Assembly elections in the states of West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu are being held. The results in West Bengal will be declared on 2 May; in Assam on 4 May, and shortly thereafter in the other three states. There will be a lot of hugs and jubilation on announcement of the results. Physical distancing will go for a toss. Masks, as well. Then, there will be a period of lull during which the coronavirus will incubate in many.
Another huge surge of infections will follow. A near certainty. At the beginning of February, we seemed to think that our war against coronavirus was won. In a country of 1.3 billion, the number of daily infections was less than 10,000. Triumphant, we got rid of our masks. Roadside tea stalls had picked up business.
Everything seemed normal. On 7 March, our Union Health Minister, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, said that “we are in the endgame” of the Covid-19 pandemic in India. Sadly, from just about that time, the number of daily cases of infection started to rise. And, rise like hell. Within days, lakhs of people were being infected each day.
The daily count is poised to reach 4 lakh soon. Hospitals have no beds to care for the Covid-19 patients. Oxygen is in such short supply that patients are dying in hospitals because of lack of oxygen. Even getting tested for the infection has now become an ordeal. There are many reasons for this huge surge. We will never know the most important reason.
Election rallies are surely a main cause. Of course, no physical distancing could be maintained. But masks were also nearly non-existent in these rallies. Contesting politicians didn’t care. They needed votes. When in fact the government should have banned election rallies, these became more frequent as the election dates neared.
Our Prime Minister, Home Minister, Chief Ministers and others, held many election meetings every day. Without paying any heed to warning bells. Infections spread. Many were bussed from rural areas to cities and towns to swell crowds in these election rallies. And, they carried infections home to their villages. On 30 March when the trajectory of infections was taking off on an exponential path of increase, our Health Minister seemed to think that “the situation is under control.” Shortly before that, on March 21, our Prime Minister accorded a “hearty welcome to all devotees of Mahakumbh.”
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat said …“ Kumbh is at the bank of the River Ganga. Maa Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow. So, there should be no corona.” Perhaps, we didn’t deserve Maa Ganga’s blessings and our load of infections is reaching four lakh per day. The E484Q-L425R “double mutant” coronavirus arose and spread rapidly, possibly because it is more transmissible than existing variants. It is yet unclear whether the double mutant is also more dangerous.
With winter receding, the mercury has started to rise. This may also be contributing to the surge and spread; the seasonality effect. We must take precautions. We must learn from our mistakes. A third surge is expected around the middle of May, a few days after the jubilations following declarations of the election results. I request all political parties to jointly d eclare a moratorium on jubilations. That way, a third surge may be avoided.
(The writer is National Science Chair, Government of India and President, Indian Academy of Sciences)