India’s Covid-19 scorecard rests on insufficient data

| Updated on June 25, 2020 Published on June 25, 2020

Numbers that do not reflect the ground reality accurately make it difficult to draw inferences and fram policy responses

Sporting events across the country may have ground to a halt owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, but there is still one ‘scoreboard’ that is tracked daily with the same fervour traditionally reserved for cricket. That scorecard, of course, keeps count of the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in India (4.73 lakh, by last measure), and in individual States. For the most part, it makes for grim reading. The linear graphs of the total number of Covid cases and of the number of daily new cases continue to rise, which suggests, worryingly, that the epidemic has not yet peaked. It’s true, of course, that the Covid-related mortality rate in India is — for reasons that have not yet been credibly explained — lower than in many other countries. However, to the extent that the number of daily recoveries is far lower than the daily case load, the country is still behind the curve. But beneath that broad picture, granular details map out a somewhat more diverse landscape. Just three jurisdictions — Maharashtra, Delhi, and Tamil Nadu, which together account for about 15 per cent of India’s population — account disproportionately for 1.17 lakh of the 1.86 lakh active cases, or about 63 per cent. There is disquieting anecdotal evidence that the healthcare infrastructure in our leading cities is under severe stress. And, yet, the policy responses even within these three geographies vary widely: Tamil Nadu has opted for a full-scale lockdown until June 30, whereas Delhi, which may be slightly worse off, has pointedly disavowed that option.

The reason why it has become increasingly difficult to draw inferences — and frame Covid-19 mitigation strategies — is that much of the pan-Indian headline numbers rests on the infirm foundation of insufficient data. As an in-depth BusinessLine analysis ( June 23) established, the positivity ratios — the number of tests to turn up each Covid-positive case — in Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu are far short of the WHO benchmark. This suggests that even in the coronavirus ‘hotspots’ in India, the extent of testing is inadequate. In contrast, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Karnataka have acquitted themselves far more creditably on the testing front. For sure, most States have stepped up the number of daily tests in recent days, but there’s still much ground for the States to cover.

From all accounts, the infection spread in India is bound to get a lot worse before it starts to taper off, with the hinterlands, which were hitherto largely unaffected, likely to see a spike in the number of cases as people flee urban hotspots. In this context, the health authorities’ reluctance to acknowledge that the virus is at the ‘community transmission’ stage is unhelpful. Evidently, this is motivated by the desire to avoid inducing panic. But this is self-defeating. A ‘scorecard’ that does not reflect true ground reality will only diminish trust in governments, at a time when governments need it most.

Published on June 25, 2020
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