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India fears Covid superspreader events as states prepare for elections

India’s opposition Samajwadi party hosted an unexpectedly lively rally last week, with politicians delivering speeches enthusiastically received by thousands who had attended despite a ban on live campaign events.

The event at the socialist party offices in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with a population of more than 200m, attracted the ire of police and electoral officials who accused Samajwadi of violating the two-week nationwide ban aimed at tackling a surge in Covid-19 infections.

Yet the reaction of party leader Akhilesh Yadav reflected the reluctance of politicians to halt campaigning despite the threat of the pandemic. “Words will not come out of a leader without a microphone and people in front of them,” he said, according to local media.

Coronavirus is again spreading rapidly through India. Its resurgence is prompting anxiety as the country prepares for a series of state elections starting next month that will attract millions to rallies and polling booths. Weeks-long ballots will take place in Uttar Pradesh, as well as states such as Punjab and Goa.

With vaccination coverage uneven and much of the country lacking basic health facilities, officials and experts fear that the polls could turn into superspreader events. They add that new restrictions and a drop in business activity risk upsetting India’s economic recovery.

As in much of the world, India’s latest Covid wave, believed to be driven by the Omicron variant, has been less severe than previous surges. In less than a month, officially reported infections have risen from under 10,000 a day to more than 300,000 in the country of 1.4bn people.

But, with more than half the adult population fully vaccinated, death rates have remained flat throughout at about 400 a day, and there are few signs of hospitals again being overwhelmed with critically ill patients. Cases in New Delhi and Mumbai appear to have peaked already.

“Hospitalisations and deaths peak at a lag, so we have to watch the next couple of weeks and the month of February carefully,” said Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of epidemiology at Michigan university who has closely tracked the pandemic in India.

Mukherjee said she was concerned that the situation would deteriorate as infections spread beyond better-equipped cities such as Delhi and Mumbai to more neglected regions. “[I’m] bracing myself for the next set of states coming to boil, where the vaccination drive has not been that strong, ”she said.

Samajwadi party president Akhilesh Yadav, standing, speaks to other MPs in New Delhi last month © Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Last year, when rising cases similarly coincided with state elections, politicians including Narendra Modi, prime minister, played down the danger, arguing that India had beat Covid while mobilizing thousands of supporters at enormous rallies, some of which he attended.

Yet as the Delta variant tore through the largely unvaccinated population, India was by May in the grips of a traumatic public health crisis. Experts believe that the official daily death tolls from the time of about 4,000 were vast undercounts as hospitals proved unable to manage the surge.

Public emotions over the loss of lives remain raw, and India’s leaders are for the most part eager not to be seen repeating past mistakes. At a virtual address to the World Economic Forum this week, Modi said India was “tackling another corona wave with caution and alertness”.

Yet the mixed messaging has continued. While local leaders from Delhi to Uttar Pradesh swiftly imposed restrictions such as night curfews when cases started rising late last year, those same politicians continued to campaign, albeit with fewer large rallies. Some, such as Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister and a prominent opposition leader, caught Covid themselves.

Politically sensitive gatherings, such as a Hindu festival that drew hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to West Bengal state last week, have also gone ahead. “When people are making so many sacrifices due to Covid restrictions, to see a religious gathering[of so many people]going on seems incomprehensible and against the messaging, ”said Mukherjee.

Chandrakant Lahariya, a public health expert in Delhi, said a combination of Omicron, vaccinations and previous infections had helped to reduce severity. India this month started vaccinating children over 15 years of age and is offering booster jabs to health workers and vulnerable people such as the elderly and those with existing medical conditions.

Health systems are also better prepared after local governments ramped up oxygen production and expanded Covid treatment wards, although this was often done by cutting back on treatment of other conditions.

Lahariya said the greater challenge was now balancing the public health response with the economic toll that restrictions like night curfews, which disrupt businesses while doing little to stop the virus circulating during the day, could take. Election officials have not ruled out extending the current ban on rallies, which runs until Saturday.

“Politicians want to show that they’re doing something,” he said. “The key concern is that governments should be mindful of the impact on the economy if they [impose] restrictions. ”

At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, a nationwide lockdown imposed effectively overnight exacerbated a contraction in gross domestic product of more than 7 per cent last year.

Growth has since rebounded and is expected at 9.5 per cent this year, according to the IMF, but swaths of the economy, particularly the large informal sector, remain stretched.

Amod Purbe, 28, a migrant laborer who runs a tobacco stall on the outskirts of Delhi, said he was not sure how long he could survive as his customers went back to work from home.

“The money I earned was just enough to buy food for my family,” said Purbe, who now earns less than half of his pre-Covid daily earnings of Rs300 ($ 4). “If the restrictions continue, I will be forced to sell my stall and that’s all I have.”

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