When elections were announced on February 26, Bengal recorded just over 200 new cases daily with the active case count around 3,300. There were three deaths that day. As political parties began to hit the streets in the first week of March, the cases had dipped below 200 while the active case count hovered around the 3,000-mark.
Between the time Bengal went to poll on March 27 and the eighth phase on April 29, new daily Covid case count had increased 21 times; active case count 16 times and deaths three-and-a-half times.
“Bengal had been hit by natural disasters like two successive famines. But this is a man-made disaster, politically imposed suffering on people by provoking the virus. Look at the extent of damage it has done – every second person is testing positive to the infection. From Darjeeling to the Sunderbans, no region — be it urban or rural — has been spared. The healthcare system is so overwhelmed. As a doctor, I have never seen such a helpless situation,” said cardiac surgeon Kunal Sarkar.
Midway through the elections, parties undertook a frenzied campaign during the seven-day break. Repeated warnings from doctors were lost in the din. From 4,000-odd new cases, 21,000 active cases and 12 deaths on April 10, when the fourth phase of elections was held, the case count had crossed the 7,500 mark on April 17, active case count spiralled beyond 45,000 and 43 deaths were recorded on April 17 when the fifth phase of election was held.
The bed crunch was beginning to be felt. Bengal, it was now certain, was heading for a health emergency. But electioneering went on as did poll violence. “The mass gatherings during election rallies, meetings have proved to be super spreaders, leaving Bengal bleeding. The 21-time higher cases that we are seeing today could have been prevented if EC had put a curb on all political gatherings right when doctors had started sounding the alarm after the first phase,” said public health specialist Anirban Dalui attached with Swasthya Bhawan.
By the time the Election Commission reacted to the avalanche of criticism that it wasn’t doing enough to contain crowding at rallies and roadshows and announced more stringent measures, Bengal was in ICU. The Left Front announced it would not hold any big rallies. But the two primary rivals — Trinamool Congress and BJP — did not indicate any concessions. Trinamool though demanded the remaining three election phases be clubbed. But the EC refused to change the schedule.
When the elections finally drew to a close on April 29 and party workers fought pitched battles on the streets while doctors and nurses fought to save lives in hospitals, the daily case count was over 17,000, the active case count was 1.1 lakh and deaths 89.
“This election has proved to be an ugly and violent fight for the throne. We might not have been able to keep the second wave at bay. But we would have been able to avoid this sharp curve and handle the situation much better had it not been for the long-drawn election battle. Covid has engulfed the entire state now, not even sparing rural Bengal that had remained mostly immune to the first wave,” said SSKM hepatology head Abhijit Chowdhury, mentor to the Covid Care Network.