Covid-19 fear looms large among officials as Bihar readies to go to polls

“Everyone is scared of Covid-19. Social distancing, which the government has been advocating as a precautionary step, is not being followed in the true sense,” said an official.
Security personnel seen carrying EVM machines on the eve of the first phase of Bihar Assembly election.(Parwaz Khan / Hindustan Times)
Security personnel seen carrying EVM machines on the eve of the first phase of Bihar Assembly election.(Parwaz Khan / Hindustan Times)
Updated on Oct 27, 2020 10:53 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Patna | ByRuchir Kumar | Edited by Sparshita Saxena

The fear of contracting coronavirus disease (Covid-19) looms large over 6.58 lakh polling personnel enlisted for Bihar assembly polls 2020, which kicks off on Wednesday, despite the government having put precautionary measures in place.

Among some requests for exemption from poll duty on medical grounds, which swelled this year, there were also applications of officials who tested positive for Covid-19.

Election officials, however, were not positively disposed to let go of officials who had recovered from Covid-19. In one such case, an official from the Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS) of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has been assigned election duty in Patna on October 28 and November 3 despite being on leave after suffering from post-Covid complications.

The CGHS additional director of Patna, the controlling officer of the official concerned, had formally requested district election officials to exempt the staff concerned from poll duty but the request was not received on the pretext that his letter for election training had already been issued, said a CGHS functionary.

“Doctors, nursing officers and pharmacists have been exempted from poll duty. However, clerical and multi-tasking staff have been assigned election work, which will severely hamper the functioning of our wellness centres and polyclinic. We requested the Patna district magistrate to exempt our staff from poll duty in times of Covid-19 but are yet to hear from him,” said Dr Mridula Sinha, additional director, CGHS Patna.

The CGHS caters to around 50,000 beneficiaries in the state, including working and superannuated Central government employees, MPs, ex-MP, ex-governor, freedom fighters and their dependents.

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“I am not aware of this particular case,” said additional district magistrate (ADM) Arun Jha who is heading the personnel cell for conduct of Bihar assembly elections in Patna district.

“Many officials, including our district magistrate, tested positive for Covid. This doesn’t mean that we exempt all of them from poll duty. We did not consider exemption request of officials who had recovered from Covid and were past the mandatory isolation period,” he said.

“We considered around 15 requests for exemption from poll duty of officials who tested Covid positive after the medical board set up to screen officials on health grounds,” added Jha.

The medical board considered favourably 1,500 out of 2,000 applicants who were asked to appear before it at Patna’s Sri Krishna Memorial Hall 10 days back, said ADM Vinayak Mishra.

Jha said the number of requests for exemption of officials from poll duty was more this time as compared to previous years. He, however, could not quantify the requests made on grounds of Covid. “We did not screen applications on basis of Covid-19, though requests for exemption from poll duty were certainly more this year,” he added.

Bhagalpur exempted around 600 officials from poll duty out of the 950 requests it received on medical grounds, said district magistrate Pranav Kumar.

“We received around seven requests for exemption on grounds of Covid, claiming they have been infected by the virus after being assigned poll duty,” said Kumar.

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Barring Patna, most of the remaining 37 districts of Bihar have a Covid-19 positivity rate of less than 5 percent on real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT PCR), a confirmatory test for Covid-19. Patna’s positivity rate was over 7 percent on RT-PCR. However, the positivity rate in most districts would be less than 1-2 percent if rapid antigen tests were also to be taken into account, said health officials who did not wish to come on record.

Despite assurances, state health officials did not share the district-wise case positivity rate in Bihar.

“We will prepare the district-wise data on positivity rate and share with you by 2 pm tomorrow,” said a senior health officer, who is also the spokesperson for Covid-19, named by the Bihar chief secretary. Even after six days, the officer had not done it.

“Despite the precautions, we are definitely scared of Covid-19 but have to do election duty as we do not have a choice. As officers, it is our mandate to conduct elections which is a constitutional obligation,” said Anil Kumar, general secretary of the Bihar Administrative Service Association (BASA).

Around 900 of the 1,243 BASA officials have been deputed for election duty in Bihar.

“Everyone is scared of Covid-19. Social distancing, which the government has been advocating as a precautionary step, is not being followed in the true sense and exists only on paper. This is worrisome for poll officials,” said Anjani Kumar, former general secretary of the Bihar Engineering Services Association (BESA).

BESA president Janardan Prasad Kashyap also confessed about the Covid-19 fear among poll officials.

“It is not only tedious but also difficult to adhere to Covid safety norms in field duty. The fear will remain till we don’t get a vaccine,” said Kashyap.

Bihar has 9,073 active Covid-19 cases out of the total 2,13,383 and 1,065 deaths have been reported till Tuesday. Patna, with 34,913 cumulative cases, led the state tally, followed by Muzaffarpur (9,670 cases and 38 deaths) and Bhagalpur (8,356 cases and 67 deaths). As many as 2,03,244 patients had recovered with 95.25 percent case recovery rate.

While announcing Bihar elections on September 25, chief election commissioner (CEC) Sunil Arora had said this would likely be the biggest election exercise in the world in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic but the EC had taken all precautions and, “eventually life must go on”.

The EC had made arrangements for 7 lakh units of hand sanitisers, 46 lakh masks, 6 lakh PPE kits, 6.7 lakh face shields, and 23 lakh single-use gloves.

Keeping in mind the need for physical distancing, the maximum number of voters per polling station had been reduced from 1,500 to 1,000. This had pushed up the number of polling stations from the 65,367, set up during the previous elections in 2015, to 1,06,526 lakh this time — an increase of 62.96 percent.

Of the 6.58 lakh polling personnel, a record 2.03 lakh are women.

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