India crossed the 100,000-mark in Covid-19 cases on Tuesday. The toll moved up to 3,163. And yet Tuesday also saw chief ministers urge their states to re-open, after nearly eight weeks of one of the world’s most severe lockdowns left the economy devastated.
With movement of migrants now allowed and trains running again, news also emerged that one in four people returning to to Bihar from Delhi has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. In many states, there is a lack of clarity on testing. In addition, concerns are rising about a spike in non-Covid-19 diseases, in particular tuberculosis, which have gone untreated during the lockdown.
You would imagine that the government would consider it important to explain important decisions now and clarify doubts, such as why India is emerging from a lockdown even as Covid-19 cases continue to grow.
Yet India’s health ministry has not addressed a press briefing since May 11. There has been no explanation for why its daily briefings have stopped.
Instead the government has reportedly set up a committee to convince the media that the government did not botch up its policy on stranded migrant workers, which has led to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis around the country.
Where are the experts?
The health ministry briefings had themselves become less useful since April 23, when experts from the Indian Council for Medical Research stopped attending them after it was accused of mishandling the procurement of rapid testing kits from China. That left bureaucrats to handle complex questions of health policy, with no experts at the table.
But even in that constrained form, the briefings offered an opportunity for the government to disseminate information and answer questions about its handling of a global pandemic.
Unfortunately, the government’s decisions are consistent with the way it has handled the dissemination of information from the very start of the crisis.
The government has been reluctant to part with anything but the most perfunctory data, making it hard for analysts to understand what is happening with testing, recoveries, experimental medicines and the effects that the pandemic and the lockdown are having on the health system.
Transparency over narrative
The Narendra Modi government may believe that this approach helps it control the narrative and the headlines, but in reality it straitjackets India’s response to the crisis. No one expects the government to have all the answers to the new disease that has wreaked havoc all around the world. But providing information to experts, scientists and concerned citizens can only help the government’s efforts.
“The lack of data being made available to the medical and scientific fraternity is becoming a huge limiting factor in our fight against Covid-19,” wrote Dr Akshay Baheti in Scroll.in last week. “It has forced us to rely on Chinese or Western data, on anecdotal reports (often forwarded by doctors as Whatsapp messages) or simply on conjecture and hope. None of these are great strategies to tackle the pandemic. India needs to drastically improve the quantity and quality of data it produces, analyses, and shares to give us and our patients a level-playing field.”
Worse, as many observers and global institutions have pointed out, the pandemic has been accompanied by an “infodemic”, with a surge in false and misleading information being shared. The only way to fight back against bad information is by ensuring that people trust the authorities to be transparent and truthful.
“When no official briefing takes place and only a press note is issued, this fuels the rumour mills, which then take centre-stage,” wrote Pallav Bagla. “The doubling rate of the coronavirus may still be around 10-12 days, but the doubling rate of rumours and disinformation is a magnitude higher.”
The government must realise that, far from helping it control the narrative, the lack of information particularly from trustworthy experts will actually stand in the way of India’s ability to combat this massive crisis and its fallout.