Bihar Assembly Election 2020: As campaigning begins amid Covid-19 concerns, health dept works out strategy

Poll-bound Bihar, which has done relatively well in arresting the positivity and death rate as far as the raging coronavirus disease (Covid-19) is concerned, faces the litmus test to contain the viral outbreak as campaigning, Durga Puja and Chhath festivities draw closer.

Bihar is the first state to go to polls amid the pandemic. There is growing fear about the spread of the contagion following the easing of lockdown restrictions, intensifying of campaigning and allowing complacency to take root.

To make matters worse, health experts have warned of an uptick in the viral outbreak cases because of the onset of winter.

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Bihar has not been able to make the use of masks a mandatory social practice, especially in rural areas. A strict compliance with social distancing norms in outreach programmes has also been few and far between.

The state health and family welfare department, which has received accolades for keeping the contagion under check to date, has its task cut out.

Baiju Nath Kumar Singh, deputy chief electoral officer, Bihar, said district administrations must ensure adherence to the Election Commission of India (ECI) guidelines regarding Covid-19 on the lines of disaster management norms and make all necessary arrangements, including keeping a strict vigil on political gatherings.

Another state EC official, who did not wish to be quoted, said the violation of the poll panel’s guidelines for Covid-19 would attract punitive action.

“District administrations have been directed to ensure compliance with Covid-19 guidelines,” he added.

The ECI has reduced the number of star campaigners from a national party from 40 to 30 in a bid to prevent overcrowding at rallies and outreach programmes.

Pratyaya Amrit, principal secretary, ministry of health and family welfare, Bihar, said the upcoming assembly polls, Durga Puja and Chhath festivities were the three major challenges before the state government because they would lead to overcrowding.

“We are working round-the-clock to ensure compliance with the ECI’s guidelines for polling booths. We will keep up with our aggressive testing mechanism and ensure 100% coverage of households in containment zones at least three days prior to each phase of polling. We have also urged district magistrates (DMs) to include the use of masks as a mandatory requirement while checking vehicles and take necessary steps to spread awareness about the viral outbreak,” he said.

There has been a dip in daily tests because of a decline in the positivity rate of late. Besides, recovery rate is hovering around 95% and Covid-19-related deaths, too, have decreased significantly.

But the state health and family welfare department authorities are on their toes to ramp up the testing mechanism, as campaigning gathers momentum and no longer remains virtual.

The authorities are trying to conduct tests closer to the venues for public meetings and rallies. The campaigning is expected to gather pace over the next two weeks.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejaswhi Prasad Yadav and others will hit the campaign trail hard amid the viral outbreak.

“We plan to set up camps for testing. They may be made voluntary. We are making the use of masks mandatory. The precautions will be in place until Chhath in a bid to keep the contagion at bay,” said Amrit.

Another health and family welfare ministry official said the onus was on the political parties to spread awareness about the viral disease and take safety precautions to lead by example for the state’s vast rural and illiterate population.

“Overcrowding on a stage will send the wrong signal. It may make the public complacent, especially in the hinterland, where the Covid-19 pandemic is yet to be taken seriously. Precaution is the only way to safety,” he added.

The ECI has left the decision on rallies and public meetings to district administrations, who have been allowed to draw up a list of venues, where social distancing norms can be maintained.

The poll panel’s guidelines have stipulated that five persons, including a candidate, is allowed to carry out can door-to-door campaigning in a constituency.

However, the guidelines are being flouted with impunity in rural Bihar, much to the dismay of district administrations.

Bihar goes to the polls on October 28, November 3 and 7.

The election results will be announced on November 10.

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