What the Delhi media gets wrong about Kerala’s Covid situation

The nuance, the context, the management.

WrittenBy:Leena Gita Reghunath
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Amish Devgan, primetime anchor on the Hindi news channel News18 India, appeared on his show on July 28 to decry what he claimed was a false narrative that the Kumbh Mela had contributed to the second wave of Covid in India. That the “narrative” was built on widely reported facts and figures didn’t seem to matter.

Devgan was upset that the same criteria weren’t being applied to the farmer protests or to Kerala’s lockdown relaxations during the Bakrid celebrations on July 21. Fuming at the perceived discrimination against Hindu religious events, he went on to blame the rising Covid numbers in Kerala on the Eid relaxations.

It was lost on the anchor that while the Kumbh Mela saw large gatherings – it would become a superspreader event – the Eid relaxations in Kerala were only for businesses to stay open for longer and not permission for mass gatherings. Mosques were directed to not let more than 40 people assemble for prayers, and only if they had received at least one dose of vaccination.

Kerala’s Covid cases have been on a steady upward climb in the past two months, and at this stage – with the curve not seeing a sudden peak – it’s difficult to conclude definitively if the Bakrid relaxations contributed to the surge.

For the past six days, Kerala has reported close to 20,000 new cases daily. On July 31, the central government dispatched a team from the National Centre for Disease Control, led by its director SK Singh, to take stock of the situation in Kerala.

Shiv Aroor of India Today too hosted a segment on July 29 to talk about Kerala’s Covid numbers. He went on to allege that “superspreader events could potentially be active and out there” without showing evidence of such an event. He also claimed that Kerala’s high burden might cause a third Covid wave.

The same day on the same channel, Rajdeep Sardesai hosted a discussion on a similar topic, “Is the recent Covid spike in Kerala linked to Bakrid?” He had assembled an expert panel, however, and they did not give in to whipping up communal bigotry.

Kerala has been on strict weekend lockdown ever since the nationwide lockdown was removed last year. The lockdown has pinched businesses, not least retailers, hoteliers and those in the entertainment industry, who, along with the opposition Congress party, have been pressuring Pinarayi Vijayan’s Left Front government to relax the restrictions.

The government has not relented and still requires major businesses, such as clothing and gold stores, to not open for more than three times a week, though these decisions are taken at the local government level depending on the test positivity rate, or TPR, of that area.

In spite of all such measures, Kerala is getting no respite from Covid. The state accounts for less than 3 percent of the Indian population but contributes over 30 percent of daily infections now.

The North Indian TV anchors could be taking a cue from the Supreme Court, which on July 20 came down heavily on the Kerala government for relaxing the Covid norms, especially in areas where TPR was above 15 percent during the Eid season.

In its report on the court’s ruling, the Hindu found it relevant to quote Vikas Singh, counsel for the petitioner PKD Nambiar, as declaring that daily Covid cases in India were at 30,000 “only because of Kerala”. The state allowed three days of relaxation in restrictions, Singh protested, despite a test positivity rate of over 10 percent. “The rate in UP is just .02 percent,” he said, ignoring that the northern state is widely believed to be undercounting the Covid numbers. “You are basically unable to govern the state,” Singh told the Kerala government. “This is shocking.”

Rukmini Srinivasan, an independent journalist who has studied India’s Covid data and reported massive undercounting, said, “I think the results of the most recent sero-survey conducted by the ICMR speak for themselves. At 44 percent, Kerala has the lowest sero-prevalence in the country, which means that the virus has infected the fewest people as a proportion of the total population. The flip side is that a large susceptible population remains, and infections among that group are likely what we are now seeing. To that extent, I agree with Kerala that it is in some ways a victim of its own success.”

Gagandeep Kang, one of India’s leading microbiologists and virologists, broadly echoed this view in an interview with the Wire. “If we just look at the numbers, that is a very small part of the overall picture. And it needs to be placed in context. And the context is that Kerala is doing a good job of testing, a good job at healthcare and a good job of vaccination. They should act as a model for other states in the country,” she said.

Rijo M John, health economist and academic, explained, “The current rate of new cases is around 20,000 daily, which is well within the state's capacity to manage. Because, you know, the whole point of pandemic control is to flatten the curve.”

The flip side was a longer pandemic, John added. He commended Kerala for keeping the pandemic within manageable limits even as the rest of the country witnessed “shorter curves in which their health systems capacities were overwhelmed”.

The ongoing rise in Covid cases, he argued, was owing to “much larger populations yet to be infected and rigorous compliance to earlier lockdown restrictions now coming down”.

“The state has also increased the daily testing significantly,” he added. “And these factors contribute to increased cases along with the fact that there is increased movement happening right now even though there are weekend lockdown restrictions. I don't think compliance with the lockdown is as rigorous as it used to be in olden days. So, maybe there is an increased movement of people and all these factors contributed to the recent rise in cases, given that there’s a large proportion of the population still to be infected.”

Srinivasan pointed out that “Kerala has the highest levels of detection of cases proportionate to infections which is a credit to its testing strategy, and among the lowest case fatality rates and excess mortality rates which is a credit to its detection rates, treatment protocols, vaccination levels, data reporting transparency”.

But, while these were definite "successes" for Kerala, she argued, it had made mistakes. “The state has continued to allow large gatherings, including for religious events, and vaccinations need to move even faster given the size of the susceptible population. Controlling the spread of the virus better could be the reason for the current high numbers, but that just means that the state needs to work even harder at further control and vaccinations. Explanations should not become excuses,” she explained.

The slowing of vaccination, though, could be a supply issue, she pointed out.

Why does much of the legacy media based in the national capital often omit this context when talking about Kerala’s Covid situation?

Shiba Kurian, a deputy editor with the News Minute, which specialises in covering South India, said there was much to criticize about Kerala’s Covid management, but the “Delhi media” lacked nuance to do it. TV news channels often didn’t examine the data for nuance. “Scientific reasoning is missing from the coverage,” she added. “They don’t understand that there are more cases here because Kerala is doing a greater number of tests.”

Counting the failures of the Kerala government’s Covid policy, Kurian noted that it had relaxed lockdown restrictions without consulting scientists and been vague in communicating its decisions. In fact, given that the state’s health department had stopped responding to queries from journalists, Kurien added, she would take whatever it put out with a pinch of salt. “I have seen other state health secretaries speak to the media, but never in Kerala. When there is a criticism, they don’t come out and explain it properly,” she said.

Kurian, as also John, pointed to the mismatch in numbers from the state government and local government as a key problem with Kerala’s Covid management.

John also criticised the lockdown norms for lacking scientific merit. Rather than limit business hours and thereby increase crowding, he argued, the government should do the opposite. “But that doesn't mean we have to compare Kerala with any other state. Kerala should have its own benchmark, I believe,” he added. “I also believe there is still much room to improve here.”

On August 1, epidemiologist Aju Mathew put out a video urging the state government to look at the ICU occupancy rates rather than TPR to frame its Covid policies.

He called for rethinking the current Covid restrictions, including lockdowns and microcontainment zones, and developing a new approach to deal with the extended pandemic Kerala would likely face unless it vaccinated a significant chunk of its population, and quickly.


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