Kerala polls: Many candidates are breaking COVID-19 protocol despite the risk

Across party lines, most candidates either appear maskless or don’t wear a mask properly and fail to maintain physical distancing norms.
Oommen Chandy, K Surendran, J Mercykutty Amma
Oommen Chandy, K Surendran, J Mercykutty Amma
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At the beginning of the election campaign in Kerala, LDF’s Vattiyoorkavu candidate VK Prasanth entered a mosque to meet people after Friday prayers without wearing a mask. A voter in the constituency was quick to observe, "For candidates it's like a life and death play, otherwise how could they go to hundreds of people without even a mask. After elections most of them will be infected."

On March 21, at Congress Bhavan in Kayamkulam, all party workers were waiting for the arrival of MP Shashi Tharoor to start an event as part of election campaigning in the constituency. There were hundreds of people, most of whom were either maskless or not wearing masks properly and failing to maintain physical distancing.

When Shashi Tharoor, who was wearing a mask, arrived, he was swarmed by cadres who wanted to take a photograph with him. Minutes later, UDF candidate Aritha Babu arrived on stage sans mask. All throughout the campaigning that day neither she nor her fellow party workers were wearing a mask or maintaining physical distancing.

The scenes at Vattiyoorkavu and Kayamkulam have been hardly rare this poll season. Across constituencies, candidates across party lines have failed to maintain COVID 19 protocol while campaigning.

Kummanam Rajasekharan, the NDA candidate from Nemom constituency of Thiruvananthapuram has also rarely been seen wearing a mask during campaigning. Physical distancing is nowhere found in any of the campaigning groups. Despite the high risks, several senior leaders like Oommen Chandy, Kadakampally Surendran, AC Moideen, Ramesh Chennithala have violated the mask protocol amid the pandemic.

Younger candidates have also thrown caution to the wind. K Surendran, BJP Kerala chief and the NDA candidate for Manjeswaram and Konni was also never found wearing a mask. People around him were also seen without masks. Surendran was also seen hugging people in the constituency, especially the elderly - putting himself and others at risk.

J Mercykutty Amma, the Fisheries Minister and LDF candidate at Kundara constituency wore a mask, but always below her chin - defeating the very purpose of the protocol.

However, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Health Minister KK Shailaja, who have been the faces of the state’s battle against the pandemic, have been strictly following COVID-19 protocols while campaigning. The CM refuses to shake hands or give a hug, he also wears a mask that covers his face fully while also maintaining distance. It is the same with the Shailaja Teacher.

‘Fear not being recognised’ 

Except for a few, the majority of candidates are putting themselves at risk of being exposed to COVID-19. So, do they understand the risks?

"We know that it is risky. But we have no idea how to campaign without meeting the masses. Being in a crowd is the traditional way of campaigning we follow. Actually many of the candidates don't cover their face as they fear, no one would recognize them," one candidate from south Kerala said.

The fear of not being recognised was the justification from other candidates as well. "How can we go without showing our face. Our faces need to register in people's minds. Pinarayi Vijayan or KK Shailaja don't require that. They already have an image. Many of the candidates are contesting for the first time in the elections and they can't take a chance by following non-traditional campaigning," said another candidate from north Kerala.

The risk of getting infected, however, doesn’t seem to worry many candidates. "This is a competition. It is necessary to take this risk. If you wear a mask and keep away from people how they will vote for you," said another candidate, who claimed that those who don’t have comorbidities cannot die from COVID-19. However, TNM has in the past reported how young and healthy are also susceptible to the virus.

But what about the electorate? Some expressed apprehension to go close to a candidate. "Obviously, I won't prefer giving a handshake to a candidate, they may be meeting thousands without any precautions. It is their job they will take risk but we have to be careful," said a voter from Nemom.

Another voter from Ernakulam said, "Today or tomorrow we could be infected. For elections it's necessary. People are not all worried when they come very close to the candidate and they are even ready for a hug."

Another voter from Kannur asks what is the point conducting the elections following the protocol when that is not applicable for campaigning.

When the 2020 Kerala Local Body polls were announced, the government had warned that there would be a surge in COVID 19 cases. When there was a spike in cases, the polls were cited as a reason. Officials admit there could be a similar situation post polls in the state.

"Obviously after the elections there will be a surge. Thousands of people are there in the field without following any precautions. We will have to face this," says a health official from the Directorate of Health Services.

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