In Maharashtra, nearly 42 per cent of the 43-member council of ministers have tested positive for COVID-19, the latest being Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar. There’s a reason, perhaps.
On Tuesday, three of Maharashtra’s cabinet ministers met representatives of cane cutters at Pune’s Vasantdada Sugar Institute. Other leaders — Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and Bharatiya Janata Party’s Pankaja Munde — were also present.
The meeting took place inside a large conference hall, with all those present seated at a distance following COVID norms.
But as soon as the meeting was over, everyone squeezed in for a picture — at least 34 people standing right next to each other, some –like Pawar — with their masks coming off under the nose.
Of the 18 ministers from the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government to test positive, 13 are cabinet ministers, and five are ministers of state. Seven of them are from the NCP, six are from the Congress, four belong to the Shiv Sena. Omprakash Bachu Kadu of Prahar Janshakti Party, an MVA ally, also tested positive in September.
Two days before Ajit Pawar said he has contracted the infection, Leader of the Opposition and former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis tweeted that he was isolating himself after testing positive for COVID.
Politicians are vulnerable to the virus due to the nature of their jobs. However, the number of ministers infected in Maharashtra is one of the highest in the country. Among other states with a large COVID caseload, Uttar Pradesh has 16 ministers who have tested positive in a council of 54, while Karnataka has nine COVID positive ministers among the total 23.
Maharashtra has reported a total of 16,54,028 Covid-positive cases, of which at least 1,31,554 are currently active, according to latest data with the state government.
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While ministers automatically make themselves more vulnerable to Covid when they are out in the field and travel among people, within offices too, many don’t necessarily follow the protocol of social distancing and wearing masks at all times, sources said.
An official who attends the weekly cabinet meetings on a regular basis told ThePrint that these meetings, held in a long conference call on the seventh floor of the state headquarters of Mantralaya, are especially “a hotbed for catching the infection”.
“The room gets too crowded,” he said. “There are 33 cabinet ministers, plus government officials. These meetings go on for 2-3 hours, and social distancing is not possible because the room is just not big enough.”
The official added: “For some reason, ministers also remove their masks while speaking, which defeats the purpose of wearing one.”
Most ministers have been physically attending the state cabinet meetings for the past few months, while CM Uddhav Thackeray joins in through video conference.