New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s action plan to combat the coronavirus outbreak in the country has so far seen unique measures to reinforce the capacity of the healthcare system and tough steps such as the 21-day lockdown.
The brain behind these emergency and unprecedented decisions is a team of more than 30 doctors and scientists who are working tirelessly as part of two special groups.
The team was formed earlier this month as the government scrambled to formulate its response to the coronavirus outbreak which was wreaking havoc in country after country, two sources said. The team was divided into two groups: One consisting of health experts and another of scientists.
The team’s main task is to advise the PM on every technical policy decision with regard to the pandemic. It is also tasked with assessing the nature of the outbreak, and the casualties it may cause.
According to the sources, the first group, constituted on 18 March, is headed by Niti Aayog member Dr V.K. Paul. It has 20 other members.
The other group is co-chaired by Paul and principal scientific advisor to the PM, K. VijayRaghavan, and has nine other members. The first meeting of this group was held on 21 March.
Both groups are in touch, on a minute-to-minute basis, with principal secretary to the PM P.K. Mishra, who briefs Modi about their decisions and recommendations.
“More often than not, it is through Mishra that the PM is apprised of what the team is up to,” said one of the sources.
“Typically, from the team of health experts, Dr. Paul as its chairman briefs Mishra about what should be done… Then Mishra communicates it to the PM, but sometimes the PM would directly get in touch with the team to get a sense of the situation,” said the source.
The team is crucial to India’s battle with the deadly virus that has so far killed 16 people in the country, and infected more than 600.
The group behind the lockdown
The health experts group, which is being referred to as the ‘corona task force’ under V.K. Paul, comprises Health Secretary Preeti Sudan, AIIMS director Dr Randeep Guleria, Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) director general Balram Bhargava, and public health experts in microbiology and others, according to the sources.
Scientists and ICMR infectious disease experts Dr Raman Gangakhedkar and Dr Nivedita Gupta are also on the task force. Both of them have been seen at the forefront at government press briefings, discussing the technical aspects and criteria of Covid-19 testing.
The other members, rarely seen in public, are from ICMR’s Institute of Epidemiology, handling the mathematical modelling of the disease and determining the nature and spread of coronavirus.
This group has been key to moves like the imposition of a nationwide lockdown and its 21-day tenure. It is also assessing the effects of the virus if unchecked, the measures to mitigate its impact, data reviews, analysis of the impact on countries, among others.
For instance, while PM Modi was initially worried about the economic impact of a lockdown on the poor of the country, he was advised by this group that the move was imperative to contain the spread at this stage, the sources said.
Since it is a fluid group of 21 members, it mostly does not sit together, especially given the need for social distancing, said the sources.
“At a time, only 4-5 members needed for something sit together, and their suggestions are communicated to the PMO,” said the second official. “Sometimes, 3-4 members of this group are called to the PMO as well.”
While some of this group’s decisions — like the ICMR’s move to restrict testing to those with travel history and symptoms — faced criticism, the task force has been reviewing its position on almost a daily basis depending on the evolving situation.
The one deciding the science
The second group is an empowered committee constituted “to coordinate, amongst science agencies, scientists and regulatory bodies, and take speedy decisions on R&D to implementation related to the SARS-Cov-2 virus and the COVID-19 disease”, according to an official statement.
Led jointly by V.K. Paul and K. VijayRaghavan, it consists of ICMR researchers, and secretaries from the departments of science and technology, biotechnology, Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, Defence Research and Development Organisation, among others.
This group has been assisting PM Modi in deciding matters related to science, technology and research — for instance, the decision to allow all national laboratories to carry out clinical testing of Covid-19 in India.