Rajat Sharma

Covid pandemic: A dangerous cocktail of politics and devotion

The people of Bihar have always been politically aware and they always take part in elections with full zest. Yet they are unwilling to follow Covid rules.

aaj ki baat fullOn Monday, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was speaking about how India achieved one of the highest Covid recovery rates of 88 per cent and the nation was now witnessing a gradual decline in the number of daily fresh Covid cases, huge crowds were attending election rallies of political leaders in Bihar. There were big crowds of devotees thronging famous temples in Lucknow and Mirzapur.
This is surely a recipe for disaster. The states must be prepared to face fresh hike in number of Covid cases if crowds continue to throng rallies and temples. Narendra Modi attributed India’s success in tackling the pandemic due to early imposition of lockdown, gradual phase out in later stages and encouragement to public for use of masks. But the situation in Bihar is vastly different.
On Monday night, in my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’, we showed visuals of election rallies addressed by RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, where most of the people were not wearing masks, and instead of social distancing (do gaz ki doori), the venue was packed with crowds. This does not bode well for the future and Bihar is surely going to witness a huge hike in fresh Covid cases in the coming weeks.

A committee of scientists set up by the Government of India had predicted that there could be an explosion in numbers of Covid cases after the Bihar elections and the situation may worsen. The Election Commission has framed strict guidelines for Bihar polls, but all these norms have been thrown to the winds. The EC guidelines stipulated that not more than two persons shall be present at the time of filing of nomination, not more than five persons can take part in ‘padyatra’, not more than five vehicles can taken part in road show and, that too, by keeping safe distance, not more than one hundred people at rallies and wearing of masks by all during poll campaigning is mandatory.
With the campaign picking up tempo in Bihar, Nitish Kumar addressed five and Tejashwi Yadav addressed seven election rallies on Monday. At not a single venue was any semblance of Covid restrictions seen. It appeared as if poll campaigning in Bihar was back to its old days. Neither the leaders looked worried nor the common public cared two hoots for Covid restrictions. The most worrying part was: villagers with children gathering in crowds to watch helicopters of leaders arriving and taking off. Most of the leaders and spectators were not wearing masks. In his speeches, Tejashwi Yadav did not ask people even once as to why they were not wearing masks.
India TV reporter asked common people about Covid safety measures, but most of them replied they were hardworking labourers, they were sure they will not be hit by the virus. Some of them went to the extent of describing Covid pandemic as a hoax.
At Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s rally too, thousands of people flocked to watch his chopper descending and taking off. Asked why they were not wearing masks, several of them said they were least bothered about the pandemic. Some of them said, “being farmers, our sweat will wash away the virus if it attacks”. In Lakhisarai, the state Labour Minister Vijay Sinha told India TV reporter that the pandemic was now waning in Bihar and there was no big threat from the virus. He was part of a crowd doing door-to-door canvassing.

The people of Bihar have always been politically aware and they always take part in elections with full zest. Yet they are unwilling to follow Covid rules. The thumb rule is: rules are followed by people only when they become scared. The problem is: the scare about the pandemic is no more as was seen during the early stages, is no more. Most of the people have started believing that the pandemic is over, and even if they catch the virus, they are confident of overcoming it. Here I want to draw a parallel with the US elections. In the US, people ignored Covid restrictions during poll campaign, and the outcome: a fresh second wave of the pandemic has begun in the US. We should learn lessons from other countries.

The complacent attitude towards the pandemic has also spread in the sphere of religious devotion. The famous Banke Bihari Temple in Mathura that was opened on October 17 after seven months of lockdown but it had to be closed down immediately after huge crowds of devotees swarmed the temple and its adjoining lanes. The temple management had planned to give entry to only 200 devotees daily through online booking, but the computerized system crashed due to overload, and thousands of devotees flocked to the shrine. The temple had to be closed. Enraged, some of the devotees have now filed a petition in court challenging the management’s decision.
At the famous Chandrika Devi temple in Lucknow, the rule limiting the number of devotees to 200 daily, was thrown to the winds, and thousands of devotees have started visiting the shrine daily. Most of the devotees are neither wearing masks nor are they maintaining social distancing. The situation is similar at the famous Vindhyavasini temple in Mirzapur, UP, where, because of Navratri festival, thousands of devotees are flocking daily to offer prayers.
The nine-day Navratra festival, presently going on across India, will culminate with Dussehra, Diwali and Chhath festivals. During these one and a half months, there will be huge crowds at temples and markets. Already, scientists have predicted that the festival period to be followed by onset of winter in India is sure to result in huge spike in fresh Covid cases. There can be no complacency until all the people get vaccinated. The Covid vaccines are in different stages of trial. Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan is hopeful that the first lot of vaccines may arrive after three months, but the time window is too wide and every person needs to be on alert.
It’s a fact that leaders and supporters will always campaign during elections, devotees will always throng temples and markets during festivities, but once a person is struck with the virus, no amount of devotion can save a person. It is better that people continue to wear masks in public and follow ‘do gaz ki doori’ social distancing for protection.

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