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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Despite court rap, Telangana Covid-19 numbers are aimed to conceal more than they reveal

Amid criticism about the absence of vigour in testing for the spread of infection among the public, which prompted the High Court to censure the state government, the medical bulletin from the director of Public Health and Family Welfare often appears like a 'puzzle' aimed at minimum sharing of information.

Written by Rahul V Pisharody | Hyderabad | Updated: May 28, 2020 7:52:45 pm
Coronavirus cases, covid 19 patients, Private hospital beds, Mumbai news, Indian express news While neighboring states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh give detailed bulletins with break-up and samples tested, Telangana bulletins do not talk about the samples tested on the day or to date. (PTI/Representational)

For the first time since the first positive case of Covid-19 was detected in Telangana on March 1, the number of positive cases detected daily breached the hundred figure mark Wednesday night. With 107 positive cases according to the 10 pm bulletin, the only daily official update, the total number of cases from Telangana stood at 2,098. The day also recorded six deaths taking the total to 63.

Amid criticism about the absence of vigour in testing for the spread of infection among the public, which prompted the High Court to censure the state government, the medical bulletin from the director of Public Health and Family Welfare often appears like a ‘puzzle’ aimed at minimum sharing of information.

The May 27 bulletin was puzzling even by Telangana standards. The government had once again changed the format. Compared to the previous day’s bulletin which spoke of ‘status as on date’ and ‘status today’, clearly detailing the total confirmed cases on the day, and total active cases as on date, this bulletin had new tables which did not give away the total number of cases detected on the day.

The first table was ‘situation in Telangana state’ which mentioned new positive cases in Telangana state as 39, till 5 pm on May 26. The total number of local cases at 5 pm of May 27, in the same table, was 1842. In another table titled ‘new positive cases among deportees/ foreign returnees’, the number of cases for the day stood at 68 and total stood at 297. In another table titled ‘discharges, deaths and active cases’, the total number of positive cases in hospitals stood at 714. Among the highlights given in the same bulletin, it is mentioned that 82 of the 458 deportees from Saudi Arabia are tested positive, and to date, 154 migrants have tested positive. Soon a clarification from the office of the Director of Public Health stated that the total was in fact 2098.

While neighboring states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh give detailed bulletins with break-up and samples tested, Telangana bulletins do not talk about the samples tested on the day or to date.

Speaking to indianexpress.com, Sujatha Rao, former Union Health Secretary, points out that as a general rule in pandemics, the accuracy of data and transparency are two important pillars that are non-negotiable. According to her, it is important to measure the development and evolution of the pandemic properly by duly following principles and policies laid down. “It has to be transparent, which means people must know. Unfortunately, that is not how politicians understand and they think people would get into a panic. It is a question of making people understand that it is a flu-like disease and the fear element must be removed through public education,” she says.

Asked how important was the collection and sharing of data, she says: “If you don’t tell me your data properly and tell me what is happening, I can never trust what you tell me. That’s the reason why no one obeys the lockdown in Hyderabad.”

Echoing similar views about the lack of a consistent data taxonomy, city-based independent data researcher Srinivas Kodali says the government is using confusion as a form of governance and that misinformation and confusion due to contradictory facts have become a norm world-over. According to him, the Covid-19 medical bulletin of Telangana, from a statistics point of view, has numbers merely for the sake of numbers. “It is a long known strategy, except that it is becoming a problem because we have an actual emergency. When there is no emergency, and when someone is misreporting numbers, no one cares. The situation today shows how important government statistics are because without them you cannot make any actual policy decision,” points out Kodali. The number game, he says, is to confuse and keep everyone calm. “If you show an actual increase in numbers, you will have to react to that number. By, maybe, shutting down offices, increased testing, or providing free healthcare to all. It means more spending for the government,” he adds.

Sujatha Rao also questions why Telangana does not have a testing strategy issued as a government order like Kerala or Andhra Pradesh. She also asks why enough is not being done to spread awareness regarding the disease through mass media or public addressing systems. Finding fault with the way lockdown has been eased, she says the idea was to ensure that there was no crowding of people at public places. “Office timings could have been changed, easing of restrictions could have been area-wise. Today every shop is open in Hyderabad and we still have a lockdown going on,” she rued.

During a review meeting on Wednesday, Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, according to a press release, said “people should not be scared or feel fearful about Corona, as the spread was not on alarming scales though there were relaxations given in the lockdown guidelines. But yet people should be cautious and alert.” He declared that if there is an increase in the positive cases, the medical and health department is ready to offer medical services to any number of cases.

On Thursday, Telangana Chief Secretary Somesh Kumar informed Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba during a video conference with all the Chief Secretaries and Health Secretaries on ‘Public Health Response to Covid-19’ that the state government has been working on various guidelines issued from time to time and is making all the arrangements to control the virus, particularly in the containment zones in the State, according to a press release. “The situation is under control and the Government is well prepared with required PPE kits, masks, testing kits, beds, ventilators, hospitals to deal with the cases,” he said.

Kodali feels the absence of a consistent data taxonomy and transparency is a tendency among start-ups that makes them a palace of cards waiting to crumble. Calls to the director of Public Health Dr G Srinivas Rao went unanswered.

In its May 26 order, the Telangana High Court recalled the earlier order dated May 18 where it had directed the Advocate General to file a detailed report with regard to the extent of testing carried out by the State. He was also directed to inform if any testing has been done in Suryapet District after April 22 and if yes, the extent thereof. He was also asked to inform the court of the extent of testing in each district, the availability of the testing labs in Telangana, and also if the state is contemplating the use of mobile testing labs as has been done in Kerala.

The order, a copy of which is with indianexpress.com, said ‘a bare perusal of the affidavit’ reveals that the questions raised by this Court have not been answered at all. “Therefore, the order dated May 18 is yet to be complied with by the State in toto. Even otherwise, the affidavit filed by Dr Rao is not only vague but, at places, is contradictory and at other places very cleverly drafted. On the whole, the affidavit is self-laudatory. But, there are a large number of chinks in the armour of the State,” the order said.

The Court directed the State to test all the dead bodies being released from the hospitals to see if those dead bodies are carriers of coronavirus or not. It has also directed the State to carry out “random testing” and “community testing” in districts declared as ‘Red Zone’, ‘Orange Zone’, and ‘containment area’ and inform the Court about the number and the place where such tests were carried out.

Stating that the number of COVID cases will sky-rocket when the lockdown is lifted and burden the medical facilities available, the Court said: “Self-congratulating ourselves, at this juncture, maybe too early in the day. Moreover, to ignore the presence of coronavirus by not testing a large number of the population is inviting the Trojan Horse into our Citadel.”

Directing the government to increase the number of tests throughout the State, it also added that the state cannot hide behind the ‘fig leaf of financial constraints’ as the lives of people are priceless.

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