False Remedies

The Modi government’s woeful record of suppressing information on COVID-19

Throughout the pandemic, the health minister delegated regular press briefings to bureaucrats, who were selective about the questions they answered. ani / hindustan times
31 January, 2021

The Press Trust of India ran a story on 13 March 2020, quoting unnamed officials at the health ministry saying that the spread of the coronavirus was not a health emergency. On that day, India had recorded nearly ninety confirmed cases of infection and had already recorded its first death by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. On 30 January—the day India recorded its first case—the World Health Organisation had declared the COVID-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Just a day before the PTI story, the WHO declared it a pandemic. Ten days later, on 22 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a one-day nationwide curfew that was quickly followed by a long-term nationwide lockdown.

Much of 2020 was characterised by uncertainty. Research on COVID-19 struggled to keep pace with the virus as it moved across borders. Communicating uncertainty in science is difficult in the best of times and many degrees tougher during a pandemic. What India, and the world, needed was for its people in charge to be clear and transparent, to caution that most things were subject to change and to admit that there were things they did not know yet and could not predict. Instead, over a year of the pandemic, the Indian government’s communication has been marked by mixed messaging, the downplaying of potential threats, grandstanding on the administration’s handling of the crisis and a reluctance to share information. In that time, India has had more than ten million recorded cases of COVID-19 and over a hundred and fifty thousand people have died. Journalists have also reported on the undercounting of COVID-19 deaths, either due to tests not being carried out on people who died quickly or to an underlying disease being recorded as the cause of death.

In the early months of the pandemic, while numerous world leaders addressed press conferences or made video statements to assure their countries that they were monitoring and reacting to the health crisis, India’s top elected officials remained silent. Although Modi made televised statements announcing curfews and lockdowns, he continued to avoid press conferences, as he always has. The health minister, Harsh Vardhan, delegated regular press briefings to bureaucrats, and they were selective about the questions they answered. Health journalists complained that the officials stonewalled or deflected tough questions.

“Critical issues of policy are always communicated by key officials in their press briefings,” K Sujatha Rao, a former union health secretary, told me. “But if the issues affect a large section of people and are causing worry and stress, then given the level of public importance, such briefings can even be elevated to the level of the minister or the PM as we have seen happen in other countries.” Rao also pointed to the examples of chief ministers in Kerala, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh who held regular briefings.