DEHRADUN, India – After India’s most populous state held local elections last month, a wave of illness swept through teachers who were deployed by the government to work at the polls. Many of them have died, without access to health care or without a coronavirus test.
As the elections approached, Arunoday Prakash Mishra was summoned for training, crammed into small rooms with dozens of other people as they received instructions on how to run the voting booths. A few days later, after showing up for work at a polling station, the 52-year-old high school teacher developed a fever and sore throat. Then he had trouble breathing, his brother said.
When Mr. Mishra returned home later that day, he looked very sick. His family took him to several hospitals. None had room for him, overloaded by a constant flow of Covid-19 patients.
The father of four died early the next morning at home. It has never been tested for the virus that causes Covid-19.
India records around 4,000 deaths per day in world’s fastest growing wave of Covid-19, but public health experts say official figures do not reflect toll, hospitals and testing sites being overwhelmed and many dying at home. Hard-hit areas, including the national capital New Delhi, continue to struggle with shortages of oxygen, medicine and hospital beds. Crematoriums and cemeteries in many parts of the country are struggling to cope.
Around 2,000 officials are likely to have died from Covid-19 after elections in Uttar Pradesh, including more than 700 teachers, a tally based on Covid-19 test results or symptoms, according to surveys by unions representing employees state and teachers. The unions had tried to postpone the elections. Mr. Mishra’s brother, Shailendra Kumar Mishra, had tried to persuade him not to stand for election.
“’The state administration is very tough,’ he told his brother. “If I don’t run for office, chances are I will be suspended. If I’m suspended, how will the family eat? “
Public health experts have indicated that the elections that took place in states in India earlier this year were one of the factors that contributed to the surge. Political parties and leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have organized large electoral rallies in some states.
Elections in India, even at the local level, often involve the mobilization of an army of officials. About 1.3 million candidates were vying for nearly 870,000 positions representing villages and districts in the Uttar Pradesh election, which took place in four phases at the end of April. About 124 million voters participated and more than 1.2 million government officials and employees helped administer it, the state election commission said.
“They know that electoral duty is part of their job,” said Suresh Yadav, deputy general secretary of the Uttar Pradesh Primary Teachers Union. “Yet this time around, many were strained due to the rapid increase in cases in the state from the start of April.”
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Before the vote began, unions petitioned the government and the state electoral commission for a delay due to the increase in Covid-19 cases.
Shishir Singh, a spokesperson for the Uttar Pradesh government, said the administration wanted to delay but had to follow a February court order to hold the elections by the end of April. The court issued the order, at a time when Covid-19 infections were much lower in India, after votes were postponed.
Mr Singh said there had been no undercoverage of cases. He said on Sunday that the government was awaiting a report on the spread of the virus among election workers, but had not verified anyone who was infected or died from Covid-19.
Meanwhile, lawyers petitioned the Allahabad High Court for the postponement of the elections. On April 7, the court dismissed the petition but ordered the government and the state election commission to take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus during the election.
Unions, election workers and their families say little attention has been paid to the judicial directive or the safety of election workers. A union representing government employees asked senior government officials for personal protective equipment for election workers.
“We were told that the state had no resources for this,” said Hari Kishore Tiwari, chairman of the Joint Council of State Employees of Uttar Pradesh.
Adesh Kumar Singh, a 45-year-old primary school teacher, was assigned to a polling officer position in a village in Shahjahanpur district, in the north of the state. Training sessions were held in small rooms filled with more than four dozen people, he said, and election workers were driven to voting sites in crowded trucks typically used to transport grain and cement.
“The Covid-19 guidelines made little difference,” he said. “There has been colossal mismanagement. There were no masks, no disinfection, no physical distance rules followed. “
Uttar Pradesh’s election commissioner did not respond to requests for comment.
Mahesh Prasad’s family had tried to dissuade him from going to the elections. But the father of six said he had heard that absenteeism could be punished by suspension from employment, his nephew Sunil Rajvanshi said.
When the principal of a primary school in northern Uttar Pradesh, 50, returned from his post on April 20, he looked tired, Rajvanshi said. The next day he had a fever and a cough. On the night of April 24, he was having trouble breathing.
His eldest son, 17, rushed him after midnight to a government hospital in Lakhimpur Kheri district, where Mr. Prasad was admitted and given oxygen. His family noticed that the doctors were keeping their distance and asked them if they thought it could be Covid-19. Doctors said the earliest possible it could be tested was 10 a.m.
When Mr Prasad’s oxygen cylinder ran out, doctors transferred one from another patient, said his nephew, who was present that night. The family worked to organize an oxygen-equipped ambulance to take Mr Prasad to the state capital of Lucknow, a three-hour drive away, but none were available.
At around 8:25 a.m. that morning, Mr. Prasad died before he could be tested.
“Look at his symptoms. This has happened to so many teachers across the state who went on election missions, ”Rajvanshi said. “How could they all have gotten sick if it wasn’t for corona?”
Uttar Pradesh government said it would give $ 41,000 to families of state employees who died from Covid-19 after being infected during elections, government spokesman Mr Singh said. . Families said they were asked to test positive when requesting.
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