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Editorial: No room for half truths during pandemic
During the daily briefing in March, a senior official from the Union Health Ministry said COVID-19 was not a health emergency. A month later, he said India was “over-prepared” to deal with the pandemic.
Earlier this month, he said we have to learn to live with it. Then came the by-now infamous graph that predicted COVID-19 cases nosediving to zero by May 16. It was presented by a NITI Aayog member and circulated widely by the Health Ministry and Press Information Bureau.
As is now known, it was not prepared by epidemiologists at the Indian Council of Medical Research, the apex body for the formulation, coordination, and promotion of biomedical research in India. Rather, a paediatrics professor from a medical college in New Delhi was asked to prepare it. May 16 has come and gone, but COVID-19 cases are only rising, making it clear that the graph was an exercise in imagination and hope.
In an unprecedented situation like this, it is not unusual for opinions and understanding to change as facts emerge. After all, this virus has been baffling even the experts. But what stood out was the absolute certainty with which these comments were announced to the country. This calls for a deeper discussion about the role that should be played by the actual experts.
When dealing with complex subjects, it takes experts to lead the way for us to follow. That is the reason why the chairman of ISRO is also the Secretary of the Department of Space, or the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission is also the secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy. A pandemic is equally complex and comes with even more frightening consequences. What is required is the humility of an actual expert: as a thumb rule, the more one knows, the less certain one becomes.
That precisely is the mistake that the official made while addressing the media. Informing the citizens about the difficult situation that we are in, without any great breakthrough or assurances to give, can be daunting. But, as individuals and families, many of us have had such frank conversations with doctors when a loved one is in a critical condition. It is better to know the truth and be prepared than be sold hopes.
This fight against the virus is nothing short of a battle for survival. Like in the days when Rome used to elect a Caesar during wartime, the government should empower the experts at National Centre for Disease Control (who work on the ground) and ICMR (who do the research) to deal with this pandemic. Because what the country needs right now is not one who can field difficult questions with deflections, but one who can deal with difficult answers with all the candidness that knowledge instills in him or her.