Crowds at Delhi's Sadar Bazar in the run-up to Holi in March 2021 | Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
Crowds at Delhi's Sadar Bazar in the run-up to Holi in March 2021 | Suraj Singh Bisht | ThePrint
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New Delhi: Mexican author Luís Alberto Urrea wrote in his book The Devil’s Highway: “Numbers never lie, after all: they simply tell different stories depending on the math of the tellers.” His context was illegal immigration across the US-Mexico border. But the lines are just as apt in a different frame of reference — India’s progress report on the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Over the past 16 months since the first Covid cases was detected, India has lived by the “all is well” motto. Be it making strategy out of limitations — take, for example, India’s counter of “isolate isolate isolate”, to the WHO’s “test test test”, early on in the pandemic, when testing kits were in short supply — or selective dissemination of information to give a “positive message”.

Almost every week at its Covid briefings, the government presented India’s cases and deaths as rates per million of population, instead of absolute numbers. This was meant to emphasise that the country’s infection and fatality rates are among the lowest in the world. 

At the same time, testing and vaccination figures were offered in absolutes, to make the report card look better. If the vaccination figures were shared as a percentage of the population, it would have shown India is far behind nations like Israel, the US, and Brazil, among others.

Even as India registers its worst daily numbers so far, the Government of India denies mutant strains have got anything to do with it. It also denies there is an “Indian” strain of the virus, even as experts claim otherwise.

All this, say epidemiologists, has created and upheld a notion that “India is special”, and this false confidence in part contributed to violations of Covid-appropriate behaviour. 

In recent months, the government has often blamed the public’s irresponsible attitude — shunning prevention measures such as masks, distancing — for Covid spurts. However, experts say it was probably the government’s optimistic communications that caused the general public to underestimate the pandemic, and set the stage for the new Covid wave, which has seen the country record over 2 lakh cases for two consecutive days Thursday and Friday.   

The shifting of goalposts — from breaking the chain of transmission at one point, to increasing the doubling time at another — hasn’t helped either, say experts, adding that it contributed over time to eroding public trust in government messaging on Covid-19. 

ThePrint reached the Union Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and Press Information Bureau Principal Director General Jaideep Bhatnagar by email to seek a comment for this report, but there was no response by the time of publishing.


Also Read: More 0-19 yr olds falling sick in India’s second Covid wave than last time, says ICMR


Jugglery of numbers

India has, for the past many months, looked at its Covid-19 burden through the lens of its population of roughly 138 crore. Calculating deaths and infections as rates per million, India arrived at figures significantly lower than in other countries. 

These figures were presented at the government’s weekly Covid media briefings to suggest India was doing well. 

Even at a time when the daily positives have surpassed the 2-lakh mark, India’s cases-per-million figure stands at 9,977 against a global average of 17,711. The deaths per million stand at 124 against a global average of 381.4.

As of 16 April, India had registered 1,74,308 Covid-19 deaths.

This figure itself has come into question because of doubts about the veracity of death reporting in the country. With various states deciding on their own criteria of what constitutes a “Covid death” — is it a Covid fatality if a heart patient dies because the coronavirus infection worsened their existing condition? — questions about coronavirus fatality figures have only intensified.

A completely different yardstick has been employed for the testing and vaccination numbers. These figures have been announced shorn of the population criterion because using that benchmark exposes that the picture is not all that rosy.

At 1,89,459 tests per million (as of 16 April), India is behind the US, France, the UK, Russia, Turkey and many other countries. 

An estimated 7.27 per cent of Indians have so far got at least one dose of the two-dose Covid-19 vaccines. The comparable numbers are 61.47 per cent in Israel, 47.42 per cent in the United Kingdom, 35.65 per cent in the US, 15.80 per cent in Germany, 12.93 per cent in Turkey, and 9.72 per cent in Brazil.

I don’t think we are in a whole country approach any longer and rightly so. But the messaging is inconsistent and does need to be national. Is this a serious disease or is it not?” said Ramanan Laxminarayan, Affiliate Professor, Global Health Director and Senior Fellow at the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, a public health research organisation.

“If we play down disease severity, and misproject mortality rates, then it is but natural that the man on the street doesn’t comply with masks and distancing. We are oscillating between fear and complacency and neither is the right approach.”

Shifting goalposts

India started on its pandemic journey with a bang — a lockdown that was to “break the chain of transmission”. Less than a month down, the goal had changed and the country was rejoicing its “success” in pushing up the “doubling time” — the amount of time it takes for the number of infections to double. 

When the numbers kept looking grim, the onus started shifting, first to states and then to people whose “irresponsibility” has become an important part of the central government’s pandemic communication.

India’s outlook on testing has evolved now that the supply of testing kits has eased. However, go back to March 2020, and the scene was different. Responding to the World Health Organization’s advocacy of “test test test” to beat the virus, India said its motto is “isolate isolate isolate”. 

The message appears to have percolated deep down because even as the government appealed to people to get tested, there was reluctance, even apprehensions.

“Mixed messaging throughout this pandemic, saying we are doing well when we are not, is a constant problem. People do not listen to public health messaging unless they trust those messages. That is what seems to have happened here,” said virologist Dr Shahid Jameel, the director of Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University.


Also Read: This CSIR sero survey could partly explain why India is in the grip of Covid wave again


Community transmission

The government has gone to great lengths to deny community transmission, the stage where the source of new and emerging infections is no longer known and the virus is loose in the community without the system having any knowledge of how the transmission is happening.

The denial continues even though technocrats, in off-the-record conversations, laugh it off as “delusional”. 

A crowd at a cinema hall in Kerala this January | ANI
A crowd at a cinema hall in Kerala this January | ANI

“If there is no community transmission, how did we come from the February low to the April high? It is because we could not track the infection. That denial is also why we are still talking pointlessly about testing and tracking,” said a government epidemiologist who has been closely associated with the framing of the pandemic control strategy. “Appearances have become more important than reality.” 

A similar vehement denial has been reserved for the existence of an Indian variant of the coronavirus, even as the government has acknowledged others.

“Mutation is a natural process. It is foolish to assume that the virus has not mutated when we have had 13 million infections. This time, the virus is more infectious — in Delhi, we have done some studies that show that it is 50 per cent more infectious,” said Jameel.

“It is also well documented that there is an Indian variant. There is a UK variant, a Brazil variant, why can’t there be an Indian variant? What is so special about us?” he added.

What did India in

Last year, just as India hit its first peak, medical journal The Lancet carried an editorial that dwelt on the country’s need to give a positive spin to Covid-19 numbers. 

“The epidemic in India is far from over, with a potentially huge burden of mortality and morbidity to come unless public health measures are used and adhered to. Without clear and honest communication of the risks of Covid-19 to the population, stemming the epidemic will be impossible,” the journal wrote on 26 September 2020.

“According to news reports, hours before announcing the national lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told owners and editors from India’s largest media organisations that it was important to tackle the spread of pessimism, negativity, and rumour. This pressure to avoid negative news, and to offer reassurance, appears to have been felt by several professional scientific organisations in India,” it added. 

Anand Krishnan, professor of community medicine at AIIMS, said communication failure has been an international phenomenon during the pandemic. 

“To strike a balance between how much of the truth to tell so that not to alarm but to ensure that there is compliance on the public health measures is difficult. I do not think we have tried well enough to balance the two,” he added.

Speaking to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity, a public health expert said it was not “the positivity per se that did us in”. 

“It is the fact that we believed it and stopped preparing. (UK Prime Minister) Boris Johnson talked positive but prepared. We somehow thought the second wave did not happen and now we are facing shortages of beds, oxygen etc already,” he added.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

This is the second report in a three-part series on what went wrong in India’s Covid response. You can read the first report here.


Also Read: Modi govt wants more Covid vaccines, but Moderna is ‘not keen’ & Pfizer has this ‘condition’


 

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VIEW COMMENTS

10 COMMENTS

  1. Whatever good is for govt, bad on people attitude is inherent in politicians. Every minsiter talk of rosy picture, but reality is very sad.

  2. At present, for the GOI Satyam Eva Jayate is only to be on the Ahoka Stambha. All the rest is lies.manipulated statistics.
    People can be fooled for ever. Paid crowds are there to bark at truth. Every institution is sedated.
    All in the name of RAMRAJ
    God save the Emperor

    • Very well said Mr Shyamsundar !

      To add to what you have said, one also has a supine, spinless media that does what the BJP and Modi want it to do. Freedom of the press has gone out of the window. But the worst thing is that bhakths like it that way. They will not brook any criticism of Modi, the all-knowing, infallible Prophet and leader of the Vishwaguru.

      And we have Adityanath waiting in the wings to take over.

  3. Can we have a look at the causes of second wave in various countries? The effects have been much more severe as compared to India. How have these countries, many of them quite advanced, been handling. Blaming the government cannot be a panacea. Fear mongering cannot help. We need lot of facts and figures, calm minds, clear thinking and logical planning. The roles of stakeholders has to be clearly laid down and members of the public should participate whole heartedly to effectively combat the situation. A detailed postmortem can wait for the time being. It will be a valuable exercise nevertheless

  4. Health is a state subject as per Indian constitution. It is the collective incompetence of the state governments which is not helping in mitigating the covid crisis.

  5. Greenhorn journalists sitting in judgment about complex issues which they cannot comprehend. Today I find that in The Print, all the contributors have shown herd mentality. Nothing but criticism of Government. For a change why not blame the irresponsible public, reckless politicians who want elections now and won’t follow the protocol? Covid 19 problem had been brought down to minimal level in January 2021. Complacent attitude of the public is at the root of the problem. Everything elese is secondary.

    • Correct. …the problem is that people dont manufacture vaccine in their homes, they dont turn their houses into hospitals with adequate ventilators & oxygen, people don’t study medicine & become doctors. These were told to the people by the VISHWAGURU, but our foolish people didn’t listen

    • Pls note
      if somebody dies of covid bcos of lack of Oxygen supply/medication/ hospital beds/ ambulances it would be the fault of the patient itself
      If a policeman/healthcare worker/sanitation worker contracts covid it is their own fault
      If a working citizen contracts covid inspite of wearing mask it is their own fault
      If Modi as PM does political rallies and people attend, it is the people’s fault
      If EC conducts an election over a month’s time instead of 1 day it is the people’s fault

      Dear Guruji forgive the print, they aren’t as enlightened as you, the BJP, and Republic. They’ve forgotten that all of this is Nehru’s fault

    • Yes, the citizens, who adhered to most Strictest and longest lockdown, without protest and complain, who let their finances go to ruin, believing govt will use that time to prepare, should be blamed. Not the Government of India which didn’t have enough oxygen cylinders, or beds or ambulances or testing kits or even remdesevir injections, a year after pandemic first came. BJP which is organising huge public rallies in several states, it’s star campaigners who are going to different states attending gatherings where each and every Covid norm is flouted, shouldn’t be blamed. Blame the public which trusted the govt with their life and is now paying the price for it.

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