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Virus Shifts Up Gears As Poll-Bound TN Lowers Its Guard

Representational Image

Representational Image

Health officials worry over the apathetic attitude of politicians as public meetings and rallies turn into a theatre of open defiance to Covid containment strategies

Poll-bound Tamil Nadu is presenting Covid warriors a big challenge: political rallies. With lawmakers addressing crowds of followers and loyalists, who jostle in confined spaces without masks, the virus threat is looming over the state.

Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, DMK President MK Stalin, Makkal Needhi Maiam President Kamal Haasan, TTV Dhinakaran, and a galaxy of smaller politicians and speakers are on whirlwind tours in the state.

The coronavirus, meanwhile, has staged a comeback. Over the last month, numbers have been peaking after bouncing off a low. As of Friday, active cases were at 6,222 people as against 5,811 on Thursday. The word is that total active case count could rise up to 10,000 cases.

Even as a “second wave” emerges as a distinct possibility, Tamil Nadu’s political leaders appear to be determined to go on a strong campaign drive, holding public meetings and rallies. Most political leaders speak from the top of campaign vehicles, which are surrounded by party cadres standing shoulder to shoulder, wearing no masks. In most cases, politicians themselves are seen without masks.

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As of now, the Corporation has adopted a stance that stepping up vaccination while managing clusters would be an effective strategy. A corporation official told CNN News18: “We are running the vaccination centres effectively. So far, over 4 lakh people have been vaccinated.”

However, another corporation official laid down the depth of the problem: “This is a huge challenge. We don’t have the kind of manpower. At an average, we get at least 30-40 requests a day for permission to hold rallies. It is equally their [politicians] responsibility to contain the virus.”

In Chennai, the capacity to vaccinate has touched over 60,000 people a day, although the actual count hovers only around 25,000 dosages a day.

Politicians have not urged people to follow norms especially at a time when the state is witnessing 900 odd cases for the last two days. Some say the relaxed attitude has reached such a peak that it would be difficult to reverse it.

“I have taken the first covid vaccine and I try to ensure my safety when I participate in public meetings. We won’t be able to avoid crowds during the election season,” said AIADMK lawmaker and senior leader S Semmalai.

“We know many in the crowds don’t wear masks but we can’t do much considering it’s election season.

When we recently had a public meeting, everyone who was on stage gave speeches using the same mic. I was scared to use the same mic because of the increase in covid cases and I used one of the two masks I wore to cover the mic before using it to speak to the gathering. But we won’t be able to do much now as we have two weeks left for polls,” said AIADMK MLA S Semmalai.

Virologists and disease experts are united in their opinion that elections at the time of a pandemic need to be executed with a lot of planning. Eminent virologist Dr Jacob John said he, among others, has been pushing for diversion of vaccines to poll-bound states where everyone above a certain age, say 30, can be vaccinated so that relaxations of curbs do not lead to a spike in cases. “We have the vaccine! What is the vaccine for? Let’s not wait. The vaccine can also be used as a tool to reduce the burden of infection where it is rising.”

In all possibility, the case count in Tamil Nadu is likely to peak over 10,000 around the polling day on April 6. The Election Commission, too, is taking several steps to ensure people are allowed to follow physical distancing while they wait in polling booths to vote. Should there be a surge, as predicted by some, the voter turnout could be severely impacted by the pandemic’s resurgence.

first published:March 20, 2021, 18:38 IST