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.
The terms of reference for the task force were to identify research priorities, review evidence, align research with the level of outbreak and response, identify and create protocol, develop concept notes and identify partners for implementation. Yet, multiple members of this task force said that they had not even met before crucial decisions pertaining to COVID-19 were taken, not least guide the country’s response, as was its mandate.
The decisions taken by the task force have not been transparent, and this was starkly reflected in the circumstances surrounding private testing for COVID-19. On 21 March, three days after the task force was constituted, the health ministry had notified guidelines issued by the ICMR to allow private clinics to test for the novel coronavirus, and fixed a cap of Rs 4,500 for the tests. Shashank Deo Sudhi, a lawyer, had challenged this decision in a public-interest litigation, seeking directions from the court to direct private clinics to conduct free testing. On 8 April, the Supreme Court allowed the petition and ordered that testing should be free at both government and private laboratories.