OPINION

Lacking in transparency

Citizens must keep themselves informed and push the government to adopt scientific and people-oriented policies

The lockdown of the country has had a devastating social impact. A recent survey of internal migrant workers found that 42% did not even have a day’s worth of rations left. The situation in the agricultural sector is also grim.

Soon after the lockdown commenced, the Prime Minister apologised for the misery that his decision had caused, but claimed that he had “no other option”. However, it is false that a total lockdown was unavoidable. A lockdown is not a permanent solution for the pandemic. Models suggest that, in the absence of other long-term measures, the epidemic could bounce back when restrictions are eased. Therefore, a lockdown is just a method of buying time to prepare the healthcare system for a long battle.

A result of government failure

But if the purpose of the lockdown is to gain time, this begets another question. The World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30. India was lucky because the virus arrived here relatively late. Why did the government not prepare itself despite several weeks of advance notice?

If the government had scaled up testing capability in February, tested and quarantined international travellers from high-risk countries, including asymptomatic travellers, and established stocks of personal protective equipment, a total lockdown could have been avoided. India could not have escaped the epidemic entirely, but it could have minimised damage to the economy, while keeping infections at a manageable level through testing, contact-tracing and, possibly, targeted lockdowns. It follows that the social catastrophe caused by the lockdown is the direct result of the failure of the government to respond to the epidemic in a timely manner.

In his address to the nation on April 14, the Prime Minister remarked that his government took “quick decisions” to contain the disease. This myth has allowed the government to escape accountability for its past failures and emboldened it to charge ahead with problematic policies. An example is the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)’s reluctance to expand the scope of testing. On April 27, India had tested 486 individuals per million of the population. This is not only more than 50 times lower than the corresponding rate in Italy, it is significantly lower than the rate in Pakistan. Almost a week into the lockdown, on March 30, the ICMR admitted that it was testing at “less than 30%” of its capacity. This raises serious questions about whether ICMR’s strict testing guidelines are partly motivated by the desire to keep the number of reported infections low and disingenuously suggest that the epidemic is in control.

Studies suggest that more than 80% of those infected by COVID-19 are asymptomatic or only mildly symptomatic. Since such individuals can nevertheless infect others, they must be included in the ambit of testing. Otherwise, they could form the base for a rapid spread of the epidemic.

The role of the people

The government must not only collect more data, it must share and analyse this data openly so that people can verify the rationale behind its administrative decisions. Instead, the government has started peddling numbers that make no sense. Just before extending the lockdown, the government claimed that India would have had 8 lakh cases by 15 April without the lockdown. But independent analysts believe that the lockdown’s role in reducing the number of cases in India has been of a smaller magnitude.

In his address, the Prime Minister stated that “several countries” which were “at par with India” a few weeks earlier had gone on to develop “25-30 times” more cases. But the data fail to reveal the existence of any such country. The U.S. and Spain, which have the world’s highest number of infections had, respectively, 53 and 15 times as many cases as India on the day of the address. But these countries have always been ahead of India on the epidemic’s curve. By March 14, they had reported 27 and 63 times more cases, respectively, than India.

A crisis provides the state with a ready justification to shun both accountability and transparency. However, while this might be expedient for those in power, it does not lead to an effective public health strategy. The virus is immune to political spin and data-suppression. This is why the role of the Indian people is crucial, and it goes well beyond lighting candles. We can best contribute in the country’s battle against the epidemic by keeping ourselves informed, holding the government to account, and constantly pushing it to adopt policies that are scientific, transparent and people-oriented.

Suvrat Raju is a physicist with the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bengaluru. Views expressed are personal

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