Many teachers in a hurry with Indian polling duty have become victims of the virus, families say
Suman Lata’s family begged her to refuse a summons to monitor elections in Uttar Pradesh state last month, but, worried about losing her job, the 49-year-old mother of three is still there gone, as India’s second wave of coronavirus peaked.
Two weeks later, she was deceased, one of more than 1,600 teachers who died from COVID-19 in the weeks following the ballot box, according to the families of eight victims and mortality data provided by a union of teachers.
“She asked if she could be excused, but the officers said ‘if you are not sick you have to do your duty,” said Lata’s 25-year-old son Vaibhav Agarwal, sitting in front of her picture, flower garland in the family home in the city of Mathura, southeast of the capital, New Delhi.
It was not possible to verify how many teachers in the eight families Reuters spoke to contracted the virus when they attended the voter training or the poll.
The state of Uttar Pradesh has so far only considered compensating teachers who have died while in office. He says that for those who died after the poll, there is no evidence that they contracted the virus during their election mission.
Primary Education Minister Satish Chandra Dwivedi told media last week that only three teachers died while in office. He dismissed the teachers’ union figure of 1,600 as “disinformation.”
State government spokespersons did not respond to requests for comment.
Almost all of those interviewed said their loved ones began to develop symptoms several days after returning from service.
The others said their loved ones were already sick when called but had not been tested for COVID. Their requests to be relieved of their duty were denied, the families said.
Swati Gupta, a 32-year-old teacher, fell ill after taking voter education in early April, her cousin, Amit Kumar Gupta, said.
“She had written a request to the district magistrate and the state electoral commission to remove her from office due to poor health, but no response was received,” he said.
She then tested positive for COVID and died before the polling date.
Stretching across northern India and home to over 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh is more populous than Brazil. Village-level elections are a huge exercise, with more than 1.3 million candidates vying for 800,000 polling seats spread over four days in April.
With schools closed due to the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of teachers have been called in to help monitor the votes and oversee the tally.
Coronavirus cases increased in the state in April, from an official number of less than 1,000 per day at the end of March to more than 30,000 per day at the end of April.
Hospitals in northern India experienced an unprecedented crisis in April, with patients dying from lack of oxygen and beds, while crematoriums worked around the clock.
The federal government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come under fire for allowing mass rallies throughout April, including a religious festival attended by millions of people and elections in several states.
News footage from the polls in Uttar Pradesh showed crowds of voters jostling in the queues, some not wearing masks. On one occasion, police charged a crowd that was crowding into a counting center near Lata’s home.
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Uttar Pradesh did not enter a statewide shutdown until April 30, the day after Lata completed her voting duty.
“She called to tell us the facilities were really bad,” Agarwal said. She was not given any hand sanitizer, gloves or any other protective gear, he said.
Uttar Pradeshiya Teachers Union Prathmik Shikshak Sangh has repeatedly written to Chief State Minister Yogi Adityanath, an ally of Modi, asking for the poll to be postponed, but said he had got no response.
“These deaths could have been avoided if the elections had been postponed, but the government never paid attention,” said Sanjay Singh, general secretary of the union.
“The least they can do now is compensate every family.”
All eight families Reuters spoke to said their relatives felt they had no choice but to carry out their electoral mission.
A few days after her return, Lata fell ill. She was transferred to hospital, tested positive for COVID and died on May 14.
Lata was the breadwinner as her husband is unable to work due to an injury. Without his monthly salary of 65,000 rupees ($ 895) – which places them firmly in India’s emerging middle class – the family faces hardship.
A suggestion by the state government that it could provide compensation to teachers it admits to have died after contracting COVID for duty to vote has done little to allay anger over its refusal to postpone the vote.
“She was our mother, she provided everything for us,” Agarwal said. “The money won’t bring her back.”
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