By Special Correspondent
New Delhi: As the country is witnessing sharp rise in Covid-19 cases, medical professionals and healthcare activists’ pan-India body, Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum (PMSF) on Saturday questioned the data presented by the government’s Covid team members alleging that they are indulged in panegyrics to justify the government’s COVID policy. The group also advocated that the command of covid fight should be given to a national committee of eminent epidemiologists and public health experts as the present team failed to contain the pandemic despite the country being in the fourth phase of the lockdown.
Taking the note of the press conference held on 11 June 2020 by the spokespersons of Government of India, including the ICMR Director General Balram Bhargava, NITI Aayog member V K Paul and Jt. Secretary in MOHFW, Lav Aggarwal, National Convener of PMSF, Dr Harjit Bhatti said they relied on “findings” of the ‘Seroprevalence Study’ conducted by ICMR in mid-May and once again indulged in panegyrics to justify the government’s COVID policy till now. Government spokespersons claimed that the government’s anti-COVID are being successful by stating that as per the results the prevalence rate for COVID-19 in the country was as low as 0.73 percent and that the case fatality rate was 0.08 percent, which showed that there was no community transmission in the country as yet.
Stressing the then need to critically examine spokespersons claims, Dr Bhatti said for if they lend to a faulty interpretation of the situation, the cost for the country and its people shall be huge.
The presented data seeks more to hide the reality than reveal it. While a cardiologist (Balram Bhargava) and a neonatologist (V K Paul) could have acumen for epidemiology, one would expect that in the grievous situation obtained today, epidemiological data should first be vetted by professional epidemiologists.
Before this press conference, the statement of DCS Reddy, head of the ICMR’s 12-member panel of epidemiologists, to the effect that the panel had not had access to the findings of the study, had already been reported.
This is significant as the panel was set up to identify research priorities and align them with the current level of outbreak and response.
He alleged that it is in keeping with the government’s policy of keeping the scientific community at the margins of COVID policy formulation.
It is pertinent to point out the following specific lacunae in the data presented by the government and the claims made on that basis.
1-The first two graphs in the press note issued by the government show India to be having a prevalence of 20.77 cases and 0.59 deaths per lakh population respectively, among the lowest in a select group of countries. The problem however is that there is no mention of the samples tested per lakh population by each country i.e. the diligence undertaken to detect the cases and document the deaths. India till date continues to have the lowest COVID testing rates in the world. Such claims are therefore redundant for policy formulation.
2-The above claims are even more risible since it was admitted by the spokespersons themselves that the data from the COVID hot spots was still being compiled. The data presented represents the COVID situation existing in the country as of 30 April. In a rapidly evolving pandemic situation where the slope of the epidemic curve has steepened even further after the lockdown was lifted considerably, this data has already become dated in the 6 weeks gone by since then. It is noteworthy that in the countries with which comparison has been done, the epidemic curve had flattened or was even falling after the lockdown. This perhaps is not worthy of attention for the mandarins.
3-Extrapolating prevalence of 0.73 percent to the entire population would give us a figure of 1 crore cases as of 30 April, while the actual number of cases recorded till now was 33,050. Would the government be willing to acknowledge that it failed miserably to detect the overwhelming majority of cases?
One would shudder to think of its consequences for the spread of the virus. Likewise, extrapolating the case fatality rate of 0.08 percent to 1 crore cases would mean 8,000 deaths as of 30 April, while the actual deaths acknowledged till then are 1,074. Would the government then acknowledge that it underestimated the number of deaths by a factor of 8?
Commenting on, Dr Vikas Bajpai, Member National Committee of PMSF, said these fallacious arguments seemed to have been forwarded to ultimately claim that there is no community transmission as of date in the country; hence, the need is to persist with a containment strategy.
He further pointed out that the government is clearly avoiding the task of strengthening publicly funded medical care and the need to nationalize corporate health care to meet the emergency. Just a day before their conference, the health minister of Delhi had accepted that in more than 50 percent of the cases they had failed to zero in on the source of infection.
What else is this Dr Bhargava if not community transmission? While it can be agreed that the transmission of the virus is not in the same stage throughout the country, it is mischievously dubious to use all India averages for making misleading claims. Dr Paul seems to have forgotten his faux pas of claiming new cases to come to zero by May 16 a bit too soon. These doctors occupying positions of power should realize that they first and foremost owe allegiance to the people of India and not those who are in power for the time being. It is best that they should articulate what is in the interest of the people with full force rather than cater to the convenience of the powers that be.
PMSF categorically demands that:
1-Preparation should be made on war footing to provide medical relief to the people and that the public expenditure on health should be immediately raised to 5 percent of GDP.
2-The government should forthwith nationalize the corporate hospitals for unrestricted expansion of hospital care to the people.
3-The fight against COVID should be firmly put under the command of a national committee of eminent epidemiologists and public health experts who would be free to seek all the technical expertise needed for the task.