NEW DELHI — On May 17, the day the Union government significantly relaxed India’s punitive national lockdown, the country recorded the largest single day spike in fresh cases of and fatalities due to the novel coronavirus.
The same day, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said India had hit the 80,000 cases mark in 106 days after recording its first infection while many developed nations took just 44-66 days to reach that mark. The health ministry said the number of COVID-19 cases in the country were now doubling every 13.6 days, an improvement over the past fortnight, when cases were doubling every 11.5 days.
These cautiously upbeat statements and the easing of lockdown restrictions juxtaposed against the grim news of steadily spiking infections and fatalities reveal a worrying pattern: The Union government is using incomplete national-level data to justify arbitrary policy decisions, defend its record, and underplay the extent of the COVID-19 crisis.
HuffPost India’s analysis of publicly available data, local health bulletins, government documents, interviews with district and state-level officials, and infectious disease experts suggests that these imperfect numbers at best, offer an underestimate of the coronavirus’s spread, and at worse, form the basis for misleading conclusions to support arbitrary policy decisions.
Despite widely acknowledged inconsistencies and limitations of these data —the numbers are significantly dependent on India’s testing strategies and availability of testing infrastructure— senior health officials continue to display graphs at press conferences to give the illusion that the government is aware of how the pandemic is unfolding in real-time. Future projections of COVID-19 cases shared with states by the NITI Ayog and the Union Health Ministry are sometimes wildly divergent.
On April 11 for instance, the health ministry justified Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s controversial decision to lockdown the entire country...