Coronavirus cases fueled by the highly transmissible variant of omicron are skyrocketing in India, prompting the federal government and states to quickly reintroduce a series of restrictions.
Nighttime curfews are back. Restaurants and bars are operating at half their capacity. Some states have closed schools and cinemas. Large gatherings should be reduced.
But India’s political leaders are busy campaigning ahead of crucial state polls, addressing crowded rallies of tens of thousands, many without masks.
The scenes are surprisingly similar to those in election season last year, when the delta variant ravaged the country and made India one of the worst affected countries in the world. Some political parties have started to scale back their campaigns and halt a few rallies, but health experts fear the lessons learned last year have already been forgotten.
“The highly transmissible omicron variant chases and grabs you. But our politicians are there to greet it with a hug, ”said Dr T. Jacob John, an Indian virologist. “I’m afraid this is starting to look a lot like last year.”
A devastating wave of infections ravaged India last year. It was partly fueled by large crowds at campaign rallies, where politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, often appeared without masks and addressed swarming crowds.
This increase has left the country’s healthcare system down, with people begging for oxygen and hospital beds. The crematoriums were short of space. Daily deaths topped 4,000 at the height of the crisis, with at least 200,000 people dying between March and May, a number widely viewed as a vast undercount.
Health officials say the new wave is claiming fewer deaths and many cases are asymptomatic. But they warn against taking the omicron variant too lightly, and say many cases, even more mild, could still put pressure on the country’s fragile health system.
Overall, new daily cases have almost quadrupled over the past week. Hospital admissions are on the rise, and medical staff in some states have been urged to shorten their winter vacations.
Cities are seeing a massive increase, with Mumbai, the financial capital of India, surpassing its previous highest daily count. New cases of COVID-19 in five states embroiled in the election campaign – Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur – have exploded.
On Saturday, the health ministry said more than 141,986 cases had been reported in the past 24 hours, an increase of almost 21% from the previous day.
Health experts say increased social contact at crowded election rallies is fueling the spread of the virus.
“The chains of transmission that started earlier this year as a result of these gatherings will take months to die down,” said John, the virologist.
In recent weeks, Modi has addressed large rallies in several cities, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, led by his Bharatiya Janata party. The party’s political opponents have also embarked on the electoral campaign, flouting health guidelines.
Earlier this week, the Congress party held a marathon in which thousands of people ran without masks and were so tight they collapsed on top of each other. New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal contracted the virus after being seen without a mask while leading political rallies in several states.
As health experts warn of rapidly growing infections and data suggests they are spreading faster than during the peak of the outbreak last year, several political parties have begun to correct course .
The Congress Party has said it is stopping political rallies in Uttar Pradesh and moving to virtual campaigning. A few other parties, including Modi’s, followed suit. It is not known, however, if they will cancel all future gatherings.
Voting is scheduled to start on February 10 and end on March 7. The results will be announced on March 10.
On Wednesday, VK Paul, a doctor working with the government on its response to the coronavirus, said it was likely “systems will be overwhelmed.”
On Saturday, the electoral commission, which had so far hijacked the call by saying political parties wanted the rallies to continue, bowed to mounting pressure.
The commission banned all physical gatherings and roadshows for a week and said a decision to impose restrictions throughout the campaign would only be made after a review on Jan.15.
SY Quraishi, a former head of the commission, said the campaign could be banned or restricted for the entire period if the commission so wished.
“But they lack the will,” Quraishi said. “What is the point of banning gatherings when the virus has already spread across the country?” “
John, the virologist, said officials in states with upcoming elections are inconsistent in imposing curfews and restrictions on daily gatherings, but allowing large electoral rallies to be held.
“The government has once again sent a message that politics is more important than health,” he said.