By Pallav Bagla
The world’s largest, and possibly longest ‘lockdown’ continues, but is the communication of the corona pandemic in India running out of steam already? The pandemic may just as well morph into an ‘infodemic’! The virus continues its shrill noise, but experts have fallen silent. This is so when India may still be seeing just the tip of the iceberg of infections, as per experts, and the worst is yet to come. The last full-fledged briefing by a battery of top Indian virologists was on March 17, with Dr Balram Bhargava, a cardiologist with Gandhian leanings and Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), making a formidable and convincing push to make India understand the gravity of Covid-19.
While the virus now multiplies every day, the briefings on the corona pandemic only take place four days a week. No prizes for guessing, of late, no corona briefings have taken place on weekends and gazetted holidays. Wednesdays, too, were knocked out of the briefing calendar. It almost seems the virus takes a break, or has an off-day on holidays and Wednesdays, and this is an India-specific strain of the virus at work. Bizarre communication policy!
Moreover, technical experts are making scarce appearances at regular briefings. ICMR experts have been missing since that fateful day of April 20, when the smell of a first corona snafu—which some say was a hint of an alleged scam—emerged from the purchase of rapid antibody testing kits from China. These kits turned out to be duds, with the Union health minister announcing that these would be returned to China, and that India had not paid any money for these. The last time that Dr Balram Bhargava himself was seen in the regular briefing was on March 23.
So for over two weeks now, no representative from the ICMR has been participating in the 4 pm media briefings. Only two Indian Administrative Service officers, one from the ministry of health, and one from the ministry of home affairs, field the questions. Technical, medical, and scientific questions remain unanswered. Strategic, coherent, clear, and comprehensive communication is key to success.
May 7 was Buddha Purnima, the silence of the corona briefing was felt very strongly as on a Buddha Purnima long back in 1974, India shattered the sound barrier and exploded a nuclear device at Pokhran. The sound of that atomic blast still reverberates 46 years later. This Buddha Purnima, the sound of silence on the corona briefing was loud. When no official briefing takes place and only a press note is issued, this fuels the rumour mills, which then take centre stage. The doubling rate of the coronavirus may still be around 10-12 days, but the doubling rate of rumours and disinformation is a magnitude higher.
When the corona pandemic started to hit India, ICMR promised a purely science, health, and medical briefing every Friday. Two such detailed briefings happened back to back, but now, it is for almost six weeks—45 days of the lockdown—that the ICMR briefing has not taken place. This vacuum is unacceptable in the world’s largest democracy, where inculcating a scientific temper is an accepted principle.
One breath of fresh air is that Dr Harsh Vardhan, the country’s health and science minister, makes it a point to relay live on Facebook most of his meetings with and updates from various hospitals and government departments. He is himself an ENT surgeon, an able communicator, and a highly respected voice on the Covid-19 pandemic.
What is even more amazing is the absence of any ICMR representative from the four-days-a-week 4 pm briefing—whether they choose not to turn up or have been asked not to attend the briefings, with this change, it is now left to bureaucrats to update the country on the progress of the pandemic. India needs its talented health professionals to talk to the people; bureaucrats, more often than not, parry and beat about the bush on technical questions than rather they conveying the facts.
Even during the Kargil conflict of 1999, daily briefings were held over the two-month period, with a senior specialist from the Indian army taking lead and, no, weekends did not mean that the briefings or the war took a break. If the Covid pandemic is a 21st century war between India and an invisible enemy, the briefings should take place daily, along with medical experts at each briefing.
It also came as a big surprise when PM Modi skipped his forceful address to the nation when the ‘lockdown’ was extended for the third time on May 1. The ‘lockdown’ has been the worst crisis since the Kargil skirmish and the 1971 war, and the country wanted to hear some soothing, calming advice from the terrific orator that Modi is, and one in whom India has reposed trust. He was last heard talking to Indian citizens in his monthly ‘Mann ki Baat’ programme on April 26.
It was heartening to note that when it was whispered that ‘social distancing’ was bad phraseology, the government promptly corrected it to ‘physical distancing’. But, this sudden reluctance to hold daily briefings is a bit befuddling. If it is part of a game plan to ratchet down the panic on coronavirus, then it may be acceptable, but otherwise, it is a bad policy that needs to be corrected soon.
Communication is the key in trying to avoid knee-jerk reactions when panic takes over.
India trusts its physicians and doctors far, far more than its bureaucrats and politicians. Missteps in effective communication of how India is tackling the coronavirus pandemic can lead to a lot of problems. The argumentative Indian is a great listener. They heard the plaintive call of PM Modi for a ‘Janata Curfew’, and India has, by and large, most obediently and quietly stayed at home under house arrest for the last seven weeks.
It would be ideal to get the health experts back on the briefings and make briefings a daily affair. In any case, the virus is running amok—today, humans are arrested and the virus is free. Also, a small suggestion: Instead of using the term vaishvik mahamari, a term that sends the chill down the spine, a simplified corona bimari could be used to reduce the panic since we now need to learn to live with the virus.
Get the experts talking again—locking up the voices that Indians trust is counterproductive to handling a medical crisis. Else, be prepared that the ‘virus’ of disinformation may multiply exponentially. We have miles to go before we can sleep in our efforts to contain the pandemic, else an infodemic may result, which may bruise many more people. The ‘invisible enemy’ can only be eliminated with proper communication; else, it may just become invincible.
Science communicator for the last three decades. Views are personal