India’s COVID-19 taskforce did not meet in February, March despite surge, say members

The family of a person who died of COVID-19 perform the last rites amid other burning pyres at a crematorium in Delhi, on 17 April. This year, as India suffered its most calamitous COVID-19 surge, the national scientific taskforce did not meet even once in February and March, according to two of its members. Anindito Mukherjee / Getty Images
22 April, 2021

Even as India suffered its most calamitous surge of the pandemic, the country’s national scientific taskforce on COVID-19, which is supposed to advise the central government on its response to the pandemic, did not meet even once during February and March, according to its members. Two members of the national scientific taskforce, comprising leading scientists from across the country, and another member of a sub-group, which is assisting the task force, have confirmed that they did not meet even once in the two months prior to this explosion of cases in April. This year, they said, the taskforce met on 11 January, and then on 15 April and 21 April, after India was hit by the surge.

“It became abundantly clear in mid February that India was heading towards a devastating second wave,” one member of the national taskforce said. All three scientists spoke on the condition of anonymity. “When things in Maharashtra started going out of hand, some of us tried to flag this issue,” the first member added. The taskforce, however, did not meet during this crucial time.  A second member of the taskforce told me that a meeting of the body was “not convened” unless the government “wanted us to rubber stamp some decision already taken by politicians.”

Another significant lapse, the members told me, the Indian Council of Medical Research’s failure to update the treatment protocol for COVID-19 in the past nine months, since July 2020. As the world updated its treatment with emerging evidence, Indian patients were prescribed remdisivir, which is no longer recommended by the World Health Organization. The health ministry issued its last updated treatment protocol on 3 July 2020, which listed remdesivir as part of “investigational therapies” that would be upgraded “as the situation evolves, and when more data becomes available.”

In November 2020, the WHO published a statement that it “recommends against the use of remdesivir in COVID-19 patients.” The statement noted, “WHO has issued a conditional recommendation against the use of remdesivir in hospitalized patients, regardless of disease severity, as there is currently no evidence that remdesivir improves survival and other outcomes in these patients.” But the health ministry’s treatment protocol was not updated, and private hospitals across the nation have continued to prescribe it at exorbitant costs. The ICMR’s failure to update the treatment guidelines in line with global standards have also resulted in a thriving black market for remdesivir that continues to prey on vulnerable families.

As daily cases rose drastically this year, India’s top scientists in the taskforce watched—but did not meet. On 1 February, India recorded 11,427 new cases, which went up to 15,510 cases by 1 March, and to 72,330 new cases by 1 April. On 5 April, India hit its record highest daily rise since the pandemic broke out, with 1,03,558 new cases, which continued to shoot up at alarming rates each day, and nearly tripled to 2,95,041 new cases by 21 April. That day, when India witnessed nearly three hundred thousand new COVID-19 cases, the national scientific taskforce had a meeting on the treatment protocol. Decisions taken in the meeting have not been made public yet.

During this time, the central government announced and revised its vaccination policy, making perhaps the most important decisions in fighting the pandemic without a meeting of the taskforce. The centre’s apparent disregard for the opinion of the country’s top scientists is in keeping with its conduct from the beginning of the pandemic—the taskforce was not consulted before Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended last year’s nationwide lockdown.

Dr VK Paul, the chairperson of the scientific task force and a member of the Niti Aayog, and Dr Balram Bhargava, the director general of the ICMR, did not respond to queries.

Maharashtra was among the first states to show a severe surge, midway through February. “We knew cases were of a different strain, which was killing younger people, faster,” the first member said. Through this period, double- and triple-mutant variants of the virus—referring to two or three strains of the coronavirus combining to form a new variant—spread across the country, while political and religious super-spreader events took place simultaneously. Despite knowing the severity of the impending health crisis at least as early as February, election rallies and religious congregations such as the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar were held and continue to be held, favouring politics over public health.

Epidemiologists and scientists have been vocal in arguing against such events. In an interview with The Hindu, Dr Giridhar Babu, an epidemiologist with the Public Health Foundation of India, has said that the government should prioritise “the 3C strategy.” He explained, “These include prevention of crowding of any nature, minimising the spread in closed spaces, especially with poor ventilation, and preventing the transmission in close-contact settings through strict enforcement of mask wearing.” Similarly, K Srinath Reddy, the president of the PHFI, told Newsclick in reference to election rallies and the Kumbh Mela, “Perhaps, such events were planned on the incorrect premise that the pandemic had ended for India and would not return.”

According to Reddy, the need of the hour is a “decentralisation of the response, even to the district level.” He added, “Support and inter-state coordination can be offered by the central government, planning and resource allocation can be done at the state capital level. But data-driven decentralised decision making has to be made at the district level.” Instead, the government has persisted with massive election rallies across the country.

The Election Commission did little to curb the spread of the virus, announcing an eight-phase election in West Bengal—an unprecedented polling schedule that came under criticism for favouring the BJP. In the wake of the health crisis, the chief minister Mamata Banerjee had called for the last three phases to be clubbed, but the Election Commission ruled it out as a possibility. The polling in West Bengal began on 27 March. Within two weeks, the state recorded its highest-ever single-day spike with 5,892 new cases recorded on 14 April. One week later, the state reported 10,784 new COVID-19 cases.

Since January, the government machinery has done little to prepare the country for the second wave. In mid April, the union health minister Harsh Vardhan called upon ministry officials to make “significant development” on research projects that seek to scientifically validate the benefits of indigenous cows, telling the officials that “Covid-19 pandemic cannot be used as an excuse for this delay.”

Meanwhile, amid a desperate shortage of oxygen across the country, Piyush Goyal, the union minister of commerce and industry, asked states to keep the “demand under control,” instead of undertaking measures to increase production and supply. Earlier this month, Scroll reported that the central government took as long as eight months after the pandemic hit India to float tenders for oxygen-generation plants.

On 21 April, at 8 pm, the Delhi High Court heard an urgent petition by the Max Group that raised attention to a crisis in two of its hospitals, which were running dangerously low on their oxygen supply. The high court bench of Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli came down harsh on the central government for failing to supply the necessary oxygen.

“We are shocked and dismayed that the government does not seem to be mindful and sensitive enough to the extreme and emergent needs of medical oxygen by hospitals which are treating serious COVID patients,” the bench remarked. “This is any emergency of grave nature. Human lives are not important it seems for the state.” The bench proposed that the government divert the oxygen produced by steel and petroleum industries and ensure that it is provided to hospitals. The court added, “You are concerned about industries now when people are dying. One or two weeks, the industries can wait. You have not even thought in that direction, that is the problem.”

But Tushar Mehta, the solicitor general, joined the hearing at 9.20 pm and asked the court to refrain from passing such an order, and sought an adjournment till the next day. The two Max hospitals received additional oxygen from the oxygen-manufacturer Inox during the hearing, and the bench adjourned the hearing at Mehta’s request after receiving an assurance from him that the centre would facilitate the supply of 480 metric tonnes of oxygen to Delhi.

The next day, a Supreme Court bench led by the chief justice of India, SA Bobde, took suo moto cognisance of cases concerning supply of oxygen, essential drugs, vaccination, and lockdowns, taking note of the decisions by several high courts on these issues. Bobde noted that that the court “might withdraw certain issues from the high courts to the Supreme Court.” Shortly after, the Delhi High Court heard a petition by yet another hospital facing an acute oxygen shortage. Once again, Mehta assured the court the 480 MT of oxygen would be supplied, and that the central government had passed orders to ensure that trucks carrying oxygen would be allowed to travel freely without being obstructed.

The state of the intensive care units and graveyards, filled to capacity in April, are the sum total of the decisions, and lack thereof, taken through February and March by the Modi administration. In fact, numerous media reports have also noted that there has been a mass under-reporting of COVID-19 deaths, based on the protocol followed during cremations. The Financial Times reported that Bhopal’s cremations of COVID-19 patients were over twenty-four times higher than the city’s official COVID-19 death toll. The cremations of COVID-19 casualties in Bharuch, Gujarat, were similarly seventeen times more than the official count, according to the report.

On 22 April, India set a global record for the highest-ever daily peak with 3,14,835 new cases. The day also saw the country record its highest single-day official death toll of 2,104.