures is totally misleading. Schools are not functioning for two reasons: there is no really safe vaccine for children as of now, and second, education happens in classrooms, where children are cooped up for long hours together, and ensuring Covid-appropriate discipline from children — who are natural social beings — is nearly impossible. Election meetings are largely attended by adults, and right now the vast majority of the adult population has been vaccinated with at least one dose.
The latest figures are that 92 per cent of the above-18 population has received at least one dose, and 67 per cent a double dose. A third dose is beginning to be administered to healthcare and frontline workers, and senior citizens with co-morbidities.
This is enough protection for those who will attend rallies, especially when sero-positivity rates are well above 70-80 per cent among the people going to the polls. Children may still be vulnerable; the Indian adult population less so. So, there is a logic to temporarily closing schools but not polling booths.
Third, there is no real evidence backing the claim that elections are super-spreaders. In the elections to West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu held in the first half of last year, despite the fact that rallies and meetings happened even as the Delta wave was progressing, no statistically significant correlation was found between election rallies and Covid spikes.
The big spikes happened in Maharashtra, Kerala and Punjab, of which only one went to the polls (Kerala). But Kerala has always been the state reporting repeated high infection rates, but it has been able to manage them well due to its decent healthcare systems. The lesson to learn from Kerala is that one should not suspend normal life too much if the healthcare system can handle the sickness loads that may ensue.
Fourth, it is more than likely that media and public opinion on elections being super-spreaders comes from visuals of large, unmasked crowds seen at some rallies. These visuals give one the impression that rallies are happening everywhere and all the time. But these rallies are not all held simultaneously and repeatedly; they are held in different places and at different times.
It is more than likely that each constituency sees only two or three mega-rallies during election time. Constituencies get large crowds only when major leaders address them, and these don’t happen in all constituencies. The real election work is done by candidates addressing smaller groups and crowds, and through home distribution of election material and placing of posters and signboards.
Surjit Bhalla and Karan Bhasin, who analysed infection trends in poll-bound and non-poll-bound states in The Indian Express last year, found no significant deviation from expected infection levels in the cases of poll-bound states.
On the contrary, they found that the chorus of claims about elections being super-spreaders emanated largely from those states where Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was seen to be in contention for power — West Bengal and Assam. Said Bhalla and Bhasin: “Most of the ‘expert’ complaints against election rallies have been aimed at where the BJP is holding the most rallies — West Bengal and Assam. Both these states show infections below that predicted before the rallies began in earnest.”
Bhalla and Bhasin concluded: “There is less than limited evidence to suggest that electoral rallies have resulted in an increased spread of the pandemic — and one may have to revisit this issue after a couple of months once more data are available. Till then, armchair experts should introspect and appreciate India’s ability to conduct elections, with high voter participation, and do so in a pandemic.”
The SUTRA team, which has been forecasting Covid trends for some time with reasonable accuracy, is understood to be working on establishing correlations between Covid spikes and elections. While their study is yet to be published, it seems likely that they too will find no significant linkage between the two.
The ECI needs to be complimented for sticking to its guns on holding elections on time despite being repeatedly castigated by motivated individuals and the courts for allowing rallies in the last round of assembly elections in March-April 2021. So much for expert opinion and clueless courts wading into this issue without adequate knowledge.
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