Missing in the Covid-19 battle: Communication
I’m talking of the information given at press conferences, which used to be daily, but have become less frequentUpdated: Jun 06, 2020 19:32 IST
Journalists are often asked questions in the mistaken belief they understand things. We don’t. We may have a lot of information at our fingertips — after all, that’s a key requirement of our job — but understanding is a different matter. So, I was at a bit of a loss when asked what I consider the weakness in India’s response to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
There are many answers. Declaring a lockdown without enough warning is one, failing to respond swiftly or adequately to the trauma of migrant workers is another. Repeatedly stressing social distancing and hand-washing when that’s virtually impossible for many people in slums is a third. However, the one I’ve picked may not be as important, but it hasn’t got the attention it deserves.
I’m talking of the information given at press conferences, which used to be daily, but have become less frequent. First, the statistics thrust at us to give comfort and reassurance. What do they amount to? If the media had questioned them, they would have been revealed to be meaningless.
For instance, a lot of stress was put on the improving recovery rate which is now above 48%. But Italy with 33,774 deaths has a recovery rate of 70% and Spain’s with 27,134 deaths is 69. So clearly a high recovery rate doesn’t rule out a disturbingly large number of deaths. In which case,x how comforting is this?
A second favourite is the doubling rate. It’s risen above 15 days. However, the United Kingdom and the United States have a doubling rate of 35, Italy 55 and Spain 56. Those are countries with a huge number of deaths. So, the doubling rate can be substantial but so too the number of deaths. Again, how comforting is this?
Perhaps the most important statistic is India’s mortality rate. It’s fallen to 2.83% compared to a global average of 6.19%. But it turns out over 100 countries, including eight in the top 20, have a lower mortality rate. Lav Agarwal, who usually leads the daily government briefings on the pandemic, never revealed this but, admittedly, no one questioned him either.
Perhaps these statistics led the health minister to tell the Economic Times that the virus is “not that virulent”. Frankly, I hope so. But no one subjected the minister to rigorous questioning. Every epidemiologist I’ve spoken to says they aren’t aware of the facts the minister is relying on.
Now you could say these statistics and the unverified conclusion the virus is less virulent are intended to calm anxiety. Even if meaningless, the statistics are harmless. But there were occasions when epidemiologists such as Dr Jayaprakash Muliyil and Dr T Jacob John were appalled by Agarwal’s announcements.
On May 20, Agarwal first compared India to the 15 worst-hit countries on the grounds that their population, taken collectively, is roughly the same as ours. He then pointed out they have 34 times more cases and 83 times more deaths. His conclusion was this “says a lot about measures taken by us to manage the situation”. He repeated a similar comparison on June 2.
Dr Muliyil said these are “meaningless” comparisons. Dr Jacob John said they’re “unintelligent”. They said Agarwal could also have compared India to the 30 least-hit countries which might have a population roughly the same. If he had done so India would have looked worse. By choosing the 15 worst-hit, India looked better.
The paradox is, it wouldn’t have taken much to improve the government’s press conferences. Senior ministers rather than bureaucrats should have fronted them. Probing even awkward questions should have been encouraged and truthfully answered. Agarwal rattling off a litany of statistics was hard to follow and, often, understand. The golden rule is how you say what you want to convey is usually more important.
The prime minister knows this. This is why he’s such an effective communicator. Alas, the press conferences were unaware of or just ignored this. That’s why they are one of the weakest aspects of the government’s handling of this crisis.