Bihar Elections: EC has a responsibility to hold free and fair polls but it can't lose sight of COVID-19 either

Fahad Hasin
·5-min read

The Election Commission (EC) on Thursday warned political parties of actions for flouting COVID-19 protocols during the election campaign. Recently massive election rallies were held by both sides €" BJP/JDU and Grand Alliance €" packed with crowds, mostly unmasked. These crowds are a reflection of the prevailing overall attitude towards COVID-19, institutions and the general public alike.

The EC is partly complicit in this problem by insisting on carrying on elections largely as usual: there is hardly any doubt that its social distancing protocols in electoral rallies are impractical, and no one is taking it seriously. The prime minister himself reminded recently that even though the lockdowns are gone, the virus is still here. Hence, it is important that we do not lose sight of the pandemic.

In an earlier piece, the alarming COVID-19 situation in Bihar was highlighted: the cases were on the rise, the test positivity rose sharply, and the government did not seem to be doing what was needed. The situation further deteriorated later, but soon turned around. I had then argued that testing was the first and foremost thing the state government needed to address.

Finally, the government massively scaled up testing in a matter of weeks, from 10-15 thousand daily tests in late-July to touching one lakh daily tests in mid-August €" an almost 10-fold jump. Bihar is now consistently doing more than one lakh tests a day, sometimes even more than 1.5 lakh tests.

The increase in the number of daily tests has been the most remarkable turnaround in the COVID-19 situation in Bihar. As the testing increased, the test positivity rate (TPR) came down significantly. A drop in TPR was expected with increased testing, as it is the number of confirmed cases per 100 tests. As the number of tests (denominator) increases much more than the number of confirmed cases (numerator), TPR drops. A low test positivity rate is a sign of adequate testing €" the TPR in Bihar has now been under 2 percent for a while. (94) (94)

The drop in TPR is commendable when compared against 15 percent in late July and considering it is below the latest national average of 3.7 percent -- the national average hovered around 6 percent until last week. This is noteworthy as Bihar with poor health infrastructure and fewer resources was expected to perform poorly than the national average.

Bihar is testing almost double than even Maharashtra, which is doing around 50-70 thousand tests a day. Granted, Maharashtra is likely conducting more RT-PCR tests, whereas a significant proportion of tests in Bihar are the less-reliable rapid antigen tests.

That, however, is the case with most of the states. I do not have access to data on the exact breakup of RT-PCR tests and rapid antigen tests. Moreover, it is not only TPR, but the number of active cases has also come down significantly in Bihar €" the testing is much higher than earlier, which suggests that the drop in active cases is real and not because of "missing" positive cases. An obvious caveat here is that the data being provided by the state government is being taken at face value. (93) (93)

The state government had imposed a lockdown from 16 July amid increasing new cases. As the active cases finally started to decrease, and the government finally allowed shops and dining facilities to open from early September, giving much-wanted economic respite to the lakhs of people associated with these businesses. The number of active cases has continued to decrease despite an almost complete 'unlock' from early September.

The state had the highest number of active cases, around 30 thousand, during mid-August; the number has been hovering around 11 thousand for roughly 10 days. The trend is not particularly unique to Bihar -- the number of active cases has been going down nationally for almost three weeks now.

It is important that we do not lower our guard. It is, by all means, too early to celebrate; we must be prepared for the long haul. Many parts of the world are facing the "second-wave" of the virus; Delhi and Kerala celebrated a bit too early, only to see a worsened situation later.

One thing we should know for sure is that, as Shekhar Gupta often says, "this virus does not like arrogance". In the last few weeks, mask-wearing and social distancing have gone down drastically in Patna. There is no reason to believe that the situation is any better in other parts of the state. It is almost bewildering that the number of cases has not gone up drastically, for whatever underlying reason. This, we must realise, need not be the case for very long.

Many experts have warned that the COVID-19 situation could become worse in winter. It is, therefore, important to maintain strict and high compliance with basic non-pharmaceutical interventions. The so-called "pandemic fatigue" and our tendency to underestimate the impact of simple precautions like mask-wearing need to be consciously resisted.

This will be critical in avoiding the hardship of another large-scale lockdown. The state government, of course, cannot effectively enforce these individual-based measures. Yet, it must do its part by scaling up informative campaigns and taking other measures to deter violators, to bring back some seriousness about the pandemic in public memory. The role of the Election Commission is going to be equally important, if not more €" its messaging must not underplay the threat of the virus.

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