“It is clearly evident from the experience of the past few days, that we have chosen the correct path,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a televised address to the nation on 14 April. “Our country has greatly benefited from social distancing and the lockdown.” Modi maintained a tone of optimism throughout the speech. He tried to cement the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic was a problem his government had always been prepared for. But a closer look at the numbers and the situation on the ground shows that Modi’s optimism is unfounded at best, and a blatant denial of accountability at worst.
The primary aim of Modi’s speech was to announce that the ongoing 21-day lockdown, slated to end the next day, would be extended till 3 May. However, his 25-minute-long speech largely comprised self-congratulatory remarks about the government efforts to contain COVID-19 and contained assurances of the economic and humanitarian well-being of India’s population. While Modi was intent on showing that the situation in India was under effective control thanks to his government, his arguments were often devoid of a factual foundation.
“Before we had even a single case of the coronavirus, India had started screening travellers coming in from coronavirus affected countries at airports,” Modi said. This claim, while being technically true, hides more than it reveals. It is true the Indian government was conducting thermal scans prior to India’s first recorded case of COVID-19, but these scans were conducted highly selectively and often, with poor enough planning to allow for the virus to spread into India. India’s first case of COVID-19 was reported on 30 January, in Kerala. On 17 January, the union government had formally announced that it was conducting thermal scans of passengers coming from China. This announcement was meant for only three airports, and was expanded to seven airports on 21 January.
It was only on 13 February that people travelling from Japan and South Korea started getting scanned at airports, when the countries already had 28 cases each. On 2 March—over three weeks later—the Indian government also decided to add Italy, which had 2,000 active cases, to the list. On 3 March, Raghu Sharma, the health minister of Rajasthan, announced that at least two hundred and fifteen Indian citizens in Rajasthan had come in contact with a group of Italian tourists who had tested positive for COVID-19.
Research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine also suggests that thermal scanning is a very ineffective screening technique that detects less than one in five people who are COVID-19 positive. The Twitter handle of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Delhi wing had, on 15 March, tweeted the same claim that Modi later made in his speech regarding screening. The very next day, Boom—an independent fact-checking website—had pointed out that this was misleading and untrue.
“Much before the number of coronavirus patients reached 100, India had made 14-day isolation mandatory for all those coming in from abroad,” Modi said, in his speech. This is false. The Indian government, on the advice of the Indian Council of Medical Research, made a 14-day home quarantine compulsory only on 17 March. By 17 March, 143 people in India had tested positive for COVID-19. The contagion had spread to 13 different states by then and the World Health Organization had declared that India already had local transmission of COVID-19.
Several other policies that reduced the spread of COVID-19 which Modi appeared to be taking credit for were often not an initiative of the central government at all. “Malls, clubs and gyms were shut down in many places,” Modi said. However, the closure of these institutions was announced by various state governments including Maharashtra, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka before 19 March. The decision to do so lies fully within the purview of state governments.