On 5 May, just days after the home ministry extended the nationwide lockdown, India reported the highest spike of COVID-19 infections and deaths so far, with 3,829 new cases and 194 deaths. For the second time, a national task force constituted by the Indian Council of Medical Research to advise the Narendra Modi administration on its pandemic response was not consulted on the extension, according to multiple members of the team. The centre had not discussed the extension of the lockdown into its second phase either. The task force, comprising 21 scientists, had met just hours before the announcement of the third phase, on 1 May. Yet, according to task-force members, the government did not discuss the matter with the committee of experts appointed to advise it on policy decisions.
Three months into the pandemic, as India struggles to contain growing cases, the sidelining of expert advice has become a trademark of the Modi administration’s response to the novel coronavirus. It has brought to boil the tensions between India’s scientific community and the administration leading the response. “While policy decisions involve more than just the science, the near total absence of scientific input and a spirit of scientific temper in the decisions and their communication is frustrating,” a member of one of the eleven empowered groups constituted by the centre in response to COVID-19, told me. One of the clearest indicators of this disregard for a scientific response to the crisis was the centre’s prediction, during a national press briefing on 24 April, that the pandemic would end on 16 May.
During the press briefing, Vinod Paul, a member of the NITI Aayog, presented a slide that ambitiously claimed that India would see no new cases of COVID-19 after 16 May. The empowered-group member said that the prediction relied on a “discredited theory” of mathematical modelling. The mathematical model that predicted the decline of the pandemic was depicted in a graph that was a part of Paul’s presentation in the briefing. It projected that the number of new infections would start dipping in early May, peaking with a little over 1,500 new cases around the time the second phase of the lockdown would end. It then made the optimistic forecast that the number of new cases would drop to about a thousand by 10 May, and that India would see no new cases after 16 May. Soon after the briefing, the Press Information Bureau tweeted the mathematical model, noting that Paul had said, “No need to fear of hidden spike in #COVID cases, the disease is in control.”
Paul is the chairperson of the 21-member task force and also the chairperson of the first empowered group, on a “medical emergency management plan.” His presentation was titled, “India tackles the COVID-19 outbreak effectively,” and most of his briefing appeared focused on projecting that the lockdown was a categorical success. “The country has shown that the lockdown was effective,” Paul said. Though he refrained from discussing the prediction on the graph, which was projected on a massive screen behind him, he repeatedly referred to the slide to praise the lockdown and the government’s response to the pandemic. “Today, we can say that the steps taken by this country to overcome this epidemic were timely, good and fulfilled, and with great strength, we are prepared to completely control and defeat this disease,” Paul said.