Question of public trust

The right lessons must be learnt from the Zika cover-up

Published - May 31, 2017 12:05 am IST

zika zica virus masquito virus aedes aegypti spread pandemic aoutbreak vector illustration

zika zica virus masquito virus aedes aegypti spread pandemic aoutbreak vector illustration

Last week, it became apparent that the Health Ministry had, for many months, kept it under wraps that India has so far reported three cases of the Zika virus . The earliest case was that of a 64-year-old man, who had tested positive for Zika as early as November 2016.

From what is now in the public domain, we know that the government has violated established protocols in many ways, each having serious national and international implications.

By not briefing the media or the global public health community, India broke a well-established protocol of sharing information with the affected community and neighbouring nations, who could have taken necessary precautions such as issuing travel advisories. More important, the Health Ministry collected nearly 35,000 samples from people living in the Bapunagar area of Ahmedabad without informing them that they were under surveillance. Fortunately, the outbreak was contained but the government did not know that it would be when it launched a massive surveillance project in the district.

That brings us to an urgent issue this Zika outbreak has shined an unflattering light on: the quality of health reporting in India.

The health sector is a technical beat with a lot of science backing every established protocol. The epidemiology of a disease, the analysis of the patterns of outbreak, causes, and effects of health and the disease conditions in defined populations amount to serious science. Transparency in administration is the cornerstone of public health.

In the first five days, reports went from announcing the incidence of Zika to boilerplate reports on precautions to be taken and symptoms to watch out for. With interest dwindling, and serious questions unasked, the government seems unlikely to hold a press briefing explaining the bizarre chain of decisions it has taken since November. The government owes an answer to the citizens as to why the affected community, in Bapunagar district, was kept in the dark while their samples were being taken.

I cannot imagine any other beat — finance, defence or sports— where Indians will not get outraged on finding out, from an international agency such as the WHO, that their government had suppressed crucial information for all this time, from Parliament, the press and the public, who had the right to take all necessary actions to protect themselves and their families and neighbourhood.

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