Modi administration did not consult ICMR-appointed COVID task force before key decisions

15 April 2020
The Narendra Modi administration did not consult a national task force of scientists and experts on key decisions relating to India’s health policy on COVID-19, including the decision to allow private testing for the virus, the price cap on such tests and the decision to extend the lockdown, according to members of the task force.
T Narayan / Bloomberg / Getty Images
The Narendra Modi administration did not consult a national task force of scientists and experts on key decisions relating to India’s health policy on COVID-19, including the decision to allow private testing for the virus, the price cap on such tests and the decision to extend the lockdown, according to members of the task force.
T Narayan / Bloomberg / Getty Images

A national task force on COVID-19, comprising 21 leading scientists from across the country, which was supposed to advise the Narendra Modi government on its response to the pandemic, did not meet even once in the week preceding the announcement to extend the nationwide lockdown, according to four members of the group of experts. In a national broadcast on 14 April, Modi announced the decision to extend the lockdown till 3 May. The government did not consult the team of experts before taking the decision. “The committee has not met all of last week,” a member who spoke to me on 14 April, on the condition of anonymity fearing retribution from government, said. In that time, India’s COVID numbers rose from 4,421 confirmed cases and 114 deaths, as of 7 April, to 10,363 cases and 339 deaths, on 14 April.

“It seems like they created a committee to say they were consulting the scientists,” the member said. The member pointed to an example that supported his statement. On 4 April, the Indian Council of Medical Research, the nodal body framing India’s COVID-19 policy, submitted to the Supreme Court that the decision to allow private laboratories to conduct COVID-19 tests was taken after “extensive deliberations” with the task force. But according to the member, there was no such discussion. The member added that as of 14 April, the task force had not been given the minutes of any of the meetings. A second member of the task force, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the minutes of the meetings were sent only to the cabinet secretary, and not shared even with other members of the task force.

On 18 March, Balram Bhargava, the director general of the ICMR, wrote to Lav Agrawal, a joint secretary in the health ministry, informing him of the constitution of the task force, under the chairmanship of Vinod Paul, a member of the Niti Aayog. Bhargava wrote that a “high-level technical committee of Public Health Experts for COVID-19” had been established to “guide the prevention and control activities in the country.” It then listed the 21 members of the task force, which includes doctors from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, members of the ICMR, and both current and former government officials, among others.

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    Vidya Krishnan is a global health reporter who works and lives in India. Her first book, Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History, was published in February 2022 by PublicAffairs.

    Keywords: COVID-19 Narendra Modi Indian Council of Medical Research
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