New Delhi, April 24 (KMS): India is reeling from a record rise in Covid-19 cases, with the health system struggling to cope.
Some are blaming the country’s political parties for pressing ahead with crowded campaign rallies for state elections.
The ruling BJP has said there is no link. “High cases have nothing to do with religious or political gatherings,” Dr Vijay Chauthaiwale, of the BJP, told media.
What’s happened to case numbers?
India’s daily case numbers began rising at the end of February after falling steadily from mid-September 2020.
They picked up sharply in March, and have reached record highs this month, outpacing the rate of growth seen in the first wave which hit India in 2020.
At the same time, India’s political parties have been campaigning for a series of state elections in West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
This has been going on since early March, with voting starting at the end of March, and carrying on through April.
Was there a spike due to election rallies?
The campaigns have often involved numerous rallies with large crowds – with minimal social distancing and very little mask-wearing.
Political campaigners and candidates were also seen not following Covid safety protocols.
India’s election commission issued warnings about such gatherings in one of the key election battlegrounds, West Bengal state. It finally banned rallies there on 22 April after noting that many politicians weren’t sticking to safety rules.
In West Bengal, there’s a clear upward trend in daily coronavirus cases starting in the second part of March and then very sharp increases afterwards.
And in other election states there were similar big increases in late March or early April as well – in Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
But we don’t have local data for infection rates among people living in the places where the rallies were held (and who were most likely to have attended them).
Also, this timeframe for surges in case numbers is by no means unique to these four states, and is found in other parts of India as well.
For example, there are big case numbers in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.
They are not holding state polls, but they’ve also seen significant rises in cases over short time periods.
So there’s no firm evidence as yet in the data to establish a direct link between campaign events and rising case numbers.
What’s the risk at outdoor events?
The risk of virus transmission at outdoor gatherings compared with events indoors remains very low, say experts.
“Not least the fact that the virus released can be rapidly diluted through the atmosphere,” says Prof Lawrence Young, of Warwick Medical School.
However, there are factors that could increase the chance of transmission at events such as political rallies.
If people are in crowded places, in close proximity to others for long periods of time, not socially distanced and without good ventilation, then infections are possible.
“There are bound to be pockets of people in confined spaces outside in close proximity to people excreting the virus. [It’s a] distinct possibility that could lead to infections,” says Prof Young.
Prof Jonathan Reid at the University of Bristol says that despite factors that substantially reduce the risk of transmission outside, standing in close proximity will still lead to a significant risk, particularly within 1m downwind of someone and face-to-face.
“This will be particularly significant if the individual is generating an increased number of droplets and aerosols by shouting loudly.”
Could a new variant be behind the surge?
Scientists are investigating whether the new variant of coronavirus that first emerged in India last year might be responsible for the country’s second wave.
Crowds at India’s Kumbh Mela amid Covid wave
Experts say it is possible, but there is still not enough evidence to determine any causal relationship.
Due to a lack of data, the Indian variant is not currently listed by Public Health England as a “variant of concern” – a term used to describe the UK, Brazilian and South African variants.
What are the different Covid variants?
It’s worth noting that there’s been a major religious festival in northern India as well since early March.
The Kumbh Mela attracts millions of devotees from all over the country, and there’s been little sign of safety measures at it.
More than 1,600 positive cases were detected at this event between 10 and 14 April. — Courtesy BBC