Scientific uncertainties, weak institutions, and nationalism led to COVID-19 devastation

14 May 2021
People at a wholesale shopping market ahead of the Holi festival in Delhi on 26 March 2021.
Rajat Gupta/EPA
People at a wholesale shopping market ahead of the Holi festival in Delhi on 26 March 2021.
Rajat Gupta/EPA

By the time 2020 drew to a close, several countries around the world—and indeed cities in India—had seen multiple COVID-19 surges. Some of these surges continued into 2021 and were proving catastrophic. New and more dangerous variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the disease, were emerging, including in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa. Globally, the pandemic was far from over. India, however, had been seeing a steady decline in cases. The decline was not uniform: Delhi had surged in November, and cases in Kerala were still high at the end of the year; but the national outlook seemed fairly bright. 

By February, though, storm clouds were gathering. I wrote that a new wave could be developing, but a swift response could still prevent it from going national. Writing in IndiaSpend, the journalist Rukmini S discussed Maharashtra, the international situation, and new variants of the virus, concluding that “new evidence is casting doubts over India's pathway through and out of the pandemic.” By early March, the risks were even more evident. Based on the data they had gathered, the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium or INSACOG reportedly warned top officials of the looming dangers posed by new home-grown variants whose properties were not yet clear. We now have plenty of evidence that INSACOG was right.  

But there is no evidence that government was listening, or watching the data, or tracking the international situation. The government’s own scientific taskforce failed to meet during February and March, and individual members of the taskforce who were concerned about a new wave were unable to make their voices heard. Instead, the first four months of 2021 saw a slow vaccine  roll-outbacking for a full-fledged Kumbh , and long drawn-out elections with vast rallies. On 7 March, Harsh Vardhan, the health minister, declared that India had reached the “endgame of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Two days later, Manindra Agrawal, a member of a panel formed by the department of science and technology to model the COVID-19 trajectory and author of the government-backed “Indian supermodel,” confidently tweeted that there would be no “second wave.” Aside from political considerations, it appears government inaction on COVID-19 may have been driven by flawed scientific advice and narratives which had become popular over the course of the pandemic. What were these narratives?

Knowledge of COVID-19 has evolved rapidly, and is still evolving. There have been competing theories about the origins of the disease, the ways it spreads, the nature of immunity, fatality rates, and the properties of new variants. Some theories are speculative, but have high-profile backers. It is not easy navigating this changing landscape, and public-health bodies have made mistakes. Consider the early recommendations by the WHO against face masks, and the painfully long time it took for the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to acknowledge that COVID-19 is airborne. 

Although the scientific uncertainties are global, other factors have helped shape an understanding of COVID-19 in India: advisory bodies lacking independence; limited and sometimes manipulated data; and, above all, a tendency to view all problems through a lens of nationalism and exceptionalism. 

Murad Banaji is a mathematician with an interest in disease modelling.

Keywords: COVID-19 coronavirus Harsh Vardhan Shekhar Gupta SARS-CoV2
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