Medical journal The Lancet on Friday called on Indian leaders to respect scientific evidence and not provide false optimism to people amid the raging coronavirus crisis. The journal said that a “too positive spin” on the situation would not only cloud the reality but also adversely affect public health initiatives.

The journal said in an editorial that not reporting negative news about the coronavirus honestly will discourage people from taking the health crisis seriously. “Perpetuating unrealistic claims or failing to honestly report negative news creates uncertainty among the public and health-care professionals, discouraging people from taking preventive action or taking public health messages seriously,” it said.

The editorial added that India has the potential to handle the coronavirus and stressed on the need for the country’s leaders to pay attention to the experts. “India has the expertise in medicine, public health, research, and manufacturing to lead the nation through the COVID-19 pandemic,” it said. “To capitalise on these attributes, the country’s leaders must respect scientific evidence, expert commentary, and academic freedom, and not provide false optimism.”

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The journal cited the example of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had reportedly told the media to avoid giving out negative news. “According to news reports, hours before announcing the national lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told owners and editors from India’s largest media organisations that it was important to tackle the spread of pessimism, negativity, and rumour,” the journal said.

The Lancet added that scientific organisations in India also felt pressured to promote optimism about the situation. The journal referred to Indian Council of Medical Research Director General Balram Bhargava’s letter to 12 hospitals and medical institutions in July, asking them to fast track all approvals for the clinical trials of India’s vaccine candidate Covaxin. The top medical body had set an August 15 deadline to launch the vaccine, which several experts criticised as being unrealistic.

The journal said that the ICMR appeared to be “politically motivated” and “overly optimistic” and that it had strayed from scientific evidence in several instances. “A letter from the Director General of the ICMR, Balram Bhargava, said that the ICMR envisaged launching a coronavirus vaccine on August 15 (Indian Independence Day; a deadline considered unrealistic by most medical experts); ICMR has supported treatment with hydroxychloroquine despite insufficient evidence; and news reports claim that data on coronavirus infection were removed from a scientific paper,” it said.

The Lancet also questioned the Indian government’s claim of a lower death rate than other countries. “Transparency of the data on COVID-19 cases and deaths, especially those underpinning the case fatality rate, has also been questioned, as detailed in a recent World Report,” it said. “The Indian Government reports a case fatality rate of 1.8%, much lower than the reported rate in other countries, but it is difficult to know if the numbers are comparable.”

The journal, however, praised certain aspects of India’s response to the coronavirus. “The country has responded well in many regards, especially for such a large and diverse nation,” it said. “India instigated a national lockdown in March, which was praised by WHO [World Health Organization].”

It added: “During the lockdown period, tertiary care provision was increased, including access to specialist equipment such as ventilators. Testing numbers also increased quickly, with India being among the first to roll out innovations like pooled testing. India has also been at the forefront of efforts to develop and manufacture a vaccine, both through domestic vaccine candidates and manufacturers such as the Serum Institute of India preparing production capacity for internationally developed vaccine candidates.”

The journal said that India’s cases were growing at the fastest rate in the world despite the country’s aggressive restrictions in the initial days of the outbreak. “Restrictions began to be lifted in June, and this relaxation has continued in the face of a continuing dramatic increase in case numbers nationally,” it added.

The editorial warned that India’s crisis was far from over. “The rapidly growing case numbers, alongside the continuing relaxation of restrictions, are creating an atmosphere of fatalism mingled with false optimism that undermines effective use of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as masks and physical distancing,” it said. “The epidemic in India is far from over, with a potentially huge burden of mortality and morbidity to come unless public health measures are used and adhered to.” The journal also emphasised on the need for clear and honest communication with the people to handle the situation effectively.

India has reported 58,18,570 coronavirus cases and 92,290 deaths so far. The country’s recoveries stand at 47.56 lakh. India is the second worst-affected country after the the United States, which has reported a total of 69,80,104 cases and 2 lakh deaths.