New Delhi/Mumbai: Senior Telangana Congress leader V. Hanumantha Rao tested positive for the novel coronavirus Sunday, becoming the latest politician to get infected in the course of their work.
Two days before, Om Prakash Saklecha, a BJP MLA from Madhya Pradesh, tested positive for Covid-19 just hours after casting his vote in Friday’s Rajya Sabha elections, forcing other MLAs who were present with him at the state assembly to get themselves tested.
Saklecha was the second Madhya Pradesh MLA to test positive after Congress’ Kunal Chaudhary, who cast his vote Friday wearing a PPE suit. Jyotiraditya Scindia, who left the Congress to join the BJP and is now a Rajya Sabha member, had earlier tested positive.
Delhi Health Minister and Aam Aadmi Party leader Satyendar Jain also tested positive last week, and had to be moved to an intensive care unit when his condition deteriorated, before showing improvement upon receiving plasma therapy. Apart from Jain, four AAP MLAs including national spokesperson Atishi have caught the virus — as did Uttarakhand minister Satpal Maharaj of the BJP, along with his family members and staff members.
Across the country and the political spectrum, over two dozen politicians, including legislators and corporators, have contracted the virus.
There have been fatalities too — Tamil Nadu MLA J. Anbazhagan of the DMK succumbed to Covid-19 on 10 June, while in Maharashtra, BJP’s two-time former MP and two-time former MLA Haribhau Jawale, died last week.
Maharashtra, the worst-hit state in India, also had three cabinet ministers in Uddhav Thackeray’s coalition government — former CM Ashok Chavan, Jitendra Awhad and Dhananjay Munde — who caught the virus and recovered.
So, are politicians at greater risk of catching Covid-19? And if yes, why?
Adapting to the times
Attending official and public meetings, participating in relief work and interacting with their constituents are all part of a politician’s daily routine, pandemic or no pandemic.
Many politicians ThePrint spoke to said the very nature of their job, which entails interacting with the public, makes them slightly more vulnerable compared to others.
Some of them, however, are adapting to the times and taking necessary precautions.
Nawab Malik, cabinet minister in Maharashtra and the Nationalist Congress Party’s Mumbai unit president, told ThePrint that the way he operates his office has changed a lot.
“We have appealed to people to not personally approach me or the office with their problems. Instead, we are asking them to reach out to us by email, WhatsApp, phone calls. Earlier, while most of my day was spent in meeting people, now it is spent in taking calls and looking at WhatsApp,” Malik told ThePrint.
Malik had to isolate himself for a few days after Dhananjay Munde tested positive. “I had attended a meeting with him recently. We need to take these basic precautions while being in public life,” he said.
Chhattisgarh Health Minister T.S. Singh Deo told ThePrint that the pandemic has made it difficult for politicians to meet large numbers of their constituents like before. “Public interactions have been badly affected. You cannot go to the field and meet people regularly. We are able to meet only a limited number of people, and that too, after maintaining proper distance and taking all precautions both before and after the meeting,” he said.
Deo said though he has started using virtual platforms regularly for his meetings and interactions, it is not sufficient.
“It’s not only about getting infected, but also ensuring that others don’t get infected. There are examples of ministers and other politicians getting infected and possibly infecting others,” he said.
Many politicians who have got infected have been involved in distributing relief materials to the poor. Though there is no official confirmation on how Telangana Congress leader Hanumantha Rao contracted the virus, sources said he was regularly distributing ration and relief material during the outbreak.
Besides Rao, two MLAs of Telangana’s ruling party TRS, Muthireddy Yadagiri Reddy and Bajireddy Govardhan, have tested positive for Covid-19.
West Bengal Fire and Emergency Services Minister Sujit Bose, who tested positive last month, was one of the few ministers who was seen among the people on the streets after Cyclone Amphan hit the state last month. Bose was initially advised home quarantine, but was later shifted to a private hospital following respiratory distress.
Need to be extra careful
Public health experts agree that politicians and public figures need to be extra careful because they interact with far more people on a daily basis than a non-politician.
Prof. Giridhar R. Babu, head of Lifecourse Epidemiology at the Public Health Foundation of India, said precautions to avoid getting Covid-19 are universal, including public figures, be it frontline health workers, politicians or civil servants.
“But politicians and bureaucrats have to be doubly cautious as they interact with more people. Politicians also tend to ignore mask-wearing etiquettes. There is a general feeling among them that wearing a mask is uncomfortable. This attitude is not correct,” Babu said.
The professor added that public figures are also at risk because they have to attend meetings in closed-room settings.
“That is why it becomes all the more important to adhere to physical distancing protocols both inside closed-door meetings and outside,” he said.
Dr Sushila Kataria, head of the Department of Internal Medicine at Gurugram’s Medanta, said though politicians are at higher risk, there is no reason for pharmacological interventions like prescribing hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) for them.
“HCQ is recommended for frontline health workers only. For public figures like politicians, our advice is avoid public interactions as much as possible. Move online to address meetings. And wear masks all the time when you are out or attending meetings, follow social distancing and wash hands frequently. These are the only recommended solutions,” Kataria said.
(With inputs from Prithviraj Singh)