FIROZPUR, India — Authorities responding to a sharp spike in omicron cases sweeping across India had shut schools in the state less than 24 hours earlier. A curfew was reinstated, emptying city streets as darkness, and a rainy gloom, fell over Punjab.
“Even I wonder why there are big rallies with all these covid restrictions,” said Soni, a 27-year-old jewelry trader who had traveled 40 miles to see the Indian prime minister, in a crowd where almost no one wore facial coverings.
“These covid rules are all political,” Soni said. “The truth is, there aren’t very many infections yet.”
Yet there are.
Less than one year after India was devastated by the delta variant, coronavirus cases are again showing an alarming spike, this time propelled by the highly transmissible omicron variant. And just as it was last year, India is again entering a high-stakes election season, when political parties are pushing ahead with thronging rallies and campaign events even while health officials plead with the public to stay home and limit indoor gatherings, sporting events and weddings. Some states have banned campaign activities — but not the battleground states of this year.
Meanwhile, India reported nearly 60,000 new cases — about a third of the country’s active caseload — on Wednesday alone. Indian officials, echoing other health authorities around the world, say they are witnessing a rate of transmission far higher than with the 2020 delta variant wave, although the omicron variant is causing fewer deaths.
The growing concerns about the omicron variant and campaign activity have revived debate about how a crucial election season should proceed. The rising numbers have prompted flashbacks to early 2021, when massive rallies in the poll-bound state of West Bengal, along with teeming religious festivals, were blamed for fueling the delta surge that officials say led to at least 400,000 deaths. Some researchers estimate the death toll was an order of magnitude greater — more than 4 million — as India became one of the world’s worst-hit countries.
In recent days, Amit Shah, Modi’s close ally and the Indian home minister, has led rallies and car parades in Uttar Pradesh, a key campaign battleground. Viral videos from a marathon organized by the Indian National Congress this week showed runners without masks packed so tightly at the starting line that they collapsed into a heap. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who heads the Aam Aadmi Party, contracted the coronavirus after leading political rallies — just as officials in the city he leads announced school and gym closures.
“To impose curfews and restrictions on religious events and hold mega-rallies at the same time,” said Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at Ashoka University, “that is a perfect contradiction.”
T. Jacob John, an Indian virologist, described the rallies as superspreader events and predicted that “the march of omicron will be relentless” given how poorly India is adhering to masking and social distancing guidelines. The only upside, John added, is that it is unlikely hospitals will be overwhelmed or oxygen supplies stretched, because the omicron variant causes only relatively mild symptoms and many Indians already have acquired immunity from past infection and vaccines.
“I would have postponed all nonessential crowding until after the wave is passed,” John said. “But, for political parties, elections are more important than risk of spread of disease.”
As public debate has mounted in recent days about the political activities, Indian officials have deferred to other agencies to make a call. V.K. Paul, a senior health official, told reporters that it was the purview of the Election Commission to make decisions on whether to restrict political activities. The chief of the Election Commission, Sushil Chandra, suggested it was the various political parties that wanted the campaign season to continue.
S.Y. Quraishi, a former chief of the Election Commission, said it was the job of the government, not of the commission, to order a pause of events. “Everybody is passing the buck,” he said.
Some Indian experts say the concerns about large gatherings are exaggerated, particularly after two years of lockdowns and in the midst of an election season that could be decisive for Indian politics. Jayaprakash Muliyil, an epidemiologist and government adviser who sits on a national vaccination committee, argued it may in fact be better to lift restrictions and allow more Indians to be exposed to the omicron variant.
“We couldn’t block the first variant, we couldn’t block the delta variant, and we won’t be able to block omicron,” Muliyil said. “It’s a rough way of saying: This is probably not a dangerous virus, and if we got it, we have a better chance against the next variant.”
In the lead-up to the Punjab rally this week, the president of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in the state, Ashwani Sharma, said he projected 500,000 people would show up to see Modi. About 10,000 police officers were mobilized in Punjab to direct crowds and traffic, police officials said.
The BJP would ensure that “every precaution” to prevent coronavirus transmission would be taken and attendees would all be masked, Sharma said. “The BJP is not the only party that holds rallies,” he said. “If there is a covid threat, it is at every political rally, so why only blame us?”
As the rally kicked off Wednesday, BJP supporters, some traveling hundreds of miles, flocked to a clearing near the border town of Firozpur despite the persistent rain. Also trudging stubbornly around the grounds — public health workers trying to hand out masks, with mixed results.
Harminder Singh, a local health official, sat in protective gear near the entrance of the venue clutching a temperature gun. About 40 other workers were handing out masks, but perhaps 20 percent of attendees wore one, he estimated.
“This is the ideal situation for the coronavirus to spread,” Singh said. “But we’re helpless. We’re just following orders.”
By midafternoon, rally organizers had announced that Modi wasn’t coming after all. His cavalcade was blocked on a highway by protesting farmers, and furious officials were launching an investigation of what they called a security lapse. For thousands who had gathered to catch a glimpse of the prime minister, the event was for naught.
Monika Bedi, a local health department employee, remained upbeat as she marched through the dispersing crowd, trailed by young interns in white coats clutching unopened packets of masks that had no takers. Bedi paused to weigh the rally’s risks and its importance.
“Avoiding covid is important, but nothing’s more important than a visit from the prime minister,” she concluded. “Anyway, we’re Punjabis. We have strong immunity.”
Anant Gupta in New Delhi contributed to this report.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.
Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.
Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.
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