In the first week of February, the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme, a government initiative under the health ministry’s National Centre for Disease Control, recorded in its weekly report that India had reported its first three positive cases of COVID-19. The IDSP tracks the spread of diseases in India and publishes a weekly report of outbreaks on its website. For over a decade, the IDSP has diligently published a report every week of the year about the outbreak of diseases in India. But inexplicably, the agency best equipped and with most expertise to track and survey the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in India, has not published a single report since 2 February, when it recorded India’s first COVID-19 cases.
“This was the whole point of setting up the organisation,” an expert in global public-health told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They’ve been preparing for a pandemic like this all their lives. Now the pandemic is upon us, where is NCDC? Across the world, CDCs are leading pandemic response, but in India, the response is led by the ICMR, with the NCDC being invisible when it is most needed.” Three months into the fight against COVID-19, multiple epidemiologists and public-health experts, including one senior official from the Indian Council of Medical Research, said that the NCDC was neither sharing data with the ICMR, nor regularly attending pandemic-response meetings.
The IDSP was launched in November 2004, with funding from the World Bank, a year after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. It was set up under India’s NCDC with the specific mandate of tracking diseases, and has established surveillance units at the central, state and district levels. The initiative’s weekly reports are critical for surveilling of outbreaks of diseases such as malaria, dengue et cetera in real time. As stated on its website, the IDSP seeks to “monitor disease trends and to detect and respond to outbreaks in early rising phase through trained Rapid Response Teams.”