Lav Agarwal, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, informed us Monday that “the Covid-19 curve in India is relatively flat as of now and if work is done collectively, then the peak may never come.” Ironically, Monday was India’s worst day of the coronavirus pandemic — with nearly 4,000 new cases and close to 200 deaths. But what does Lal Agarwal mean with “relatively flat”? Should we assume that by doing more of the same, we are at the brink of controlling the coronavirus pandemic in India?
As we shall soon see, the Narendra Modi government is flat-out misleading the public. In a crisis, transparency acts like a balm. Obfuscation and opacity can have catastrophic consequences.
There have been several news reports and opinion pieces of late that have fretted about India’s growing Covid-19 case load. Their argument is the opposite of the Modi government’s assertion. They point out that new cases are increasing and claims about flattening of the curve appear premature. On the other hand, the Modi government contends that it’s now taking longer for the number of Covid-19 cases to double, which means that the curve is “relatively flat” and the government’s lockdown policies have succeeded.
If only it were that simple. Using data collected by Our World in Data, an Oxford University and Global Change Data Lab initiative, we can compare India’s Covid-19 trajectory to that of other countries. After all, when using the term “relatively flat”, it makes sense to look for comparisons. Since this is a global crisis, comparisons with other countries are appropriate.
Indian results are worrisome
Before crunching the numbers, I made certain assumptions. First, I assumed that the official numbers are accurate. So, if India’s coronavirus testing is very limited or South Korea’s is extensive, I assume that their official numbers represent the reality. Second, in assessing the impact of the lockdown, I assume that each country imposed restrictions on 25 March, the first day of India’s lockdown. Obviously, some countries imposed restrictions earlier while others imposed them later. Some others did not impose restrictions at all. Third, I assume that all lockdowns are of a similar nature. Of course, the reality is that India’s lockdown is considered one of the severest in the world. Finally, I only reviewed data for 51 countries that had at least 5,000 Covid-19 cases by 3 May.
If we calculate the average daily growth rate of coronavirus cases reported in each of these 51 countries from 25 March to 3 May, India’s growth rate is sixth highest (11.6 per cent). Russia tops the chart at 15.2 per cent while the world is at 5.5 per cent. One can argue that it takes time for lockdown measures to take effect and we should not start the clock on 25 March.
To that end, I reviewed the number of new Covid-19 cases from 15 April to 3 May. India’s average daily growth rate for that period is 7.2 per cent (11th place). Bangladesh tops the charts at 12.8 per cent and the world average is 3.1 per cent. These numbers suggest an improvement for India but if you take into account factors such as the draconian nature of India’s nationwide lockdown and less restrictive regimes in other countries, India’s results are worrisome.
Modi govt’s bogus claims
What then does “relatively flat” mean? In the context of Covid-19, some countries have definitely flattened their coronavirus curves. Germany, which imposed restrictions on 23 March, saw average daily growth rates below 1.5 per cent. In South Korea and Australia, the average daily growth is below 0.5 per cent. India’s 7.2 per cent daily is nowhere close to what these other countries have achieved. At best, one could argue that India is bending the curve.
What of the assertions promoted by the Modi government (initially by the BJP) that without the lockdown and containment measures, India would have recorded 8.2 lakh cases by 15 April? This is where we should truly worry about the competence of our government. To get to 8.2 lakh cases on 15 April from 24 March (492 cases), the average daily growth rate had to be 40 per cent. No nation in my sample of 51 countries recorded that type of growth. Russia was the highest at 19 per cent. Of course, Russia had imposed restrictions but Sweden had not and its case growth was much lower at 7 per cent for the same period.
What our overzealous government bureaucrats, surely at the prodding of their political bosses, had not accounted for was what we call a “base effect”. As the number of cases increases, it becomes harder to maintain high growth rates. Going from 10 to 20 cases is easier than from 10,000 to 20,000. Basically, the Modi government was making a bogus argument to extol the virtues of the lockdown.
Now to the really bad news. Two assumptions for my calculations are not realistic. First, India is still testing at extremely low rates. Of the 67 countries for which I reviewed data from 30 April, India ranked 57th in terms of testing per 1,000 people. Around the world, we are finding that increased testing rates are leading to confirmation of more Covid-19 cases. Simply put, we cannot assume that India’s numbers are as credible as that of South Korea’s. Second, we cannot assume, as I did, that all lockdowns are identical. India’s is far more draconian than in much of the world. Yet, India’s case load is growing faster than in most countries.
Prime Minister Modi had justified the imposition of the nationwide lockdown by saying that it was necessary “to break the chain of infection”. But that was never really going to happen. However, what many, myself included, hoped for was that the government would use this time to develop a strategy for the inevitable exit, given that India’s circumstances differ greatly from those of wealthier nations. Having paid dearly for six weeks of lockdown, is India in a significantly better position now than it was on 24 March to mitigate the worst impacts of this crisis? I don’t believe so. For now, we are getting a more colourful blunt instrument than at the start of the lockdown, a splash of orange and green sprinkled around a country that is bleeding red… relatively speaking.
Salman Soz, formerly with the World Bank, is Deputy Chairman of the All India Professionals’ Congress (AIPC). Views are personal.