More Than 600 Indian Experts Urge the Govt to ‘Listen to Science’ on Covid19 Policy
Several scientists and medical professionals from India have written a letter to the Indian government calling for public health policies to be strictly informed by transparent scientific data as the second Covid19 wave rages in intensity.
To ensure that India’s healthcare system can prepare itself better, the letter recommends “systematic collection and timely release of data” — pertaining to testing, immune response to vaccination drives, and the severity of the infection in the population, especially in hospitalized patients. The idea is to allow experts to observe trends so they learn what’s ahead, and strategize accordingly. Currently, the health care system is severely strained, witnessing a shortage of basic supplies such as oxygen, ventilators, hospital beds, medical personnel. Experts believe the inadequate preparation stemmed from a lacking awareness about the Covid19 spread.
The letter also criticized the government’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat‘ policy, which makes the import of scientific equipment “an extremely tedious and time-consuming process” — at a juncture when time has become even more precious than before for millions of patients and their families fighting for hospital beds and oxygen cylinders. “Such restrictions, at this time, only serve to impede our ability to deal with Covid19,” the scientists wrote, requesting for the withdrawal of these restrictions.
Further, given the sheer environmental diversity across the country, the letter also urges policymakers to steer away from ‘one size fits all’ policies. “Public health measures in India should necessarily vary from one local area to another, because there is a great geographical variability in patterns of spread of the infection due to local conditions,” the letter reads.
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The scientists have appealed to the government to carry out “large-scale genomic surveillance” to map out new variants. While the letter itself was published last Thursday, the advice on tracking variants has assumed even greater significance since then. An exclusive report published by Reuters this weekend claimed that in March, the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium (INSACOG), a committee of scientific advisers set up by the government last December to trace Covid19-variants, had informed authorities of a ‘severely contagious’ variant gaining a stronghold on the Indian population. “The warning about the new variant in early March was issued by the [INSACOG]. It was conveyed to a top official who reports directly to the prime minister,” the report states.
But instead of imposing restrictions, the authorities allowed political rallies and mass gatherings to take place. Recently, the Supreme Court urged the central government to impose a ban on mass gatherings and other ‘superspreader events.’
“Policy has to be based on evidence and not the other way around — I am worried that science was not taken into account to drive policy. But I know where my jurisdiction stops. As scientists we provide the evidence, policy-making is the job of the government,” Shahid Jameel, chair of INSACOG, told Reuters.
The tussle between scientists and governments is not limited to India. Last year, Dr. Anthony Fauci, American physician-scientist and immunologist, publicly debunked former U.S. President Donald Trump’s claims about the novel coronavirus. Just last week, Brazilian scientists blamed their government for undermining science and ignoring scientific advice in the fight against Covid19, causing infections to surge.
“Governments do not always heed researchers, and in countries such as India, science chiefs could lose their jobs for dissent,” T.V. Padma, a New Delhi-based science journalist, wrote in a Nature editorial on Friday. But while she welcomed the scientists’ open letter, she noted that it may not be enough. “…scientific administrators and academies need to make even stronger statements. And the government must show that it is listening, by getting them access to the data needed to curb this devastating second wave.”
At the time of going to press, the letter had 710 signatories.
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