Prime Minister Modi had in one his very first speeches spoke about “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance” as the motto of his team. However, one thing became evident in his national address yesterday on COVID situation is that in an effort towards getting the balance between governance and government, his team has lost scientific approach to governance completely. A little close and wider analysis will show that it is not only the central government, but entire governance mechanism in India is far away from any scientific approach.
let me go back to last year same time. The COVID crises was knocking at our doors and travelers from all over the world were carrying the pathogen in their breath and lungs and lot of them getting past the airport screening un-detected. We knew at that time that this was a virus coming from outside and there are limited number of international entry points in the country. World over, countries increased surveillance at the airport, set up testing centers and additional checks. They also set up additional airport quarantine facilities so that the entry of virus is curbed and checked. In addition elaborate testing, contact tracing and isolation strategy at that time were also set up. India also created the airport checks, testing, contact tracing and isolation strategy, but when they looked at increasing graph of numbers, the government announced a national lockdown. the logic behind the lockdown was to stop any transmission and give government the time for preparation till any vaccine arrives on the horizon. People supported Modi governments’ decision and his and it was an unprecedented situation when one day Junta curfew was super successful.
Over next two months, people endured pain, huger, helplessness, misery, isolation and all types of curbs on their freedom, but they lauded the Prime Minister and the leadership who was determined to defeat the virus. lo-and-behold, the virus was defeated in January when PM Modi spoke at 18th convocation of Tezpur university ( https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/education/news/pm-modi-cherishes-indias-dual-victory-over-covid-19-and-australia-praise-young-india/articleshow/80402121.cms) and declared a victory over virus.
Was it too early to declare a victory? Mr Modi is our commander-in-chief in this fight against the virus. He lead us from front and shown to the world that ” India has arrived” and that ” We can do it” . Where are we now just 3 months from that day in January when we declared victory over Corona. We are found to be un-prepared, dying like fleece, our guards are down and no where to go. The Commander-in-Chief seems to have declared that this time it is the commanders in the respective territories who have to manage their fight.
it is such a tragic state and in all likelihood, the worst is still to unfold.
Can we hold one person, one party or one group responsible for this? I Don’t know. In democracy, people get the leaders they ask for and more specifically they deserve. If we look at last one year, the entire COVID response both from the government and the people at large seemed to be based on whims and dogmas, and completely away from any scientific understanding of data and logic. This is one thing which is symptomatic of the general masses in our sub-continent – and the government is not away from it.
The first case in India was reported on 30th of January 2020. The government of India proactively started screening travelers at the airports and also stated assessing the situation elsewhere in the world. There was no previous precedence to take any drastic action or any other pro-active measure at that point of time except for assessing the readiness of health infrastructure. By February, crises started unfolding elsewhere in China and Europe, and the reports of human misery became evident. Indian government did not have any experience of managing such large scale nationwide pandemic because there was no such incident in independent India. By March it was evident that India was not far from a large scale spread of the virus and there was a need to take proactive and reactive measures. So, it is a full year now and I want to assess if our government, our people and society at large have learnt any lessons from it.
First thing in this case was to realize that as a country we did not have capability to manage a large scale infectious disease pandemic of this nature. Do we have centers of excellence for epidemiological research and do we have experts who could provide with expert knowledge? We don’t. Do we have centers of Virology and deep expertise in that field? Probably some. People question me on this, but when I looked at how many Genome mapping facility are there in India, the picture becomes clear. There are only 10 Genome sequencing facilities in India of a population of 1.2 billion. That also the government turned to the importance of genome sequence of virus in December 2020 1. In any war, early intelligence is the key to success and in this war, identifying the genome sequence and finding out the nature, source and emerging mutation of virus is critical to the fight against virus. In Australia (although the case numbers are low) almost all positive cases are sequenced 2, In India, on the other hand, miniscule numbers are sequenced. I am not sure, if the genome mapping information forms part of our strategy against this disease.
So the question is, did we start any initiative to build this capability? Did we start any centre of excellence for research on epidemiology and Virology? Did we allocate money to set up genome sequencing facility networks? The answer is NO. There are 10 labs who have been working on their own initiative to map the variants. There was no government initiative till December when the government allocated these 10 labs as dedicated for genome mapping. All said, are we now sequencing enough samples to find the spread and mutation of virus? Scientists say – NO, it is just a lip service of what is needed. Normally we should be sequencing about 5% of positive cases, but we are sequencing in few hundreds3.
The obvious thought comes, how are governments taking decisions? Where is the expertise? Do they have experts and are these experts regularly consulted? Do these experts have enough data and intelligence to infer, conclude and recommend?
Every government in India, be it central or state, has set up a task force. The information is widely available on the internet and no need to go into any further details on this. The question is, are these task force allowed to operate independently to gather and analyze data? The sanctity of data is another serious casualty in this pandemic. We all know that the numbers reported by government and media is questionable because most of us will have their known persons who had COVID and who did not go for testing, or privately tested and did not report to avoid the irritants from bureaucracy. Secondly, there are serious disconnect reported between the COVID death numbers and the numbers at crematoriums and cemeteries and there are multiple investigations pointing towards questionable data being reported 4. The big question is how are these experts helping decision making? No doubt, they were blind sighted when the second wave, probably with the double mutant started spelling doom everywhere.
Let us come to the big question of who should decide and who actually decides restrictions and lockdowns? I must say that if I claim to know this answer, I will be a fool. But, let us guess what could be the answer.
Most of the countries that I have been following, there is a head of what we call as public health. In Australia we have Chief Medical Officer(CMO) at the federal government and also Chief Medical Officers at all the state governments. These CMO have overriding powers as most of the states have declared health emergency. Every time the Prime Minister or the premiers of states come to announce something related to COVID, the major decision are announced by the political leaders and explained by the CMO. These announcements are made along with the medical experts so that citizens know the ownership of the advice. They also know that the decisions have been taken by experts and these experts can be held accountable for their suggestions and decisions. The decisions and the rationale are then out in the public among the expert groups for wider scrutiny and debate.
The second most important aspect of decision making in these countries is the independence and autonomy of expert advisory. Take the example of Dr Anthony Fauci who has had his love-hate relationship with Trump, but he was unscathed and remained steadfast in his opinions and advice. Here in Australia also, Dr Jannet Young is chief medical officer of Queensland and she is in front of the media anytime there is any COVID-19 related information is shared with the citizens. They are held accountable for the decisions and that is why they have the independence of their views also.
Now let us look our Indian scenario. First lockdown was announced end of March 2020 for 3 weeks. It was announced at 8 PM in the night to start at mid-night the same day. There was no warning and no prior information of any sort. It was announced by The Prime Minister, all alone in a single telecast. No one had an opportunity to ask any question. What was the basis of that announcement, why was it done with just 4 hours notice, etc etc. Was enough preparation done for such a lockdown? What were the exceptions? At any point of time, at least 3 to 5% of population remains outside their homes. How logical it was to keep such a large population locked out of their homes for such a long time. How are these mobile folks going to manage to return to their homes? One of my friends was holidaying at that time in North India and he got stuck in Jaipur with no hotels closed, no food outlets open and no public transport to search for food. This is just an example from my experience, but on a national scale, such cases must be in millions. People follow the decisions when they feel that the decision has been taken with right intent. In public forums, the intent has to be shown through showcase of expertise and independence. In case of India, there was no way to believe that the experts were consulted and if anything goes wrong, there is an accountability with those experts. What followed was a brutal enforcement and massive humanitarian crises.
All through September 2020 till March 2021, the government gave entire population a feeling that everything was all good and the risk has reduced. Leaders after leaders announced victory over corona. While governments went on with business-as-usual with massive elections at state and local levels and religious festivals, people responded in a similar manner with marriages, birthdays, Diwali and Holi. Government did not think that it is a war within the borders and just like you do not let the guards down during peace time, you should not let the guards down here also. The surveillance and intelligence gathering, the genomic mapping of cases for any mutant variants should have continued, ,but nothing was done. Government had said that Lockdown gave it that crucial breathing space to build health infrastructure and embark on a rapid vaccination. There is no evidence of any such Infrastructure. No data on how many new hospitals have been created, no data on how many new medical colleges have been started and no data on how many new pharma research, virology institute, epidemiological centers have been opened.
In the current time, when the virus is spreading like wild fire and the community transmission is rampant in every nook and corner of the country, the government is saying that Lockdown is not the solution and it should be micro-containment strategy that state governments should follow. Several experts and strategists proclaim that a lockdown is needed. Cities are deserted with fear and scare and there is automatic silence on the streets. This is the time when a national lockdown will be able to break the chain and give a breather. But, national government is scared of taking the command of response in its own hand fearing similar fall out from last year. I think, government is in a better position to enforce a smooth and painless lockdown this time given that it has experience from the past. If a medicine has side-effects, but that is the only medicine available, you can not priorities those side effects over treatment – you will rather manage the side effects and administer the pill.
In a nutshell, a government which shy from realizing that governance can not be done without expertise in the relevant fields will only manage things on media and with lip services. The current pandemic is a result of a bigger pandemic that our country has been facing since long – and that is the lack of scientific approach to problems across all layers of governance.
- 10 regional laboratories identified for genome sequencing to detect new coronavirus variant | India News – Times of India (indiatimes.com)
2. COVID-19: what is genomic tracing and how does it work? – ABC News
3. India’s Genome Sequencing Program Is Finally Good To Go – So What’s the Hold Up? – The Wire Science
4. COVID-19 sweeps through India as doubts raised about reliability of official data – ABC News