Covid-19: Can we get information on pandemic?

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Published: June 3, 2020 5:00 AM

An ICMR official, in response to another question, said that India was far from the Covid-19 peak, but never stated what the ICMR estimate was of the peak and by when it was going to be reached.

ICMR’s latest study points out that Delhi has traced just 8.9 contacts for every infected person and Maharashtra a mere 7.6 versus 44 in Tamil Nadu and 149 in Odisha. ICMR’s latest study points out that Delhi has traced just 8.9 contacts for every infected person and Maharashtra a mere 7.6 versus 44 in Tamil Nadu and 149 in Odisha.

Perhaps the best example of how little information is being made available in the Covid-19 pandemic is Tuesday’s briefing by the health ministry. In response to a question on whether India had enough hospital beds to meet the needs of Covid 19 patients—the media is reporting dead bodies crowding mortuaries and patients being turned away from over-crowded hospitals—the official merely stated that the central government had a model which helped states plan for how many beds and other facilities they need; not even a hint of how many beds were needed or what kind of shortages were being seen and the plans to rectify this. An ICMR official, in response to another question, said that India was far from the Covid-19 peak, but never stated what the ICMR estimate was of the peak and by when it was going to be reached. Indeed, while ICMR had earlier estimated that 70-80% of infected persons were asymptomatic, a new ICMR study—after over a million tests—suggests this number is closer to 30%; but ICMR cannot say this for certain either as the study says it doesn’t have adequate information on 44% of the infected persons.

While it can conceivably be argued that the central government doesn’t want to give information that makes the states look bad—if it said, for instance, that there was a bed shortage only in Mumbai—the problem is the states don’t put out much information either. Ideally, what people want to know is the type of infrastructure—beds, ICUs, PPE, etc—that each state has, the number of patients coming in every day, the occupancy levels of beds, tracing of contacts of those who have turned positive, whether they have been quarantined, etc; and this needs to be juxtaposed with estimates of what is needed at the infection’s peak. Few states, however, put out such information in full, and almost every state has a different reporting format. Mumbai puts out data on contacts traced—8,864 on May 29—but it is not clear what the backlog is; on April 26, Mumbai had reported that just 54% of contacts of the infected were traced. ICMR’s latest study points out that Delhi has traced just 8.9 contacts for every infected person and Maharashtra a mere 7.6 versus 44 in Tamil Nadu and 149 in Odisha. Little wonder, then, that the infection spread so fast even during the lockdown.

While Mumbai and Delhi report numbers on occupancy of beds—neither gives projections of what is required, though—few others do. Ahmedabad, for instance, has stopped giving information on ventilator usage; Kolkata has no details on the city’s facilities that are available for treating Covid-19. Delhi has no regular information on the numbers quarantined so far, and was putting out two sets of data on the number of daily tests—one in its daily bulletin and another in its report to the Delhi High Court. Uttar Pradesh doesn’t have district-wise data on the utilisation levels of various types of facilities. If the virus has to be beaten, the very least that is required is complete information that can help various experts—inside and outside the government—plan for what is likely to be needed and to come up with working solutions where there are gaps.

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