Elections in the time of a raging pandemic, a recipe for disasterIn India campaigning for assembly polls in states in April contributed to a deadly second wave. In Nepal elections are scheduled during a potential third wave, experts say.
Nepal is witnessing the second wave of the pandemic from last month and every day new cases stand at more than 8,000, death toll at more than 100, and most alarmingly, the positivity rate is hovering over 40 percent, the highest in the world.
Yet another alarming aspect of Nepal’s second wave is cases having been rising in the rural parts of the country where healthcare facilities are next to non-existent.
But amid the peak of the second wave of the pandemic, the KP Sharma Oli government has dissolved the House of Representatives and declared elections in November.
“This is a callous and unforgivable mistake of this government,” Dr Tulsi Ram Bhandari, a public health expert at Pokhara University, told the Post. “Who can imagine the election in the midst of a pandemic, when people are dying without getting care and deprived of testing. Instead of strengthening the capacity of health facilities and providing relief for the people, the government has invited confrontations.”
Elections are not possible in the current situation and will only invite disaster, observers say.
“There is no possibility of holding polls at all costs,” CK Lal, a political analyst, told the Post. “It is possible only if rulers want massacres like in some Indian states.”
Given the current second wave which has shown no signs of abating, experts have warned of a third wave, and elections could just spell a disaster. Doctors say while Nepal should have learned from past mistakes of its own and those by other countries, like India, politicians in power have pushed the country towards elections, which mean crowds and campaigning.
In neighbouring India, various reports suggest that elections were to blame for the sudden surge in coronavirus cases.
On February 26, the day the India’s Election Commission announced assembly elections in a number of Indian states, the number of coronavirus cases reported in West Bengal was 216. On April 27 when electioneering was over in the state, the number of cases recorded was 16,403–a 75 times jump.
During an election rally in the state on April 17, when the second wave in the country was already underway, Modi praised the large crowds and said, “I see huge crowds of people... have witnessed such a rally for the first time... Today, you have shown your power.”
In the numerous rallies, huge crowds flouted social distancing measures and use of face masks and consequently, new cases peaked up sharply in March in India and reached record high this month, according to the BBC.
In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where local level elections were held in April, at least 1,621 teachers and support staff deployed in the polls duty died from Covid-19 infections.
While the number of daily cases peaked at about 10,000 and the death toll at 1,000 in the first wave, during the second wave this figure rose to 400,000 and 4,000.
Nepal on Saturday reported 8,591 new infections and 129 deaths from Covid-19 complications. The total number of cases stands at 505,643 of which 115,806 are active. The death toll has reached 6,153. The positivity rate on Saturday was more than 44 percent.
Almost all the country has been in lockdown for weeks and that has been the only government strategy to break the chain of transmission. With no contact tracing and insufficient testing, experts say that the number of tests could be much higher than it is being reported.
On the other hand, barely around two percent of the total population has got two doses of the vaccine and around 4.5 percent one dose with no certainty when they will get the second dose.
Public health experts have warned that a third wave will be inevitable in the country and with the virus constantly mutating, new variants could be more transmissible.
More transmissible and possibly more fatal B.1.167.2 and B1.167.1 variants, first reported in India in October last year, have been found responsible for the second wave in the country, according to the government.
A new wave could start after September and with the festive season then and electioneering in full swing, if polls are held on the stipulated dates, the combination could be catastrophic.
“Viruses become more active when seasons change in the beginning of winter or in the onset of summer,” Dr Keshav Deuba, a public health epidemiologist, told the Post. “As new variants of the coronavirus are emerging constantly, the more deadly variants are becoming dominant and taking a bigger toll, and we do not have sufficient vaccine coverage. Elections and festive season could invite another disaster.”
From the political perspective, too, elections will only fuel the spread of the virus.
“We all know our political campaigns are traditional and such things would certainly spread the virus,” said political analyst Rajendra Maharjan.
Ignoring the warning of experts led to the ongoing surge in the country, as despite knowing that after the explosion of new cases in India, cases would surge in Nepal, authorities in Nepal neither regulated the border points nor set up holding and quarantine centres and ensured testing facilities. They instead let people go home directly and did not even bother to regulate movement of those returnees, which triggered the spread of infection in the community.
“From day one, this government was not serious towards the public’s health and controlling the pandemic was not in its priority,” said Dr Kedar Narsing KC, former president of Nepal Medical Association. “This is criminal negligence and a crime against the public.”
Health facilities have been overwhelmed with shortages of beds, oxygen and even medicine, leading Oli to cry out for help.
“At present, our condition of infection is far worse than in India,” Dr Jagdish Prasad Agrawal, former dean at the Institute of Medicine, told the Post. “People who are not supposed to die of infections are dying these days due to failure to provide care.”
And elections will bring about a disaster with people attending rallies and political parties bussing in people to them to ‘show’ the strength of support as the government did when Oli was in election mode after he dissolved the House of Representatives on December 20.
“When political events, rallies and crowds are allowed, the situation will be more devastating compared to the second wave,” said an official of the Health Ministry on condition of anonymity. “And when the priority is shifted to other things, what would be the situation we can only guess.”
On Saturday, the prime minister met officials of the Election Commission to discuss preparations for the November polls.
“We expressed our commitment that the Election Commission was ready to start preparation for the polls starting from Sunday,” Dinesh Thapaliya, the chief election commissioner told the Post. “The commission cannot say the elections cannot be held as it is the constitutional body responsible for holding elections.”
But doubts have been cast over whether elections will actually be held.
In a statement issued Saturday, three political parties—the Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), Rastriya Janamorcha Nepal—and factions of Oli’s CPN-UML and Janata Samajbadi Party said, “The general elections, announced with the ill-intention of not holding elections and prolonging his (Oli’s) autocratic regime has pushed the lives of the people facing a deadly pandemic towards an even more serious crisis.”
Observers blame the poll announcement on the prime minister’s disregard for anything other than power.
“The Prime Minister has been behaving as if he is saying ‘I am the state.’ By capturing all state machinery, he has pushed the country into the dark black hole,” former chief election commissioner Bhoj Raj Pokhrel told the Post. “When this type of leader takes the reins of the country, people have to suffer.”
Public health experts say that the announcement of elections is beyond comprehension.
“How can anyone think of elections at this point of time, as the second wave is in the peak and people are dying,” Dr Biraj Karmacharya, an epidemiologist who is also the chief of Department of Community programme at the Dhulikhel Hospital, told the Post. “Giving up all the other work, we health workers have been focussed on saving lives. Isn't it the responsibility of the government to give priority to the lives of the people.”
But authorities insist that elections can happen as elsewhere.
“Elections are taking place across the world amidst the pandemic, including in India,” said Thapaliya. “On the part of the government, it should ensure more resources including coordinating in getting international assistance for holding the polls.”