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Giving “a positive spin" to the ongoing coronavirus crisis in India, a premature easing of lockdowns and possible under-reporting of COVID-19 fatalities may hamper — instead of help — public health initiatives in the sub-continent, the respected medical journal The Lancet warned. In a September 25 article, the journal urged India's leaders and its scientific community to be more circumspect in giving a positive spin to the pandemic.

The article lauded the country's expertise in medicine, public health, research and vaccine manufacturing to lead the nation through the COVID-19 pandemic, but pointed to the “dramatic increase“ in the number of Covid 19 cases in the country, with 6.07 million infections, which ranks India second only to the US which has crossed the 7 million mark. India has reported 95,542 deaths from the novel coronavirus, with the most deaths recorded in the state of Maharashtra (35,191 as of Septemebr 28, 2020). 

While praising the country is lockdown preparations, the write also felt that the easing of relaxations in June was "premature". The journal remarked that the country was facing a dangerous period in its fight against the pandemic, citing examples of how rural areas that were initially unaffected are now facing an increase in cases. It pointed to the “nuanced and complex spread” of the virus in India. The journal also stated how the practice of not sharing negative news added to the burden of India’s existing health infrastructure in public health initiatives.

“The epidemic in India is far from over, with a potentially huge burden of mortality in morbidity to come unless public health measures are used and adhere to. Without clear and honest communication, of the risks of COVID-19 to the population, stemming the epidermic will be impossible,” the Lancet article stated.

Observing the "false optimism" over the current pandemic in the country, The Lancet noted: “according to the news reports, house before announcing a national lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told owners and editors from India’s largest media organisations they was important to tackle the spread of pessimism negativity and rumour. ““

The journal also commented on the role of the scientific community in creating an environment of a potentially false optimism. It stated that the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the top research body in the country, strayed away from scientific evidence on several instances. It even described this move as “politically motivated“ and “overly optimistic“.

The journal cited three separate incidents to underline this claim:

  • The ICMR director general's unrealistic letter to 12 medical institute for launching a COVID-19 vaccine by August 15, 2020
  • The institute's over reliance on hydroxychloroquine for preventive treatment, without scientific evidence
  • The recent reports of the body asking experts not to publish data on seroprevalence in the containment zones in a scientific paper. Alan
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Passengers wearing protective masks wait to board a metro train in Kolkata. With the economy contracting by a record 23.9% in the April-June quarter leaving millions jobless, the Indian government is continuing with relaxing lockdown restrictions that were imposed in late March. The government in May announced a $266 billion stimulus package, but consumer demand and manufacturing are yet to recover. Image Credit: REUTERS

The editorial also questioned the transparency of India’s low case fatality rate data. In every press conference, India's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has repeatedly highlighted the country's low fatality rate (1.8%) and India's low cases and deaths per million when compare to other countries.

In later turned out that several states, such as Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Delhi did revise their total death count after conducting audits. This raised questions on whether India was under-reporting the total COVID-19 related deaths in the country.

Addressing the Delhi government, the journal suggested effectlvely communicating every measure to curb the pandemic. "Perpetuating unrealistic claims or failing to honestly report negative news creates uncertainty among the public and heathcare professionals, discouraging people from taking preventive action or taking public health messages seriously," it stated.