COVID-19 & Elections
By Dr. S. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
BJP manifesto for Bihar Assembly election promises free distribution of COVID-19 vaccine in the State once it is approved by the ICMR. Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman confirmed this by announcing that, “Every person in Bihar will get free vaccination” – a promise that has raised a number of questions from vaccine availability to violation of moral code of conduct.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has quickly responded by asking whether COVID care depends on election and accused the BJP of trying to “politicise” a public health issue. The RJD accused the BJP of selling the “fear of death and disease” – a remark that by implication accuses BJP of equating vote against that party as vote for escalation of the pandemic.
American President Donald Trump of the Republican Party said that Democratic candidate Joe Biden talks about “COVID, COVID, COVID … to scare people”. He repeatedly asserts that “We are going to quickly end this pandemic, this horrible plague” and claims that the virus is rapidly declining though statistics show a different picture. He accuses his rival Biden of exaggerating the health crisis to scare Americans into voting for him and exhorts voters to choose between “a boom and a lockdown”. Trump has also promised that a vaccine would soon be ready and would be free to everybody whether one is insured or not.
Asserting that the virus would disappear “like magic”, Trump pulled up government officials who had imposed strict mitigation measures and were slow in reopening businesses and schools. A few days ago, White House has installed two political operatives at the nation’s top public health agency to control information on the pandemic.
Interference with scientific medical message and manipulating data on disaster management has always been part of politics everywhere. In election time, information and propaganda machinery has an important role.
The pandemic has become a dominant issue in the presidential election placing the incumbent President Trump on the defensive. Biden, in a more comfortable position is on the offensive and says that Trump has given up on containing the virus. He has promised that if voted to power, he will within 10 days pass a comprehensive COVID-19 legislation and that he will not shut down economy, but will shut down the virus.
Biden’s main campaign issues are pandemic response and rebuilding the economy. He sarcastically remarked that Americans were not learning to live with COVID-19, but learning to die with it. Anti-Trump Republicans are also reported to be putting billboard ads linking Trump with Coronavirus deaths. Trump openly defied all medical precautionary guidelines like wearing mask and keeping social distance and also wanted others to follow his example. Biden, on the contrary, carefully kept public contact to the minimum.
With virus cases surging ahead in the US and the President himself testing positive and compelled to take treatment barely three weeks before election, it is expected that the pandemic impact will be in the crucial final lap of election campaign. COVID-19 has already killed over 224,000 in the US, that is, over one-fifth of total global deaths and has caused loss of millions of jobs. It has surpassed all other disasters that struck the country in recent years in terms of the miseries caused. Still, it is not the only issue to decide who will be the next President. For considerable sections of Americans, economy is as important as health. In several States in the US, protests burst out against government-supported lockdown.
Brazil President was also criticised for his handling of the pandemic. Like Trump, he also thought COVID fear was unrealistic and referred to the pandemic as “fantasy”. In Bihar also, unemployment and not COVID control is the prime issue. The return of migrant labour aggravated unemployment in the State.
The pandemic, lasting for nearly a year and not showing any clear sign of disappearing, has become a global election issue. National elections as well as local body elections, and referendums have been re-scheduled. Rapidly spreading epidemic like COVID-19 and a public event like popular election are born enemies. Conducting political rallies under pandemic rules is not possible and may cause both increase in virus cases and cancellation of rallies and public meetings. Social distancing is difficult to maintain in polling booths, contacts in small rooms are inevitable and touching voting machines and other equipments and articles by all voters in a booth unavoidable. Lockdown guidelines will become inoperative.
It is reported that at least 73 countries and territories across the globe have decided to postpone national and sub-national elections due to COVID-19 of which at least 39 are national elections or referendum. Local elections were invariably postponed everywhere. Parliament election in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, and Presidential election in Poland could not be held on their due date and were conducted a little later. Elections were postponed twice in Bolivia which ranks third highest in terms of per capita rate of deaths. In Chile, plebiscite on new Constitution and municipal and local elections were postponed from April to October. In France and Indonesia, local elections were postponed.
In Sri Lanka, special guidelines were announced for elections such as limiting the number of participants in political rallies to 300 which could be increased to 500 when party leaders participated. Health authorities were to be informed prior to holding rallies. Postal ballot is encouraged in many countries. Staggered voting time was adopted in South Korea and Singapore.
Re-election of Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Government in New Zealand is generally considered a successful model of campaigning responding to the presence of COVID-19. Pandemic issues dominated election campaigns and she steadfastly concentrated on both health and economy unlike many other leaders who made the two as alternatives. Minimising harm to lives and livelihoods is the principal lesson she gave. However, what is possible in New Zealand may not work elsewhere. New Zealand is small in size – smaller than many States in India – and geographically not very closely connected with other countries.
India too, by its lockdown and unlock policies without reference to any election is trying to bestow importance to both containing the virus and preventing economic downfall – a task very challenging in a huge country with diverse population in widely unequal living conditions. The Government of India and generally State Governments have been consulting medical, economic and other experts as well as administrators at every stage of lockdown.
As it’s close to one year elapsing since the appearance of COVID-19, several elections initially postponed have also been held with precautions. Voter turn-out in different countries yield a mixed picture of increase and decrease. In majority of countries, a decrease has been recorded. Contrary to the over-all trend, Poland, Singapore, Germany, Israel, Spain, and Sri Lanka witnessed increase in turn out.
Definite correlation between voter turn-out and implementation and scaled-up special arrangements, political context, and timing of election has been noticed. Government handling of COVID-19 is one of the factors deciding approval ratings for ruling parties. It will not suppress other factors and issues that bother the common man and influence voting pattern whether in Bihar or the US.—— I NFA