Covid-19 update

Bihar: Election fever amid pandemic

Print edition : September 11, 2020

At the waiting room of Jawahar Lal Nehru Medical College and Hospital in Bhagalpur on July 29, a man waits with his mother to attend to his father being treated at the intensive care unit. He was told there were no beds in COVID wards to admit his father who had contracted the virus. Photo: DANISH SIDDIQUI/REUTERS

Workers who had returned to Jharkhand queue up at Birsa Munda International Airport to catch flights for their cities of their work, in Ranchi on August 14. Photo: PTI

Bihar is reeling from floods and the pandemic, but the government appears to be paying more attention to the preparations to hold the Assembly elections which are due in November.

Bihar has had to deal with a double whammy in the past two weeks: increasing COVID cases and a devastating flood. Neighbouring Jharkhand has, in addition to the exponential rise in COVID cases, the serious issue of rehabilitation of lakhs of migrant workers who returned to the State from other parts of India during the lockdown to handle. But the public discourse in both the States has been revolving around the circumstances of the death of Sushant Singh Rajput, the Bollywood actor who hailed from Bihar.

In the past one month, Bihar saw a fourfold increase in the number of COVID cases: from 26,379 on July 19 to 1,12,759 on August 20. The number of deaths too rose from 179 to 568 in this period. But senior State government officials attribute the spike in numbers to increased testing. Bihar has done over 20 lakh tests so far, they say, with the number of tests crossing one lakh in 24 hours in the past few weeks.

“This has helped us in early isolation of infected persons and their treatment. Our strategy has worked, as is evident from the high recovery rate,” said a Health Department official. According to figures released by the Health Department, 84,578 patients have recovered so far, and there are 27,532 active cases. Officials also say the positivity rate has reduced since the first half of July, from around 13 per cent on July 15 to 2.89 per cent now. The recovery rate at present is 73 per cent.

But the opposition refutes all these claims, saying the numbers cited are misleading, considering the density of population. “In a State with over 13 crore people, if you have conducted 20 lakh tests in all, is this good enough? Besides, most of these tests are rapid antigen tests, which even the ICMR [Indian Council of Medical Research] says is not accurate. The number of RT-PCR [Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction] tests, which are accurate, is dismal,” said Prof. Manoj Kumar Jha of the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

According to him, even if the high recovery and low death rate figures are correct, the problem on the ground remains serious because facilities for institutional care, which should have been augmented during the lockdown, remain abysmally poor. “Our [Bihar] government thought that the lockdown was a vaccine that would finish corona on its own. They did nothing to create facilities to handle the situation even though it was anticipated that cases would increase after migrant labourers started returning. What to speak of the common man, even for well-connected people getting a bed in a hospital is next to impossible,” he said. Many in Patna corroborated this view.

In Bihar, floods in 16 districts have compounded the problem. With almost all major rivers in spate, people have been forced to abandon their houses and live in crowded shelters, increasing the risk of infection manifold. “Protection from COVID demands social distancing, but floods have created a situation in which social distancing is anathema. You can imagine the plight of the people,” said Jha.

In the midst of all this is the likelihood of elections being announced any day. The Assembly elections in Bihar are due in November. Though all major opposition parties have appealed to the Election Commission to postpone the election in view of the pandemic and the floods, the E.C. has given no indication so far. In fact, senior E.C. officials told reporters that the situation was likely to improve by November and so elections could be held with precautions. Apparently, there are reports that the Commission could even employ out-of-the-box ideas like going for ballot papers or mobile election booths taking electronic voting machines to the people.

But the prospect of elections has completely diverted the attention of the ruling Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance from managing COVID. There are more meetings to plan for the election than for managing the pandemic. In fact, members of these two political parties have become so engrossed in election preparations that social distancing has gone for a toss. Last month, the State unit of the BJP held a meeting of its district-level functionaries at its Patna headquarters, which was attended by over 400 leaders. After the meeting, over 125 BJP leaders, including State party chief Sanjay Jaiswal, vice presidents Radha Mohan Sharma and Rajesh Verma and general secretaries Nagendra Nath and Devesh Kumar tested positive. Jaiswal’s wife and mother also contracted the virus.

Before this, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s official residence had turned into a hotspot with 60 persons, including staff and family members, testing positive. Among those infected was Nitish Kumar’s niece.

Though the State government has announced an insurance cover of Rs.30 lakh each for those involved in election activity, opposition leaders are sceptical. “If they are so keen on holding the election on time, they should announce insurance coverage for voters also,” said Manoj Jha. According to him, thinking of elections at this time makes politicians look like “vultures”.

Jharkhand’s woes

In Jharkhand, though lockdown restrictions are in place according to Government of India guidelines, markets and shops are open in Ranchi, traffic on the roads is chaotic as usual, and offices are functioning to full capacity. On July 19, Jharkhand had 5,399 COVID cases; this rose to 26,300 by August 20. Similarly, from 48 the number of deaths rose to 278 in this period. As many as 16,566 people have recovered so far. The State had 9,456 active cases as on August 20.

But the inadequacy of institutional care remains a cause for concern. With only one government hospital, Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in Ranchi, catering to COVID patients, the availability of beds is a huge problem. Though district hospitals too have been treating COVID patients, the facilities there are inadequate. Some private hospitals have started reserving beds for COVID patients, but they are too expensive for the common people.

The government has not set up a single new facility for COVID treatment, nor augmented capacity or facilities in its existing hospitals. All it has done is to set up some testing laboratories. “We could have done much better, but we have received no support from the Centre. With our limited resources, we now have eight testing labs while there was none when COVID came,” said Alok Dubey, spokesperson of the Congress, a constituent of the ruling alliance.

According to him, the State has asked private hospitals to chip in, while it has focused on taking care of migrant labourers who returned during the lockdown. Said Dubey: “We have provided employment to lakhs of workers under the MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act]. For skilled workers, we are contacting private companies and institutions which are keen to employ these people. For farmers, we have started an innovative programme of sending fresh fruits and vegetables grown in our State to Dubai. The first lot was dispatched some five days ago. We could have done much better if we had received some support from the Centre, but even otherwise we are doing our best to manage the crisis.”

But trying to do the best is not enough, as is evident from the ground reality. A telling commentary on the state of affairs in Jharkhand is the fact that even front-line COVID warriors are falling prey to the disease: hundreds of policemen, doctors and other health-care workers have contracted the virus. For common people, RIMS in Ranchi is the only hospital fully equipped to deal with the infection. But it is a tough task to even reach the hospital in time. With only over 900 beds in RIMS, availability of beds is a problem.

Both Bihar and Jharkhand have failed to manage COVID effectively and the common people are now paying the price.

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