As the horrors of India’s second wave of COVID-19 unfold, with a paucity of hospital beds, crematoriums running over-time, a flood of ‘SOS’ calls, and a terrifying oxygen crisis in the national-capital, it has emerged that the Indian government had been warned about factors contributing to the surge. Further, scientists have said that the government had gone on to ignore the warnings.
A report by Reuters quotes Indian scientists and sheds light on all the times the Indian government was warned, and what they did (not do).
A forum of scientific advisers set up by the government itself had warned Indian officials in early March of a new and more contagious variant of coronavirus, five scientists who were members of the forum informed Reuters.
The warning was reportedly issued in early March by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium (INSACOG), and was conveyed to a top official who reports directly to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reported Reuters, citing the director of a research centre in northern India who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Further, as per Reuters, INSACOG shared its findings with the health ministry’s National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) before 10 March, warning of a quick spike of infection in many parts of the country.
The findings were, thereby, passed on to the Indian health ministry, the director of the northern India research centre informed.
INSACOG, also, started to ready a draft media statement for the health ministry. A version of that draft, accessed by Reuters, states that “the new Indian variant had two significant mutations to the portion of the virus that attaches to human cells, and it had been traced in 15 percent to 20 percent of samples from Maharashtra, India's worst-affected state.”
The draft statement also pointed out that the mutations, called E484Q and L452R, were of “high concern.”
Further, as per Reuters, the northern India research centre director said that the draft media release was sent to the most senior bureaucrat in the country, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, who reports directly to the prime minister.
However, Reuters was unable to find out whether Modi or his office were made privy to the findings.
And What Did the Govt Do?
Four of the five scientists who have informed Reuters about the warning also said that despite of it, the government did not seek to impose any major curbs to stop the spread of the virus.
In the meantime, millions of unmasked people bathed in the snugly packed Kumbh festival; played Holi in large gatherings and participated en masse in political rallies conducted and encouraged by prominent leaders including the prime minister of the country. Protests too were allowed to continue across the country, as were other social activities.
As per Reuters, the government made the INSACOG findings public after about to weeks of having received them, on 24 March, issuing a statement to the media that did not include the words “high concern.”
The statement, merely, said more problematic variants needed adherence to measures already underway – increased testing and quarantine.
The Need for Urgent Action?
According to a recording accessed by Reuters, the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) director Sujeet Kumar Singh, on 19 April, told a private online gathering that strict lockdown measures were needed in early April.
Even though, Singh did not mention in the meeting whether he had warned the government directly on the need for action at that time, he did say that he had conveyed the urgency of the matter more recently to the government officials.
In reference to a meeting on 18 April, with unknown government officials, Singh said:
“It was highlighted very, very clearly that unless drastic measures are taken now, it will be too late to prevent the mortality which we are going to see.”
The need for urgent action was iterated on 15 April by the National Task Force for COVID-19, which is chaired by the PM Modi’s “top coronavirus advisor” Dr VK Paul.
The group had “unanimously agreed that the situation is serious and that we should not hesitate in imposing lockdowns,” as per a scientist who had attended the meeting.
It is not clear whether Dr Paul had relayed the same need to PM Modi.
What is known, however, is that two days after Singh’s warning to government officials and five days after the COVID task force meet, PM Modi on 20 April addressed the nation and argued against lockdowns.
Stating that lockdown would be the last resort, and that in the previous year it was the lockdowns that had devastated the economy, PM Modi had said: “We have to try our best to avoid lockdowns and focus on micro-containment zones.”
Indian Govt Proclaimed Victory Over COVID, When We Were Nowhere Close
Meanwhile, dismissing legitimate concerns of a surge in COVID-19 cases, the Indian government, in the early months of 2021, either proclaimed a victory over COVID or peddled unsubstantiated assumptions. Here are some of them:
- 28 January, 2021: PM Modi, addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, proclaimed India’s victory over COVID-19 and claimed that the concerns otherwise were unfounded.
- 7 March: Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan was quoted as saying that “We are in the endgame of COVID-19,” while cases across the country were beginning to rise. The Indian Medical Association (IMA) purportedly condemned this statement by Vardhan.
- Mid March-April: Haridwar Kumbh, with lakhs of participants; and densely packed political rallies were underway unchecked by authorities. Holi was also celebrated with complete disregard for COVID-19 protocol in multiple parts of the country. By this period, as per the Reuters report, scientists had already issued warnings to government officials. Meanwhile, the India government continued to export vaccines out of the country.
- 30 March: Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan was quoted by ANI as claiming that the situation is “under control”. “There are 430 districts in the country where not a single case of coronavirus has been reported in the last 28 days. The situation is under control but we don't have to be complacent in terms of observing COVID appropriate behaviour,” Dr Vardhan said.
- Further, as per a Caravan report, the Indian COVID task force did not meet even once during the months of February and March.
What Scientists Are Saying
Rakesh Mishra, director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, which is part of INSACOG, shared with Reuters that the country’s scientific community was dejected.
“We could have done better, our science could have been given more significance…What we observed in whatever little way, that should have been used better.”Rakesh Mishra, Director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology
Meanwhile, Shanta Dutta, a medical research scientist at the state-run National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases told Reuters: “We are in a very grave situation.”
Dutta also lamented: “People listen to politicians more than scientists.”
India’s COVID Tally
India on Sunday, 2 May, reported 3.92 lakh new COVID-19 cases with 3,689 people having lost the battle to the infection in the past 24 hours, as per the Union Health Ministry.
Meanwhile, Delhi reported over 20,300 new COVID-19 cases, with 407 deaths on Sunday, making it the second consecutive day the national capital recorded over 400 deaths.
Amid rising cases, Odisha joined the list of states to declare a lockdown in the state from 5-14 May.
(With inputs from Reuters)