COVID-19: Deceptive data, Indian middle class and journalism

Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 Credit NIAID NIH
This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round blue objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S. Image captured and colorized at NIAID's Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Montana.NIAID

As countries began going under lockdown following the spread of coronavirus, reports of the governments riding roughshod over the people started pouring in from Kenya and many other African countries.

India was also put under lock and key but the hope was that things would be much better here than in the poor countries of Africa. After all, we had a long democratic tradition and a strong presence of civil society organizations in the cities, which would not allow the governments to run amok. But all the hopes soon lay shattered. It was apparent that our claims of being a modern democracy respecting the rights of the citizens were hollow.

Almost all foreign media institutions have underlined the fact that as far as violation of civil rights during lockdown is concerned, India’s record is the worst. The world is watching India in shock and dismay. The mask has blown away. The strong gust of stormy wind has left us stark naked.

The New York Times, in a report published on 15 February 2020, termed the Chinese lockdown a Mao-style social control campaign and dubbed it as the world’s strictest and biggest lockdown.

But after a lockdown was enforced in India, news outlets discovered that Not China’s or Italy’s but India’s coronavirus lockdown is the harshest in the world….While China has varying levels of lockdown, India’s federal government has instituted a single uniform policy for the entire country….Unlike India, in Beijing, buses ran and cabs were made to run after the first week with a plastic sheet between the passenger and the driver. Domestic flights and trains were only barred from some provinces, not all.”

However, in India, movement of people was completely halted across the country and there were reports of policemen brutally beating up citizens for violating the lockdown. There were reports that 15 persons were killed by the police for not following the lockdown norms. Twelve of these deaths followed merciless thrashing while three were custodial deaths.

As Indian investor and fund manager Ruchir Sharma, who writes on global economic and political issues, wrote in his article published in New York Times, “The rich love India’s lockdown. For the poor, it is another story.” 

The so-called liberal, elite class of India, which doesn’t tire of flaying Modi for his dictatorial and Hindutva-centric working style, did not waste a moment in rallying behind the lockdown announced by Modi.

There was nothing surprising about this either. The Indian liberal class banks on only secularism to take on the hydra-headed Hindutva. Values like social justice and social brotherhood are alien to them. They are mortally afraid of the modern education system and seek to legitimize the discriminatory formal education system.

More or less the same is true of the political opposition. The top slice of the Congress leadership is comprised of the liberal, elite class while those who swear by socialism and Ambedkarism also lack a world vision vis-a-vis civil rights.

That was the reason why the liberals and media remained aloof to the pain and distress the uneducated or semi-educated labourers and others employed in the service sector had to go through due to the lockdown. The men and women, who had travelled to places hundreds of miles away from their homes in search of livelihood, had to face untold misery. But they were seen as a motley group of irrationals, anarchic idiots, who did not understand the science of the spread of the diseases and who, at best, deserved only pity. The elite classes were unable to see these persons as equal citizens who enjoyed the same rights as they did.

There are no credible figures on lockdown-related deaths. The government would not like consolidated figures in this regard to come to light as they would expose its stupidity and cruelty.

Tejesh GN, Kanika Sharma and Aman, who are Bengaluru-based independent researchers, have tried to compile the figures on lockdown deaths on the basis of news items published in newspapers and on web portals. According to them, by the first of June, 740 persons had died while trekking home from metros to their native places due to fatigue or diseases, in accidents, due to hospitals refusing admissions or not providing adequate treatment, due to assaults by police and due to alcohol withdrawal.

According to the news stories compiled by these researchers, 50 persons died due to excessive fatigue and 150 were killed in road accidents or were run over by trains.

For lack of adequate resources, language constraints and the large number of local editions of different newspapers these researchers could not compile all the related news stories. But even if figures published in all the media outlets were to be compiled and collated, would they present the complete and true picture?

On the basis of my experience of over two decades in active journalism, my answer is an emphatic no. The actual number of victims of lockdown must be much, much higher than what newspapers have reported.

This can be understood with the help of an example. From May 1, the Government of India began operating ‘Shramic Special’ trains for reaching labourers stranded in metros and big cities to their native places. Around 80 persons died on board these trains from May 9-27, 2020 – a period of just 18 days. The matter reached the Supreme Court where the government claimed that not even one of these deaths was caused by starvation, lack of medicines or mismanagement and that all the deceased were already suffering from various ailments. No matter what the government says, the real cause of these deaths is as clear as daylight.

Train journeys were definitely much less difficult and dangerous than walking for thousands of kilometres, carrying young children and lugging household goods. Those who trekked on the highways included the elderly, the women (including expectant mothers), the children and disabled and sick people. They walked on empty stomachs with no arrangement of food and water and no place to rest.

When 80 persons lost their lives in a period of just 18 days while travelling on trains it can be imagined how many must have dropped dead on the highways over the almost two and half months during which this reverse migration of lakhs of workers continued. It is almost certain that their numbers must have been many times over the numbers suggested by news reports. .

With most of the health facilities in the country shuttered as part of the campaign to combat the so-called epidemic one can only imagine the number of persons who must have died in accidents and for want of treatment. No one is even counting them.

From where do journalists get their figures? Did the reporters collect the data on deaths on trains themselves? Did the correspondents of media organisations file reports about dead bodies on trains from different places?

Media organizations neither have the capacity nor the will to collect and collate information using their own networks. They mainly focus on political stories, statements of politicians and spars between them. Add to it attending press conferences and asking an occasional question and we have the sum total of the activities of representations of news organizations. All the other stories are based on press releases and information provided by the government machinery. The fact is that barring some independent journalists like Barkha Dutt, journalists are never in the ‘field’.

‘Beats’ are allotted to the reporters in such a way that they are reduced to being spokespersons for various government departments. Journalists operating from district headquarters and smaller towns also depend on crumbs of information provided to them by district magistrates, superintendents of police, block officers or local police stations.

Be that as it may, data on death on Shramik Special trains were released by the Railway Protection Force (RPF). RPF informed media that 10 deaths took place on these trains on 23 May, 9 each on 24 and 25 May, 13 on 26 May and 8 on 27 May. All media organisations have reported the same numbers. In fact, you will find that even the choice of words and presentation is the same.

The RPF provided data pertaining to deaths on these trains between 9 May and 27 May and the media duly reported the figures. The RPF did not release corresponding figures from 1-8 May and from 28 May onwards. And so, media organizations had no means to find out how many labourers died on these trains before 9 May and after 27 May.

Similarly, if the information about the death of a labourer walking home was reported to the police station concerned, it was relayed to the media and the local newspapers carried the story. If the police station didn’t convey the information, it was not published. If a journalist happens to secure a piece of information from some other source it may also find its way to the columns of the newspapers but this happens rarely. And it was even more unlikely during the lockdown as reporters of small newspapers were wary of venturing out of their homes for the fear of being thrashed by cops.

Thus, though the stories about deaths due to curfew-like strict lockdown paint a horrific picture, the reality must be much more horrific than that.

COVID data: Vending fear and panic   
Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell showing morphological signs of apoptosis, infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (green), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Credit: NIAID/NIH

Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell showing morphological signs of apoptosis, infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (green), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Credit: NIAID/NIH

To date, according to official data, around 13,000 persons have died of Covid-19. But the way the data is being shared is creating fear and panic rather than placing the real picture before the people.

According to the new guidelines of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), deaths due to pneumonia and cardiac arrest are also being added to the COVID death toll. Deaths caused solely by only COVID are much less in number.

According to the new guidelines:

  • If a person dies of any disease after testing positive for COVID, the death is counted as a COVID death.
  • Thus, theoretically, if a COVID positive person is killed in a road accident, it would be considered a COVID death! Such instances have been reported from many countries.
  • Even if the COVID test report of a deceased patient is negative, if he had symptoms of influenza or pneumonia, his death is reported as a ‘possible COVID death’ on the basis of clinical-epidemiological diagnosis. This is a diagnostic technique based on symptoms and has been censured by specialists.
  • If the exact cause of death is not identified but if the patient had COVID symptoms like cold and cough, fever and difficulty in breathing, the case can be listed as ‘possible Covid-19 death’.
  • If a patient suffering from any disease is admitted to a hospital where he dies and it is found that he had a cardiac injury or blood clotting, then his death is considered as being due to Covid-19.

Thus, there is a possibility of deaths due to influenza, pneumonia and cardiac diseases being counted as COVID deaths. In India, pneumonia kills 1.27 lakh persons every year while heart ailments claim 25-28 lakh lives annually.

Heart failure is the cause of death of most of the elderly persons. As per the new guidelines, any of these deaths can be attributed to Covid-19 and there are reasons to believe that this being done at many places.

Postmortem of bodies of patients who have died due to Covid-19 has been banned and hospitals have been directed not to collect samples of dead persons for COVID test. In other words, there is no way to confirm whether Covid-19 was the cause of death.

The symptoms of Covid-19 are not only similar to those of influenza, pneumonia and other diseases which cause fever but there are little visual or fundamental differences between them. In India, lakhs die every year of dozens of ailments which have symptoms similar to those of flu. These ailments are not incurable. Those who cannot afford costly medicines and treatment die of these eminently curable diseases. Most of them are youth, women and children from poor, Muslim, Adivasi, Dalit and OBC families.

What message would be conveyed by classifying deaths as due to COVID without any test and what would be its political and social implications?

In India, more than 4.5 lakh persons die of TB every year. Malaria claims around 2 lakh lives annually with most of its victims being young Adivasis. Every year, more than one lakh children die due to diarrhoea and 1.27 lakh die due to pneumonia. Just divide these figures by 365 and you would discover that each day, there 1,300 TB and 347 pneumonia deaths in India. (See my article on deaths due to various ailments in India here.

But these deaths do not create a stir in media and the Indian middle class is entirely unconcerned with such a large number of persons dying of easily curable ailments.

It may be argued that ICMR’s new guidelines, which in turn are based on WHO guidelines, have been issued to ensure that there is no under-counting of COVID deaths. But there is little possibility of that happening as the country’s entire health setup is currently busy battling only COVID. Other diseases are not on its radar. This guideline may be useful for researches and studies in medicine but it is projecting COVID as a much bigger epidemic than it actually is. More people are dying due to the panic and mayhem created by the disproportionate fear than by the disease itself.

It would be better to place simple and correct figures before the people. They should be told that COVID cannot be compared with contagions like plague, cholera and smallpox. Those diseases had fatality rates of 50 to 100 per cent and death was very painful. This is not true of COVID. Despite exaggerations, COVID death rate is not a shade above three per cent.

Most of the Indian newspapers say that there is a possibility of India reporting ‘excess deaths’, thus indicating that COVID deaths are even higher than what is being reported.

‘Excess deaths’ means higher-than-average daily deaths. However, there is no evidence to indicate that India has witnessed excess deaths in the past four months and if yes, how many. On the other hand, on social media and even around us we can see that many deaths are happening because patients of other diseases are not getting proper treatment and also because of the unprecedented confusion, mayhem and disorder which the very strict lockdown has triggered. If you will look around, you will discover that many persons around us suffering from other diseases have died for want of treatment or quality treatment.  But for the panic created in the name of COVID, they would have been among us.

But instead of providing treatment to persons suffering from other diseases, the government is busy counting COVID patients. We are constantly being informed through social media by friends and acquaintances that despite beds being vacant, hospitals are refusing admission to patients of other diseases.

Covid-19 is fatal for patients with co-morbidities. But persons suffering from chronic diseases who have been infected with COVID are being forced to run from pillar to post for treatment and many of them are dying for want of timely medical intervention. These are not deaths due to the so-called epidemic but murder for which administrative apathy and mismanagement is to be blamed.

Why are we not being told how many patients are under treatment in the dozens of dedicated COVID hospitals in the country? What has become of the hundreds of train coaches that were converted into isolation facilities?

The government says that a robust database on Covid-19 is needed. But don’t we also need data on the ruin and the deaths the lockdown has caused, the impact of which would last for decades.

The government won’t answer these questions. And a big section of India media has no interest in finding the answers.

By –PRAMOD RANJAN

[Pramod Ranjan’s interests lie in subaltern studies and modernity. Sahityetihas Ka Bahujan Paksha, Bahujan Sahitya Ki Prastavna and Periyar ke Pratinidhi Vihar are among the main books edited by him while Shimla Diary is penned by him. Currently, Ranjan is a professor in Rabindranath Tagore School of Languages and Cultural Studies of Assam University,]

(Translation from Hindi: Ekta News and Features)  

 

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