1,621 gov’t staff on poll duty die of COVID in India state: Union

Uttar Pradesh Primary Teachers Association says the government workers were forced to work as polling officers despite a raging pandemic.

Voting for local panchayat elections being conducted at a polling station on the outskirts of Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh [File: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP]

Aniket Kumar lost both his parents – who worked as principals in government-run schools – to COVID-19 within 10 days.

In early April, his father Lallan Ram, 59, and mother Meena Kumari, 55, attended a camp held in Uttar Pradesh’s Siddharthnagar district to train government staff for the panchayat (village council) elections in the state.

The large northern state, roughly the size of the United Kingdom, is India’s most populous with nearly 220 million residents.

Despite a ferocious second wave of the coronavirus engulfing the country, the mammoth village council elections were held in four phases in April in which nearly 1.3 million candidates aspired for 800,000 posts.

Kumar, 26, said his parents were called for the training session and assigned election duty despite being in the high-risk COVID group due to their age and comorbidities.

Kumar lost both his parents after they were called for poll duty amid a deadly pandemic [Courtesy: Aniket Kumar]

Within days of returning from the training camp on April 11, Kumar said his parents developed fever. Ram, a heart patient, was initially stable.

But on April 20, his symptoms got severe and the family got a Rapid Antigen Test done, the result of which was negative. Two days later, they conducted an RT-PCR test on him, but the report was delayed and no hospital was willing to admit him without the report.

Meanwhile, his condition deteriorated. “We checked 32 hospitals in a single day but without an RT-PCR report, no hospital admitted my father,” Kumar told Al Jazeera over telephone.

With help from a friend, he finally got his father admitted to a private hospital in Gorakhpur, almost 77km (50 miles) away.

But he lost his father on April 26 and cremated him in Gorakhpur.

After he returned home the next day, his mother Meena’s condition also suddenly deteriorated. She was taken to a local hospital by her 23-year-old daughter Anisha Joshi, who is an MBBS student.

A week later, Meena also lost the battle to COVID-19 disease on May 4.

“My parents were my world. I lost them to the carelessness of this government,” Kumar told Al Jazeera.

“I am 100 percent sure my parents got infected at the election training camp because that was the only place where they went during that time. I drove them to the school where the training was happening myself. It was so crowded and no COVID-19 protocol was followed or any such arrangement made by the administration.”

An inside view of a counting hall during the counting of votes for panchayat elections in Ghaziabad [File: Sakib Ali/Hindustan Times via Getty Images]

Dinesh Sharma, president of the Uttar Pradesh Primary Teachers Association, told Al Jazeera that about 300,000 teachers were on duty for the four-phase local elections.

“At least 1,621 of our members have died due to COVID while on duty for the panchayat election. Of the 1,621 persons, 30 were non-teaching staff members and the rest 1,591 were teachers,” he said.

The elections were held when India was reporting a record number of daily infections, with states such as Uttar Pradesh among the worst hit as its under-funded and crowded hospitals struggled with the inflow of patients and a shortage of beds and medical oxygen.

Kumar said while his father was battling for life in the ICU, he had a call on his mobile phone from some official who threatened him with a police case if he did not turn up for the poll duty.

“I told the officer that my father is in the ICU. Instead of showing any sympathy with me, he threatened that an FIR (first information report) would be filed against my father if he didn’t come for his election duty,” Kumar said.

On the night of April 18, Simran received a frantic call from his father Hussain, who was a primary school teacher on his way to Amroha district for the election duty.

“He was coughing and was struggling to breathe,” said the 18-year-old, requesting not to use his or his father’s full name fearing repercussions from the state.

He rushed to the spot and took his father to a local hospital where he was kept on oxygen support. Days later, Hussain’s condition deteriorated and he had to be shifted to a hospital in Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi. He died on April 28.

Simran says soon after attending his first election-related meeting in early April, his father had caught fever and cough. Despite that, he alleges, he was forced to attend the meetings and the training camp.

“There were orders from the local administration that cases will be filed against those who will not come to duty. So, my father had no choice,” he said.

An election officer marks the finger of a voter with indelible ink before letting her proceed to cast her vote for local panchayat elections at a polling station on the outskirts of Prayagraj [File: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP]

Sharma said his association sent several letters to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and the state election commission, expressing their concern over the safety of teachers holding the polls amid a pandemic.

In the letters, the association warned the situation was not “conducive” and could prove disastrous for the lives of the government employees.

“We continuously warned the government and the election commission that this election should be postponed and that our lives are at risk but nobody listened to us,” Sharma told Al Jazeera.

The association has sent a list of the victims to Adityanath, demanding financial assistance of 10 million Indian rupees ($136,670) to each of the families who lost their loved ones and jobs for their dependents.

On May 12, the state’s Allahabad High Court also said the state government must grant the amount as ex-gratia compensation to the polling officers who died due to COVID-19 during and after the elections.

“It is not a case that somebody volunteered to render his or her services during election but it was all made obligatory to those assigned with election duty to perform their duties during election even while they showed their reluctance,” the court said, according to a report by Live Law website.

However, the Uttar Pradesh government has rejected claims that more than 1,600 people died, saying there were only three COVID-19 fatalities among the teachers deputed as polling officers.

The teachers’ association accused the government of being “insensitive, irresponsible and far from reality”.

Ameeque Jamai, spokesman for the opposition Samajwadi Party, told Al Jazeera that hundreds of teachers had to lose their lives “due to the mismanagement and negligence of the BJP”.

“The BJP is lying and playing with the sentiments of the bereaved families,” he said, endorsing the union’s demand for compensation.

Despite repeated attempts by Al Jazeera, a BJP spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Source: Al Jazeera