New Delhi: The last meeting of the Group of Ministers (GoM) on Covid-19, headed by Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, was held on 9 June. The last health ministry briefing on the coronavirus crisis took place two days later, on 11 June. The last time the task force of the Indian Council of Medical Research met was more than two weeks ago.
As the number of Covid-19 cases in India spike to 4,56,183, and the number of cases and deaths in a 24-hour period touch 15,968 and 312 respectively, the central government is becoming less visible, receding into the background as if in tactical retreat.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah may have increased his visibility by directly taking charge of the worsening situation in national capital Delhi, but the rest of the top government machinery, which was everywhere in the early weeks and months of the pandemic, is hardly seen or heard from.
ThePrint made multiple calls and sent text messages to Dr Harsh Vardhan for a comment for this report, but there was no response.
The GoM was formed on 3 February to oversee the Covid situation emerging around the world. Apart from Dr Harsh Vardhan, the other members of the GoM are Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, MoS Home Affairs Nityanand Rai, MoS with Independent Charge of Shipping Mansukh Mandaviya and MoS Health Ashwini Kumar Choubey.
However, the frequency of its meetings looks inversely proportional to the magnitude of the Covid crisis, even as officials have begun to hold video conference meetings with states to get non-Covid services back on track.
Sample this: In February, when the total number of cases in the country was three — all of them students in Kerala who had returned from China’s Wuhan — the GoM met twice, on 3 and 13 February.
The next month, it met seven times — on 2, 4, 11, 16, 19, 25 and 31 March — while the total number of cases across India rose to 1,251.
In April, the GoM met three times — on 9, 17 and 25 April — as the cases climbed to 21,700 on the last of these dates.
Then, it met twice on 5 and 15 May, by when the total number of cases was 81,970.
So far this month, it has met once on the 9th, on which day the number of cases was 2,66,598.
Relying on civil servants
The reduced frequency of GoM meetings has coincided with the constitution of 11 empowered groups headed by senior civil servants to look into various aspects of Covid management. This had led to speculation about civil servants being the real drivers of the Covid strategy, which is also backed bythe fact that the Cabinet Secretary’s review meetings have continued, with one happening almost every week.
This apparent over-reliance on civil servants was highlightedon 30 May when three prominent groups of public health specialists — Indian Public Health Association (IPHA), Indian Association of Preventive and Social Medicine (IAPSM) & Indian Association of Epidemiologists (IAE) — issued a statement accusing the government of having “relied overwhelmingly on general administrative bureaucrats” over trained epidemiologists with field experience.
“Had the government of India consulted epidemiologists who had better grasp of disease transmission dynamics compared to modellers, it would have perhaps been better served,” the statement read.
“From the limited information available in the public domain, it seems that the government was primarily advised by clinicians and academic epidemiologists with limited field training and skills. Policy makers apparently relied overwhelmingly on general administrative bureaucrats,” it added.
Asked about the role of the GoM, a recently retired civil servant who did not wish to be identified told The Print: “You go to these institutions only when you want to get a national-level decision. You can go to these institutions or you can go somewhere else.”
Decisions that need that kind of clearance, officials say, are more quickly and more effectively cleared by the PMO, so the role of ministers is very limited. That has been the case with the Modi government from the beginning, but it has been accentuated during the pandemic.
Health minister and ICMR task force absent
Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan’s absence as the face of the Covid battle has been an issue raised repeatedly over the last three months, but he has kept an especially low profile since taking charge as the elected chair of the executive board of the World Health Organization on 22 May.
His visits to various hospitals and other Covid frontline agencies such as the National Centre for Disease Control have reduced, possibly in view of the rising cases.
Vardhan’s last such visit took place on 24 May, when he took stock at the Dedicated Covid-19 Health Centre (DCHC) at Chaudhary Brahm Prakash Ayurved Charak Sansthan (CBPACS) in Najafgarh, Delhi.
A senior health ministry official said of the minister: “Why should he make visits and expose everyone?”
However, just last week, Home Minister Amit Shah made a surprise visit to the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash (LNJP) Hospital, which is a Covid hospital under the Delhi government.
A member of the ICMR task force on Covid-19 also said their meetings “have not happened in the last two weeks or so. The frequency has certainly gone down”.
Asked about the silence of the ICMR, a senior health official said: “Their job is to provide the technical guidance which they have been doing. When the current guidance on testing strategy, tests or anything else needs a revision, a statement will be issued.”
At the start of the pandemic in January, the information flow from the Ministry of Health seemed to come at lightning speed and at all hours, often past midnight, as new orders and visa and export restrictions streamed in.
Starting in March, Covid briefings happened with clockwork regularity at 4 pm every day, including Sundays and holidays.
Since mid-May, the briefings started becoming less frequent and weekends are now off.
However, the last 12 days are the longest that the briefing has not happened, though there is a written update every day.
A senior government official said: “The idea currently is to let the focus stay firmly on Delhi. The home ministry is already issuing statements on that, as are we on the situation in the country. We will speak when we have something to say.”
As the cases have spiked, there have been changes in the way information is shared. District-wise data for Covid cases that was earlier available online has been pulled down.
Daily numbers and cases are updated on the Ministry of Health website, but the official statement mentions only the positives — the number of people recovered, how India’s cases and deaths are the lowest in terms of ratio of the population, and some positive tales from the states.
Last weekend, it was about how Mumbai’s Dharavi has conquered the disease, while this Tuesday, it was about the Odisha government’s use of technology and grassroots democracy in its Covid strategy.
The statement makes no mention of the number of fresh cases or the number of deaths, but has made it a point to mention how the number of recovered patients is now more than the number of active cases, a metric that epidemiologists say means very little over the entire duration of the pandemic.
“We are releasing two press briefs,” said a health ministry official when asked why briefings have become irregular.
‘We’ve done all we could do’
Asked about this overall trend, a senior health ministry official told ThePrint: “We’ve done all that was required, all that we could do. People have to learn to live with it.”
However, former Union health secretary Sujata Rao hit out at the government for taking a backseat.
“There is not much action on the part of the health ministry, they are silent. Of course, this India-China thing (tensions at the Line of Actual Control) has taken over… But even so, if health is a state subject, why did they put it under the Disaster Management Act and the Epidemic Act?” Rao asked.
“Controlling infectious diseases is totally the remit of the Ministry of Health, it is totally the business of the central government. If it is not their responsibility, then why did they declare a lockdown without asking states?” she continued.
“They did what they wanted when things were good, and now when they are not going their way, they are shirking responsibility.”