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OP-ED: Fudging the numbers

  • Published at 05:12 am June 18th, 2021
covid-19 body cremation
A body being taken to the crematorium in Surat, India REUTERS

India is an example of what happens when politics is everything

Earlier this week on June 15, the academic and author Chinmay Tumbe posted some alarming findings on Twitter. He wrote: “We now have decent estimates of excess mortality for [the] first five months of 2021 for 4 large states (Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka) comprising around 300 million people and 21% of the Indian population. Excess mortality in these 4 large states exceeds 500K compared to 46K reported Covid deaths.”

Those are stunning numbers, implying that India has suffered at least 10 times as many losses as officially acknowledged from Covid-19’s devastating “second wave.” That is by far the highest death toll of any country in the world.

Tumbe also tweeted ruefully: “It is a matter of national shame that 1.5 years after the pandemic started, NO Indian state govt. has systematically released its all-cause death registration statistics on a daily/weekly/monthly basis. Still time to do the right thing. Which will be the first state to do this?”

These are not abstract concerns, because good and reliable data are the bedrock of effective public health systems.

It’s an ancient principle. As far back as the 4th century BCE, the Mauryan jurist and philosopher Kautilya (popularly called Chanakya) wrote in his Arthashastra: “Any doctor who is called to a house to treat a severely wounded person or one suffering from unwholesome food or drink shall report the fact to the ‘gopa’ and the ‘sthanika.’ If he makes a report he shall not be accused of any crime; if does not, he will be charged with the same offence (which he helped to conceal).” 

That quote serves as epigraph for Chinmay Tumbe’s concluding chapter in his excellent 2020 book, The Age of Pandemics 1817-1920: How They Shaped India and the World, which explores relevant lessons from previous global public health disasters and their implications for our collective Covid-19 predicament,

“In order not to look bad, there is a clear incentive for politicians to take measures to downplay pandemic deaths,” writes Tumbe. That makes matters worse, so “it is imperative, therefore, to heed Kautilya’s advice on obtaining as much medical information from the field as possible, and also doing the best for your citizens, within and outside, irrespective of the numbers. In doing so, politicians face many risks. But by not acting soon and wisely, pandemics can claim several lives and careers, including those of politicians.”

It is how democracy is meant to work. However, starting from the top, India’s prevailing model of governance displays an overwhelming preference for denial and obfuscation to anything resembling accountability. 

When in doubt, the leadership always tries to suppress and subvert information that might lead to uncomfortable conclusions. These tendencies were always problematic, but the systematic, knee-jerk, fudging of pandemic facts has resulted in catastrophe.

Just one example was exposed by the Times of India this week, which found that at least 100,000 fake antigen and RT-PCR tests for Covid-19 were “conducted” during the Kumbh festival in Haridwar, now acknowledged to be one of the crucial “super-spreader” events that triggered India’s overwhelming current crisis. 

Why it happened is obvious: Faking the facts allowed New Delhi and the Kumbh organizers to claim the event was safe to visit (of these 100,000 made-up test results only 0.18% were said to be positive) which allowed it to proceed even after becoming a lightning-rod for criticism from around the world. 

To achieve that duplicitous end, astonishingly crude fraudulent means were unleashed: Fake phone numbers and addresses, one single-use antigen kit listed with 700 results, 530 samples reported from one family home. Uttarakhand’s own health department figured out something was wrong when it discovered that “when sample collectors were contacted, half of them were from Rajasthan, many of them were students [and] many had never been to Haridwar.”

What has been learned from this embarrassment? Will there be any political cost to these kinds of shenanigans, accompanied by hollow triumphalism, in the face of an essentially uncontrolled public health fiasco? When will India’s 21st-century leadership take note of Kautilya’s wise dictums from over 2000 years ago? 

Earlier this month, when Narendra Modi addressed the nation via television, he said: “We have to remember that the speed of vaccination in India is still very fast in the world, faster than in many developed countries. Our technology platform CoWIN is also being discussed all over the world. Many countries have also shown interest in using this platform.”

Those comments were put into perspective by Kaushik Basu, the former chief economist of the World Bank, who wrote on Twitter: “Difficult to understand India’s slippage on so many fronts. In terms of % population fully-vaccinated, 24 May: 75 nations were ahead of India. 1 June: 81 were ahead. Today’s data: 89 are ahead of India. India has only 3.5% fully-vaccinated. Happens when politics is everything.” 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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