The world is appalled by the COVID-19 crisis in India. For the past week there have been more than 300,000 new cases a day; Hospitals are full; Oxygen supplies are scarce; and cremation sites can’t compete.
On April 29th, many of India’s leading scientists signed one Open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country’s inability to control infections is in large part due to the “failure to systematically collect and publish epidemiological data”. In addition, they argue that while the Indian Council of Medical Research has been collecting data from COVID-19 diagnostic tests since the pandemic began, it has not made that data available to the government except for certain experts.
This collective attitude is commendable; the government should not respond by dismissing concerns and criticism as anti-national. Rather, it should ensure that data is collected and made accessible.
As recently as March, the government boasted repeatedly that results from serological tests and India’s most important computer model for predicting the spread of the disease showed that the country was in the “end game” of the pandemic. By then, shopping malls, restaurants, and theaters had reopened across the country. On the borders of Delhi, farmers protested against new agricultural laws. Government ministers praised large political rallies. And when millions gathered at the Kumbh Mela festival in April, the prime minister of Uttarakhand state stated that the Ganges, considered sacred by Hindus, would protect everyone from the coronavirus. India’s cases were already booming; By April 27, the daily number exceeded 353,000 cases, a world record.
For months, individual epidemiologists, virologists, immunologists and public health experts warned that the fight against the pandemic was not over, that better data were needed and that precautionary measures were needed. They went unheard. Their arguments did not match the government’s narrative that the pandemic was under control. The biophysicist Gautam Menon, for example, has consistently spoken out against erroneous assumptions in the simulations of the national model and lamented the fact that there were no epidemiologists on the committee that oversaw them.
In the course of 2020, Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, discovered decidedly sobering facts that ran counter to the anti-science messages of the administration of then President Donald Trump. In Brazil, scientists spoke out against President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-science stance. Governments don’t always pay attention to researchers, and in countries like India, science leaders could lose their jobs because of dissenting opinions. This means that many are more comfortable sticking to the line of government than “doing a fauci”. Indian science academies are continuing their head-in-the-sand approach and making no statements about superspreader events or data access. But it is important that high-profile researchers and societies speak out.
Even as the government has endorsed and encouraged gatherings in recent months, there have been reports of second waves and new variations in other countries. In Manaus, Brazil, cases where there was reason to believe that herd immunity had been achieved increased. By the end of March, a consortium of Indian biology laboratories had found that variant B.1.1.7, which was first identified in Great Britain, was spreading rapidly in the state of Punjab. And a new worrying strain (now called B.1.617) spread to India’s worst-hit state, Maharashtra.
Public health experts called for better data and prevention measures but have long been overlooked by the government. Their results highlight social failings such as poor people’s lack of access to safe working conditions, health facilities and even sanitation – issues that contradict India’s aspired image.
The current situation is certainly even worse than described. The majority of recorded infections and deaths occur in relatively affluent urban areas, where residents have access to private health care. The extent of the devastation in rural India, where around 66% of the country’s 1.4 billion people live, is still largely unknown. And official data and peer-reviewed research don’t reflect the desperation I hear from fellow newsmakers battling – or worse, succumbing to COVID-19 in intensive care – or friends’ frantic 20-hour search for a hospital bed. My Whatsapp and Twitter feeds are full of urgent requests for beds, ventilators, oxygen, remdesivir, and the like – and now updates on deaths.
Many countries are grappling with consecutive outbreaks and have made questionable decisions about border controls, testing, contact tracing and reopening. India has not learned from the disasters of others, although its researchers have pointed to Manaus as a precaution.
It is time for India’s policymakers to trust those with relevant expertise, ensure that the necessary data is collected and available, and recognize the value of scientific knowledge, even if it does not fit the government narrative. Indian citizens are dying from faulty policies and the unwillingness of the government to acknowledge or respond to undesirable effects of in-depth analysis.
The open letter is welcome because it stems from the scientists’ frustration and desperation over the tragedy. But scientific administrators and academies have to make even stronger statements. And the government must show that it is listening by giving them access to the data needed to contain this devastating second wave.
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