Timing and geography of COVID-19 spike in Bengal point to elections: Experts

Bengal districts polling later have been seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases which hints at the role of the elections, experts said

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Monday 19 April 2021
Surge in COVID-19 cases in Bengal district hints at campaign impact, say experts
Home Minister Amit Shah campaigns in Ausgram on April 17. Photo: Amit Shah's Twitter Handle Home Minister Amit Shah campaigns in Ausgram on April 17. Photo: Amit Shah's Twitter Handle

The rise in COVID-19 cases beyond metropolitan Kolkata and in areas going to polls later were tell-tale indicators of the election campaign’s impact on the COVID-19 situation in the state, health experts said.

The developments in Bengal were in sharp contrast to Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s view that the election campaign had nothing to do with the rise in cases that was also happening in states that were not having elections.

“It is difficult to draw direct correlation between the election process and the COVID-19 spurt in the absence of data. But we can definitely say that so many human assemblages during a long election process, often without maintaining COVID-19 appropriate behavior, is contributing to the spike in Bengal,” Giridhar R Babu, an epidemiologist associated with the non-profit initiative, Public Health Foundation of India, told this reporter.

“Even in states not having elections, the spurt is happening because of the congregations of different kinds. But in Bengal, large congregations at the moment are mostly linked to the election,” Babu said.

“We may not have the data from Bengal or India but the analysis of the US presidential election clearly establishes the correlation between large electoral meetings or rallies, often without maintaining COVID-19 norms and COVID-19 spurt,” Subhrojyoti Bhowmick, clinical director of Peerless hospital, said.

Apart from a rapid spurt post the initiation of the election campaign, the spread of the contagion beyond the Kolkata metropolitan area also hinted at the election impact, Bhowmick said.

“Most of the areas going to election in later phases and hence having more electoral meetings and higher exposure are recording more cases,” the health expert said.

According to state government data, 19 districts apart from the Kolkata urban agglomeration contributed 56 out of a total 216 cases — about 26 per cent — February 26, the day the election schedule was announced.

On April 18, the proportion jumped to 40 per cent: 3,371 out of 8,419 cases.

Bhowmick pointed out that districts like Birbhum and Malda, slated to have polls in the last phase April 29, had two and one cases respectively February 26. This jumped to 471 and 388 cases April 18.

The number is also skyrocketing in areas like Kolkata and North 24 Parganas, traditional table toppers, as the election campaign has entered its final phase. North 24 Parganas is to hold the election April 22 — phase 6 — while Kolkata will be having polls April 26 and 29 — in phases 7 and 8.

“In contrast, districts like Purba Medinipur, Paschim Medinipur, Jhargram and Bankura, where the election was completed in the first two phases, are recording fewer cases,” he added.

Bhowmick claimed that the data dynamics clearly vindicated the role of the elections in the spread of COVID-19.

Incidentally, on February 26, only two districts — Kolkata and North 24 Parganas — recorded more than 50 cases. On April 18, 18 districts recorded more than 50 cases, indicating the geographic and demographic spread of the contagion during the period.

“Definitely a long election is contributing to the COVID-19 rise as it is maximising exposure,” Arunava Majumdar, a former director of All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, said.

Mutant strains

“The election campaign is definitely contributing to the COVID-19 spike here. The mutant strains are apparently affecting states like Maharashtra and Punjab more,” Dhrubojyoti Chattapadhyay, a scientist and vice chancellor of Sister Nivedita University told this reporter.

“The second wave in India also coincides with the spread of the UK variant. A recent report found 81 per cent of the latest 401 samples sent by the state of Punjab for genome sequencing were found to be the UK variant … a new double mutation is also circulating in India, and this too could be contributing to the rise in cases,” Rajib Dasgupta, a professor and public health expert from Jawaharlal Nehru University, said.

Anirban Dolui, a public health expert with the West Bengal government, observed that according to latest findings, the impact of mutant strains was still less in Bengal compared to states like Maharashtra or Punjab.

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