An unexplained cause of pneumonia was first detected in the Chinese province of Mohan in November 2019. The first cases were associated with the virus which was suspected to be of animal origin. The spread of the infection was however almost entirely powered by human to human transmission in the province by December 2019. The virus was named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2) and was classified as a novel coronavirus and the disease it inflicts in humans was labeled Novel Coronavirus Disease-2019 (COVID-19). The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on January 30, 2020, and by March 11, upgraded the outbreak to a Pandemic status. As of the morning of October 16, 2020, according to the John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, over 73 million cases have been reported worldwide, resulting in more than 1.6 million deaths. The countries with the largest caseload include the United States with over 16.7 million cases, India with almost 10 million cases, Brazil with close to 7 million cases and so on.
A BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE INDIAN GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE TO COVID-19
India’s first Covid-19 patient— a 20-year-old medical student who just came back from Wuhan in China — was reported in Kerala’s Thrissur district on January 30, 2020, the day when the WHO declared it to be a PHEIC. In the United States, the first reported case was in Washington State on January 21, 2020, where a male patient had returned from Wuhan, China. Although the federal government in the US had established the White House Coronavirus Task Force on January 29, in India there was no such step taken. The Indian government only cancelled visas for the Chinese, and undertook universal screening of all the passengers arriving in India, something which the Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba admitted as having a “gap between the number of incoming international passengers who should have been monitored for coronavirus and those who are actually being checked”, which jeopardized the efforts to control the pandemic. And even till March 13, 2020, a day after India reported its death due to the pandemic and close to 100 reported cases, the Indian Health Ministry said “COVID-19 is not health emergency, no need to panic”.
It was on March 22, 2020, that the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called upon the citizens to observe a 14-hour voluntary lockdown (Janata Curfew), which on the face of it seemed as a request and something totally voluntary, but was the beginning of the politics of pandemic and propaganda. Inter-state bus, metro and rail services were suspended, schools and colleges were closed, and from a Janata Curfew, it became an institutionalized curfew. But, this was just the tip of the iceberg, on March 25, 2020, at 8pm in the evening, in a televised message to the nation, the Prime Minister of India announced a nationwide lockdown of 21 days, which would come into effect roughly 3.5 hours after he had finished his address, leaving hundreds of thousands migrant labourers stranded in the cities with no means to go back to their native places. Since then, the number of Covid-19 reported cases had increased from 600 cases to almost 10 million cases as of October 16, 2020.
ELECTIONS DURING COVID-19
On 7 April 2020, the state of Wisconsin held its primary election in the run up to the November Presidential Elections in the United States. The primary was held at a time when the global pandemic COVID-19 was on its upward trajectory in the US. In contrast to Wisconsin, 14 other states postponed their primaries. These different approaches to managing elections during a pandemic raise a number of questions about the risks to democracy in the presence of an external threat of the kind the world has experienced with the spread of COVID-19.
The spread of the virus and various government responses may have a significant impact on what is known as the electoral cycle which involves a number of elements relating to: (1) the pre-electoral period (training, information, and voter registration), (2) the electoral period (nominations, campaigns, voting, and results), and (3) the post-electoral period (review, reform, and strategies). There are several ways in which the pandemic and government response can affect any one of these processes. First, the virus itself could discourage voters from casting their votes and affect overall levels of turnout. Second, the consequences of formal postponement vary by regime type. For example, in full or ‘flawed’ democracies postponement can lead to intensifying polemics, e.g. in US, France, Italy, and Poland. Third, many different elements in the electoral cycle may be affected. Voting operations on Election Day and campaigns in the run up to an election can be disrupted.
Despite the problems that might occur, elections are a mainstay feature and ‘basic predicate’ of democracy, which provide the primary mechanism through which political leaders are chosen and held to account and through which individuals participate in the governance of their country.
In India, elections to the upper house of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) were held with strict social distancing measures in place. Recently, in the state of Bihar, elections were held for the legislative assembly, which was the first mainstream election held after the pandemic hit. The Election Commission of India had made provisions for the conduct of smooth elections but unfortunately it did not strictly enforce the provisions for electoral campaigns and rallies because the electoral campaigns by many politicians did not acknowledge the presence of global pandemic. People were seen crowding, violating social distancing with no masks and were repeatedly saying that “there is no Corona in Bihar, it is a thing of big cities like Delhi and Mumbai”. Such an approach is not appreciated mainly because of the fact that a few days before the elections in Bihar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a video message had remarked that people have stopped wearing masks and not following the social distancing and other norms, reminding people that till a vaccine is available, the pandemic should not be taken lightly but in the election rallies of his own party members, people were not wearing masks. Given the high stakes involved in an election, it is imperative to find solutions for conducting a transparent and genuine even during a pandemic.
POLITICS OF PROPAGANDA & HATRED IN A PANDEMIC
India announced a nationwide lockdown on March 25, 2020, giving citizens roughly 3.5 hours to prepare for the same. While the government assured that COVID-19 is not a health emergency and there is no need to panic, thus it is difficult to anticipate what made the government change its mind suddenly and with no deliberations in the public sphere. The nationwide lockdown forced India’s hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers out of their jobs and on the roads, with no public transport available for them to reach their native places. With no option at hand, the poor labourers started off walking on roads to their native places, hundreds of kilometers along highways with their families and their belongings. In addition to this, an over enthusiastic team of government personnel sprayed made the labourers sit on a road and disinfected them before they could enter the village. In a gruesome incident which occurred on 8 May 2020, an empty goods train ran over and killed sixteen migrant workers sleeping on or by the tracks near Aurangabad in Maharashtra.
Then there was the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) incident, which became the target of propaganda, hatred and vilification of the Muslim community by the authorities, media and the public and was made responsible for spreading COVID-19 in the country. Members of TJ, comprising of Indians and foreign nationals were slapped with charges of attempt to murder as well as willfully disobeying the authorities during a pandemic, thrown in jails and quarantine centres. Government agencies alleged that there was a larger conspiracy behind this conference. Meanwhile, the Home Ministry blacklisted 800 foreign nationals from entering India, and the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal called the gathering as an “irresponsible act”. Now, I would point out that the visas were granted by the Home Ministry for the foreign nationals, permission to hold the event was granted by the Delhi Government and the event had taken place before the nationwide lockdown was announced, at a time when the Health Ministry said that COVID-19 is not a health emergency and there is no need to panic. In addition to this, all the FIRs and cases filed against members of TJ either resulted in a discharge (where the charges against the accused were rejected by the court even before the trial could start) or in acquittal. The Bombay High Court, while quashing an FIR said “there is no proof Tablighi foreigners spread Covid and were made scapegoats”, rebuked the police for “non-application of mind” and slammed the print and electronic media for the “big propaganda” against the foreigners who were a part of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation. In a similar judgement, the Madras High Court found their incarceration unreasonable and unjust, and ordered their immediate release and a similar order was passed by the Karnataka High Court. Several mainstream news channels were functioning as extensions of the executive branch of the government, laying emphasis on the communal aspects without any constructive reporting and debate of the pandemic and related matters. In an analysis by Kroordashan, an online news portal found out that many mainstream anchors had devoted more than 95% of their on-air time only discussing religion and communal matters, and engaging in creating an atmosphere of hatred towards the Muslim community, especially in the backdrop of the Tablighi Jamaat incident.
In the dealing of COVID-19 by the countries, emphasis and importance is given towards those in power. It is in this context that it is imperative for those in power to give due regard to the needs of the people and try and accommodate different points of view that are present in a society. In the Indian context, the conduct of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his perception of dealing with the pandemic is an attempt on his part to make him seen as a charismatic leader, a leader who is ready to tackle any challenge and is free from any shortcomings. The charismatic authority, as deliberated in Max Weber’s discussion on authority is what Modi seeks to build, given his tremendous victories in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections as well as the victories of his party in many States as well. In the end, handling of the pandemic and at the same time preventing any political game is of supreme importance for any country in the world.
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Rushan Salim Suri
1st Year, B.A.LL.B (Hons.)
Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi-110025