Nation wants to know

On Wednesday (July 1), the editorial director of this paper wrote an article pointing out the government is handling the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis without advice from professional experts. Sadly, that’s not the only lapse as far as the pandemic goes. Almost as serious is the communication failure and the role of experts.

For a start, daily press conferences have stopped. There’s hasn’t been one for weeks. So aren’t they needed? Or does the government have nothing to say? Meanwhile, cases are surging and deaths steadily increasing. Yet the government is silent. Perhaps it believes if it doesn’t speak we won’t notice!

More worrying is the government’s refusal to respond to concerns raised by independent experts. Some of them are serious but whenever eminent doctors working with the government are approached, they agree to be interviewed only to wriggle out of fixing a date. You can wait for weeks but the interview won’t happen. I assume the government has “silenced” them. The outcome is mounting anxiety which the administration refuses to address.

Last month, the Indian Council of Medical Research released the results of a serological survey which shows just 0.73 per cent of the population had been exposed to the virus by end April. Prima facie, that’s reassuring. However, Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Washington-based Center for Disease Dynamics, says this means 10 million people had been infected. By now, the number will be in the tens of millions. He forecasts India could have 200 million infections by September.

Prof. Laxminarayan is simply extrapolating from the government’s survey. He’s doing so logically, not exaggeratedly. His conclusions are unnerving but not one of the government’s experts is willing to respond.

A few days later, Ashish Jha, professor of Global Health and Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said the total number of daily cases is increasing by probably 40,000 or 50,000. In other words, the number of undetected cases is way more than double the official tally. Prof. Jha is not a dilettante or an amateur epidemiologist. He’s a man with an international reputation. But, once again, the government’s experts will not respond.

I’m perplexed. No one is so busy they can’t find time to reassure public opinion. If anything, it’s a prime duty in a health crisis. And such reassurance can only be given by experts the people trust. But if they won’t speak you can only wonder why.

Now there are two statistics the government repeatedly stresses: the recovery rate, which is 60.7 per cent, and the mortality rate, which is 2.9 per cent. The government claims they suggest we’re doing better than other countries. In fact, the Prime Minister made that point on Tuesday (June 30). But when experts raise questions about how meaningful these statistics are, the government is silent.

Last month, Prof. Jha said, “Calculating the crude mortality rate by looking at how many have died versus how many people have been infected is not a useful exercise. I don’t think it tells you anything.” He cited three reasons. First, the mortality rate assumes India has a perfect testing system that captures all infections and perfect information of all Covid-19 deaths. Second, it ignores the fact different countries have different age demographics and you cannot compare their mortality rates. Third, the rate doesn’t take into account the fact some of those presently infected will eventually die. It assumes they’ll survive.

Prof. Jha’s raised equally disturbing doubts about the recovery rate. It differs according to the severity of the infection. Mild cases have a high recovery, severe cases a low one. 

But he also makes a bigger point: “When the pandemic is over the recovery rate of almost every country will be close to 99 per cent.” This may not sound right but that’s because all the mild and asymptomatic cases haven’t been counted. In fact, as Prof. Laxmi-narayan adds, we’ll only know the real recovery rate in two or three years when we can accurately count the number who’ve died and the number that were infected.

Yet these questionable statistics led health minister Harsh Vardhan to tell The Economic Times (May 23) the virus was “not that virulent”. It cheered people but when questions were asked if there was any scientific basis for this claim the minister did not respond. The government’s experts kept mum.

Perhaps the government doesn’t realise the secret of good communication is answering tough questions convincingly. Emollient words of silken reassurance have little impact. When doubts persist, you have to face them. Our government prefers to turn its back.

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