From the Viewsroom

Blame it on ICMR

A Srinivas | Updated on April 22, 2021

By failing to predict the second wave, it has let down one and all

The Prime Minister has exhorted the nation to be responsible in the face of a menacing pandemic. The whole country has been caught unawares by the second wave. Medicines, hospital beds and oxygen cylinders are running short. Deaths and cases are surging by leaps and bounds each day.

But for this dance of death, the Indian Council for Medical Research must bear much of the blame. The ICMR could have warned the country of a second wave months ago, when it swept the Western world. There was apparently no reason to believe that India would be spared. But spin doctors in the government, market participants and the media seemed keen to create a feel good factor — that the country will bounce back in 2021. A signal went out from the highest levels that India had overcome Covid.

Such misplaced optimism would have not set in, if the ICMR had called right — by seeking considered epidemiological opinion and applying its expertise. Vaccine capacities and hospital infrastructure could have been ramped up in December-January.

ICMR must be held accountable by Parliament on its lapse. India has shown that it has the capacity to deal with emergencies. But it seems the ICMR was not willing to speak truth to power. For example, it said last year that vaccines would be rolled out on August 15.

The best governments are wary of the ‘echo chamber’ effect and seek critical feedback, at least in their own self-interest. In a recent article on Economic Survey 2020-21 in India Forum, economists Simantini Mukhopadhyay and Achin Chakraborty have explained how it plays to the gallery instead of being an independent document that flags economic concerns. The ICMR’s ways too reflect a reluctance to act as an autonomous body. This corrosion of institutions has gone too far. It’s a matter of life and death for a democracy.

Published on April 22, 2021

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