COVID-19 Update

Madhya Pradesh witnessing alarming spike in coronavirus cases as political parties compete to win the byelections in the Gwalior-Chambal region

Print edition : October 09, 2020

Congress activists staging a protest against the BJP Rajya Sabha member Jyotiraditya Scindia during a BJP membership drive, in Gwalior on August 22. Photo: PTI

Jyotiraditya Scindia at a party workers’ rally during a BJP membership campaign in Gwalior on August 23. Photo: PTI

In Madhya Pradesh, the issue of oxygen shortage took centre stage even as case numbers grew and the BJP and the Congress ramped up roadshows and membership drives in preparation for the byelections to 28 Assembly seats.

Madhya Pradesh is witnessing an alarming spike in coronavirus cases as political parties compete with one another in the race to win the byelections in the Gwalior-Chambal region, which will decide the fate of the regime led by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Allegations of oxygen shortage claiming four lives in a COVID care hospital did little to dampen spirits as both the BJP and the Congress, the principal players in the 28 election-bound constituencies, rolled out a campaign blitzkrieg over the first two weeks of September. With the rank and file of both parties openly violating physical distancing norms, the number of positive cases climbed to 93,053 on September 16. The COVID-related fatalities stood at 1,820.

On September 10, 2,187 new cases were reported, the first time the daily number of cases crossed the 2,000 mark. The trend continued unabated, and on September 15, the State recorded a single-day high of 2,323 new cases and 29 deaths. The byelections became necessary after 25 Congress leaders, including Jyotiraditya Scindia, joined the BJP. Two BJP seats also fell vacant: one following the demise of legislator Banwarilal Sharma of Jaura and another because of the resignation of Sharad Koi. On September 15, Goverdhan Singh Dangi, the Congress legislator from Biaora, died because of comorbidities after he was diagnosed with COVID-19.

A glance at the political landscape in Madhya Pradesh, in particular its election-bound region, where mega roadshows and membership drives by the BJP and the Congress have become a regular feature, establishes the fact that handling the health crisis has taken a back seat. The growing number of cases appears to be the direct outcome of the political mobilisation in Gwalior-Chambal, which is swiftly emerging as a coronavirus hotspot. In the first 13 days of September, Gwalior recorded 2,435 new cases, with more than 200 cases a day on six occasions. Of the 83 fatalities reported in Gwalior so far, 39 were in the 13 days of September alone.

The BJP held its mega membership drive from August 22 to 24, when the Congress defectors who joined the party were formally inducted into the BJP amid fanfare. The entire episode was in the news for the flouting of COVID-19 prevention norms. In the past 20 days, the BJP has held more than 20 election rallies and other public meets.

The Congress has also been campaigning with gusto. On September 9, the party organised a congregation in Kailaras town and Morena district where the presence of prominent party leaders such as Sajjan Verma, Ramniwas Rawat and P.C. Sharma saw party workers assembling in large numbers without paying heed to pandemic restrictions. Apart from that event, the Congress organised several public gatherings at different pockets of Gwalior.

High Court’s condemnation

Hearing a public interest litigation petition filed following the BJP’s mega event on August 22-24, a two-judge bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court issued a thorough condemnation of the party’s irresponsible campaigning and asked how permission for such a large gathering was granted at a time when the number of participants in marriage functions and funerals was being limited.

However, the High Court’s chastising seemed to have had little impact on the State administration as it continued to give permission for political events relating to electioneering. In the past 20 days, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Union Cabinet Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, Jyotiraditya Scindia and State BJP president V.D. Sharma made major public appearances. On September 11 and 12, these leaders relentlessly campaigned in Bhind, Morena, Gwalior and Datia.

Speaking on the matter, Abbas Hafeez Khan, the Congress’ State spokesperson, told Frontline: “The BJP is playing with the lives of the people as their priority is saving the government. After Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s event in Gwalior, the district saw a marked increase in the number of COVID cases. In Indore, Congress defector Tulsi Silawat, now in the BJP, organised a kalash yatra, where girls as young as eight and nine years were made to carry pots on their heads, making a mockery of COVID-19 protocols. The CM, nine Ministers and 40 legislators contracted the disease in the past weeks and months and they talk of their seriousness in controlling the pandemic.”

The State was also in news for the controversy surrounding the alleged shortage of oxygen. On September 8, there was furore on social media after it was reported that four coronavirus patients had died at the Amaltas Institute of Medical Sciences, a private hospital in Dewas that is also a corona care centre, because of a lack of oxygen supply. The deceased were Shantabai, 65; Ashok Nanuram Kumawat, 42; Jubobai, 74; and Anand Rao, 52. However, the Dewas district administration debunked the news. M.P. Sharma, Dewas district’s Chief Medical and Health Officer, said in a statement that a team, which included him, had inspected the hospital and found that the allegations were not true. “The team found that there was availability of 400 oxygen cylinders in the hospital and there was enough oxygen for the patients admitted there,” he said. The official further said that all the four deceased had tested negative for the coronavirus.

However, issues relating to oxygen supply have raged in Madhya Pradesh after Maharashtra banned the inter-State supply of oxygen. The decision impacted the supply of oxygen from a Nagpur-based firm to several parts of Madhya Pradesh, in particular areas adjoining Jabalpur. However, Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced on his Twitter handle: “Today on my request, the Government of India has agreed to supply 50 tonne oxygen a day after which our availability has increased to 180 tonne a day.”

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