The government has termed the recent New York Times (NYT) article on India’s COVID response as “provocative and attention seeking”. The article claims that “politics overrode science” in India. Published on September 14, 2021, the article cited multiple studies and raised questions on the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), alleging that India’s “top science agency (ICMR) tailored its findings to fit Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s optimistic narrative despite a looming crisis”. Reacting to the article, the central government highlighted the irony, saying that the piece has come at a time when the country is doing a good job of containing the spread of the novel virus.
As per PTI reports, ICMR Director General Dr Balram Bhargava said during a press conference, “This is a provocative, attention seeking article published at a time when India is doing good and our vaccination is excellent and it is diverting attention. All the issues raised are dead ones and probably do not merit any attention.”
Rajesh Bhushan, the union health secretary, backed the government and stated that the central and the state governments are devoted towards fighting the pandemic at their best. “We greatly value journalistic and editorial freedom and at the same time we must also realise that all of us – union government as well as the state governments are fully engaged in fighting a pandemic and all our energies and time is devoted to that,” said Bhushan. He continued, “We cannot afford to be diverted by things that can be addressed at a later day which are not a priority from the public health point of view.”
Further condemning the article, NITI Aayog member Dr V K Paul said, “We actually condemn this type of distorted out of context reporting. This is not desirable and it should not happen.”
The NYT article, authored by reporter Karan Deep Singh, noted that senior officials at the government forced scientists at top medical institutions to downplay the threat of the pandemic to “prioritize Modi’s political goals”. The article considered the statement of Dr Anup Agarwal – a physician working for ICMR at the time of research. According to the report, Dr Agarwal claimed that he and other scientists were worried about the study reviewed and published by the ICMR on COVID-19. He said that the concerned scientists were “reprimanded” by the top officials of the agency and senior officials were forced to withdraw another study that questioned the government’s efforts in containing the spread of the virus. The article mentions that the agency was also distanced from a third study that foresaw the second wave.
“Science is being used as a political weapon to forward the government narrative rather than help people,” Dr Agarwal told the paper. The article also quoted Dr Shahid Jameel, one of India’s top virologists and a former government adviser, who said, “Science thrives in an environment where you can openly question evidence and discuss it dispassionately and objectively. That, sadly, at so many levels, has been missing.”
The report also accused that the ICMR has not researched “granular data” on the spread of coronavirus, “hampering the ability of scientists to study it”. The chief scientist at the time of research for the article, Dr Raman Gangakhedkar, told the publication that he had earlier expressed “anguish” over the government blaming Muslims for the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic after reports on an Islamic gathering during the nationwide lockdown were published. Dr Gangakhedkar said that ICMR’s Dr Bhargava had told him to not get concerned over the matter.
The issue escalated after the Congress, on September 16, cited the article to allege Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Harsh Vardhan – the former health minister, and senior officials of the ICMR of “criminal culpability” for downplaying the data related to COVID and the second wave of the pandemic “to build a false narrative that everything was normal”. Congress spokesperson Ajay Maken stated that the seriousness of the issue and demanded a probe by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court or High Court. “We are demanding that a criminal investigation be carried out against the prime minister, against the former health minister and against senior officials of ICMR,” said Maken.
Warning that the Opposition will hit the streets on the issue and raise it in the parliament if not probed properly, Maken said, “That is the best form of any investigation. There should be a criminal investigation under court supervision by a sitting judge as this is not a small matter. We feel that it was because of this reason that the guard was lowered and the state governments were unprepared and so was the general public, because of which there were large number of avoidable deaths during the second wave of coronavirus that caused so much devastation.” He further stated, “We could have saved so many lives had the false narrative not started and hence it requires a criminal investigation.”