From Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise on 25 March of “defeating corona” in 21 days to Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan’s assertion in the Lok Sabha on Sunday that “irresponsible behaviour” by Indians is driving the pandemic — this is the story of how the Modi government keeps changing its Covid story to steer clear of blame.
This even as India crossed one negative Covid milestone after another and is now the global second. As of Friday, the country has 58,18,571 cases and has seen 92,290 deaths.
For the past six months, the Modi government kept roadmaps fuzzy and analysed control strategies only in hindsight with little credible data to support its claims. For instance, the government is now using multiple “projections” to claim that the 68-day lockdown prevented up to 29 lakh Covid-19 cases. However, it is not willing to share projections about where the pandemic is headed in India and what are the eventual numbers that the country could be looking at over the next few months. Such numbers are needed to design state responses and ensure public compliance. But there is ‘no data’.
In his statement in Parliament last week, Harsh Vardhan had said: “It has been estimated that this decision prevented approximately 14–29 lakh cases and 37–78 thousand deaths.” These are projections by organisations such as Boston Consulting Group, Public Health Foundation of India and the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, among others. The only forward-looking statement came on Tuesday when NITI Aayog’s Dr V.K. Paul said that with the winter and festival season coming, an escalation in Covid numbers is expected.
The break-up of RT-PCR and antigen tests — a crucial factor in the pandemic — have not been shared either despite repeated queries. The number is important because antigen tests tend to give false negative results, which is why there have been multiple communications from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) about the need to retest symptomatic antigen negatives using the RT-PCR test.
However, as the numbers kept getting bigger and bigger, new metrics were introduced to keep the narrative ‘positive’. The coronavirus pandemic was measured in deaths (“highest rate of recoveries”) and cases per million (“one of the lowest in the world”). But when it came to tests, the chosen unit was tests per million per day, so as to not give away the fact that India’s 49,834 tests per million is lower even than countries such as Brazil, Russia, Columbia and Peru.
Now that all eyes are on a vaccine, Indian companies, unlike those in the US, have not shared their blueprints. For example, while Harsh Vardhan assured Parliament that a vaccine would be available by early next year, there is no clarity on a timeline for an interim assessment of results. The Serum Institute of India, which is all set to start Phase III trials of the Oxford vaccine, refused to reply to an email questionnaire sent by ThePrint. Dr Balram Bhargava, replying to a question, said on Tuesday that a vaccine would need to have a minimum efficacy of 50 per cent to be approved.
‘Defeat corona in 21 days’
On 25 March, the first day of India’s nationwide lockdown, PM Modi had addressed his constituents in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. He had said: “Remember, the victory in the battle of Mahabharata came after 18 days. Today, the entire country is battling the corona crisis. It is our endeavour to win this battle in 21 days. At the time of the war of Mahabharata, Lord Shri Krishna was the sarthi (charioteer). Today we have to win this battle against corona on the strength of 130 crore people. The people of Kashi also have a large role in it.”
This was also the time when India’s avowed aim was to break the chain of transmission — a complicated and difficult proposition in a disease as infectious as Covid-19. Defending the Janata Curfew a few days before the national lockdown, joint secretary (health) Lav Agarwal had said on 20 March: “The second point of PM Modi’s address (to the nation on 19 March) was how to stop transmission of the disease in the country. He said social distancing is one way to stop transmission… he said Janata Curfew by the people for the people through which we can promote social distancing as a practice… this one-day effort, this one-day practice… will help us in a big way in breaking the chain of transmission.”
However, cases continued to rise even as a new ‘villain’ — members of the Tablighi Jamaat — emerged. During the recently concluded monsoon session of Parliament, too, the minister of state for Home Affairs told the Rajya Sabha that the Tablighi event in Delhi’s Nizamuddin led to many people being infected. That is also when the government communication started focussing on ‘doubling time’ — a metric usually used to assess how good a financial investment is. It was first used on 17 April when Agarwal said: “Before the lockdown, the doubling rate was three days. Going by the number of cases in the last seven days, the doubling rate has been 6.2 days. In 19 states and Union Territories, the doubling rate is less than the national average.” However, by May, the argument was starting to get problematic because while the doubling time was increasing, the numbers were getting too unwieldy to claim victory just by using doubling time.
So, on 4 May, Agarwal’s daily briefing took a new turn. He said: “It is critical to understand that infectious diseases spread in geometric progression. Lockdown, physical distancing, containment — through a combination of all these we have increased the doubling time from 3.4 days to 12 days. Lockdown and containment is yielding results, the challenge now is (to) better it as we continue to ease out with continued support from the community.” On several occasions, he even said that India’s endeavours may ensure that the country may never reach a peak — a peak in an infectious disease signifies the point from where cases start coming down.
A few months down the line, PM Modi’s national addresses on the coronavirus have disappeared, as have phrases like ‘the chain of transmission’, ‘doubling time’ and ‘India’s peak’. The Mahabharata war isn’t mentioned anymore.
‘Irresponsible people spreading pandemic’
Although the Narendra Modi government had given the states the responsibility to unlock, and thereby a share of the criticism, the onus is now on Indians only.
The narrative about the coronavirus pandemic spreading not because of any failings of central or state governments but because of irresponsibility started being spun from some time last month. On 25 August, when India’s total cases stood at 32,34,474, Dr Balram Bhargava, DG, ICMR and secretary in the department of health research, replying to a question about whether young people are driving the pandemic, said: “Irresponsible people who do not wear masks and do not practise social distancing are driving the epidemic.”
In his reply in the Lok Sabha on Sunday, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan took the same thought forward when he said: “I want to appeal to all of you — to emerge victorious over Covid, there is a need to practise caution. You have seen many among us got infected. The reason for that is irresponsible behaviour, the behaviour that is necessary for Covid — wear a mask, maintain social distancing that the PM calls ‘do gaj ki doori‘, don’t bring your hands to your face, and other respiratory etiquettes. But as unlocking happened, people thought all is well and they got relaxed.”
The Modi government isn’t to blame anymore, neither are the states. It’s you — you who lived through a crippling lockdown, job loss and economic hardships in the hope of defeating the coronavirus.
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