Mass cremation of COVID-19 victims at Parwati Ghat as coronavirus cases surge in Jamshedpur, Monday, May 10, 2021. (PTI Photo)
I want to tell you about a news report that hasn’t got the attention it deserves. With very few exceptions it’s been ignored by our newspapers and television channels. Yet it raises deeply disturbing questions about the government’s handling of the entire coronavirus crisis. Indeed, you could even say it provides "proof" of the government’s irresponsibility. That’s why it’s a story we need to know about so each of us can decide what we make of it. In that spirit I shall proceed.
On May 1, Reuters released a story headlined "Scientists say India government ignored warnings amid coronavirus surge". It claimed five scientists from the government-appointed consortium of national laboratories tasked with genome-sequencing, INSACOG, had "warned Indian officials in early March of a new and more contagious variant of the coronavirus taking hold in the country". The story added: "Four of the scientists said the federal government did not seek to impose major restrictions to stop the spread of the virus". So, in a nutshell, the government had been effectively forewarned to expect a possible exponential rise in cases but did virtually nothing.
The story carries a quotation from Shahid Jameel, the head of INSACOG, that suggests corroboration. "As scientists we provide the evidence, policymaking is the job of the government". That seems to say INSACOG had done its duty, but the government did not.
On May 5, I interviewed a member of INSACOG. Three days earlier he had retired as director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology. His name is Rakesh Mishra. He confirmed the Reuters story. "This concern was raised", he said. "It was a kind of warning that we are heading towards danger". In fact, Dr Mishra went further.
"It was a high concern and there’s no doubt about it … we were very, very concerned … dreading something bad would happen".
Dr Mishra said INSACOG’s concerns were conveyed directly to Sujeet Kumar Singh, the director of the National Centre for Disease Control, to whom INSACOG reports.
He added: "I think it went to the health secretary". More important, he said it’s impossible to believe the Prime Minister would not have been told.
This means Dr Mishra did a lot more than confirm the Reuters story. He suggested the responsibility for not responding to INSACOG’s warning lay with the Prime Minister.
Not surprisingly, a desperate government struggled to defend itself. Renu Swarup, biotech secretary, told a major financial daily that she wasn’t aware of any warning but then, bizarrely, added: "I also don’t understand the word warning at all". If this was intended to scotch the Reuters story and rubbish Dr Mishra’s confirmation, it failed miserably.
Several INSACOG members confirmed that Dr Mishra spoke the truth.
Of course, they didn’t do so in public. When I told them of Renu Swarup’s response, they laughed. "What else could she have done?", one asked. Meanwhile, Dr Mishra repeated his confirmation to a major newspaper.
This brings me to the government’s response. Remember, the warning from INSACOG came in early March. But on March 7 health minister Harsh Vardhan told the Delhi Medical Association: "We are in the endgame of the Covid-19 pandemic in India". That was the first sign that the government was paying no heed to INSACOG.
Thereafter, it got worse. Right through March massive political rallies, with tens or hundreds of thousands, took place in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam. In West Bengal they continued well into the second half of April. There were also shahi snans, with two or three million taking part, both in March and April. Ask yourself a simple question: after receiving INSACOG’s warning, was it all right to continue with these gatherings?
That’s not all. After INSACOG’s warning, Assam’s health minister (who is now the chief minister) said publicly that there was no need to wear a mask. Uttarakhand’s chief minister said faith in God and the power of Mother Ganga would protect people at the shahi snans. In the light of what we now know, was this the right response from health ministers and CMs?
In fact, deliberate disregard, not just of INSACOG but science itself, goes all the way to the top. When questioned, the home minister said political rallies can’t be held responsible for spreading Covid as Covid cases were rising in Maharashtra, where there were no rallies, not in Bengal, where he was present. If only he could see the situation today. Maharashtra is plateauing or declining, West Bengal seems to be shooting for the stars.
Perhaps the most incriminating proof of how our government disregarded science and ignored INSACOG came from the Prime Minister himself. On April 17, when cases were growing by over 260,000 a day, he applauded the massive turnout at his Asansol rally. Yet the tens of thousands in front of him were doing things he should never have permitted: they weren’t wearing masks and they weren’t maintaining "do gaj ki doori".
However, when INSACOG advised the government cases could rise dramatically it was also, at one remove, telling the authorities serious illness, hospitalisation and deaths would go up sharply. This should have prompted the government to immediately increase hospital beds, ICU facilities, ventilators and, most important, oxygen. It didn’t. Instead, the facilities set up to tackle the first wave were dismantled.
Now, let me ask a critical question. Doesn’t this story suggest — actually prove — the government was forewarned of the looming crisis but chose to ignore scientific advice? Worse, the government did all the wrong things. Doesn’t that amount to irresponsibility?
So that our political divisions don’t prejudice us, I put this question to one of the world’s most highly regarded experts on global health, Prof. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. He said he has no doubt "the government failed to respond in a serious way even though the data was clear". He also said the Kumbh Mela could end up being "the biggest uperspreader in this pandemic’s history". But he went one critical step further. He said this failure must be explained by "the people in power". India, he added, is owed "an explanation" by its government.
Now can you see why this story is so important and you should know about it? If the answer is yes, ask why the vast majority of our media kept quiet and failed to tell you? Just as the government owes us an explanation for its irresponsibility, doesn’t the media owe you an explanation for keeping you in the dark?
The writer is a television commentator and anchor