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Huge crowds gather at rallies, raising coronavirus fears

People look on as RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav leaves in a helicopter during an election campaign rally at Masaurhi on October 21, 2020 in Patna
Large crowds have been seen in political rallies in BIhar

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday asked people not to be complacent during the festive season, urging them to continue wearing masks and follow social distancing.

But the message doesn’t seem to have reached the northern state of Bihar where large crowds have massed at political rallies ahead of state elections, scheduled to begin on 28 October.

All parties, including Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have ramped up campaigning ahead of the elections.

Footage from some of the rallies shows people jostling to get a glimpse of politicians, and hardly anybody appears to be wearing masks.

Virologists and doctors called the large gatherings “callous” and said that such complacency could have devastating consequences, enabling the virus to spread much faster.

India has recorded more than seven million cases so far, but its daily case count has been steadily dropping in recent weeks even as testing has remained consistent. Although some have said this suggests that the worst of the pandemic is over, others have cautioned against celebrating too soon.

The Election Commission has also warned politicians against flouting Covid-19 safety rules. But it seems to have had little impact as crowds continue to gather at rallies.

Virologist Dr Shahid Jameel says political parties need to be more responsible and they need to educate their cadre.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addresses an election campaign rally ahead of Bihar Assembly election on October 22, 2020 in Hasanpur, India.
Social distancing has not been enforced in Bihar’s election rallies

“We see thousands of people in these rallies and hardly anyone with a mask. It is the responsibility of every political party to ask its followers to follow safety rules.

“That is the only way we know to prevent infection [from spreading],” he told the BBC.

The first phase of polling will be held on 28 October, and the other two phases will follow on 3 and 7 November. Results will be announced on 10 November.

The BJP-led coalition is seeking to be voted back into power – it’s facing opposition from an alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress party, and also from other regional parties.

The stakes are high for all political parties. Their initial campaigns were virtual but now they have moved offline.

Mr Modi is addressing three rallies on Friday and Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi is also holding campaign events.

A senior journalist in the state told the BBC that nobody “was really talking about coronavirus as a campaign issue”.

“It seems like the virus has disappeared from the state. People have become complacent and politicians are not doing enough to warn people,” he said.

The state government

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