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It Is Crystal Clear That India Does Not Have A Smart National Covid Testing Strategy

The strategy should be to explore a combination of best practices to ensure testing is cost-effective, equitable and well-targeted

It Is Crystal Clear That India Does Not Have A Smart National Covid Testing Strategy

In a normal year, winter months are festive and joyous. But with a ruthless virus hanging over our heads that celebrates social connectedness for all the wrong reasons, 2020 has been far from normal. The Covid-19 pandemic has spread more fear and uncertainty than wars in the modern era. The agonizing record loss of lives, livelihoods and hope, has held us hostage in our own homes.

Currently, with over 92.2 lakh cumulative cases and 1.35 lakh deaths (figures as of September 25), India stands as the second worst-impacted country. Each day, the infection load increases by almost half a lakh cases. Yet, we see the central government callously allowing reopening of schools and public places, with no clear strategy to combat the additional challenges that are set to arise.

Right from the early months of the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) has advocated for countries to adopt a clear “test, trace, isolate” strategy as a means to suppress the spread of the virus. But India, which faced a unique set of challenges (ranging from limited knowledge on the virus to shortage of PPEs and ventilators) was thoroughly misguided by those in power at the Centre. The responses by the central government were haphazard and even arbitrary, and advice of epidemiologists was dismissed without thought. Further, the Centre’s decision to not consult or involve state governments --- a statutory mandate under Disaster Management Act of 2005 --- before issuing testing and lockdown guidelines is clear evidence of their lack of collaborative spirit and disrespect for cooperative federalism.

The Centre has failed the people in more ways than one. It can lap up praises for ramping up testing and gloss over the myriad of cracks, but ultimately it is crystal clear to all that India does not have a smart or adequate national testing strategy.  The guidelines issued by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) solely focus on the types of testing kits and its recommended use in a select few settings.

That there is a need for a strategy that looks beyond these narrow sets of variables is indisputable. It is high time that the Centre gets off its high horse and acknowledges the good work done by individual states without much external support.

The state of West Bengal has done commendable work to manage the crisis. To begin with, the state prudently chose to involve experts to respond to the crisis and set up the Global Advisory Board led by Nobel laureate Abhijeet Banerjee for recommendations on the way forward. Despite the additional challenge thrown by Cyclone Amphan in mid-May, the state has emerged strong and built the excellent infrastructure for management and care for Covid-19. Long before the ICMR recommended on-demand testing through its September 4 advisory, the state government had the foresight to open up testing for asymptomatic people and those with no definite contact history following the relaxation of air and rail travel restrictions, in late May. The state also allowed authorized private labs to collect walk-in samples and followed with surveys to estimate the prevalence of comorbidity among residents of the city and to identify persons facing a higher risk of contracting the Covid-19 infection. The study has informed policymakers to design a tailor-made strategy for targeting and testing of vulnerable groups. Moreover, the state has deemed that the situation is still unsafe to reopen schools and threaten the lives of young children. These initiatives are a testament to the state government’s commitment to sound science and smart strategies.

The fight ahead against Covid-19 is a long one, and there is a need for immediate course correction on part of the Centre to move away from focusing on just one variable, ie. increasing quantum of testing, and to explore a combination of best practices to ensure testing is cost-effective, equitable and well-targeted.

Now that we are in the home stretch of 2020 – a year that has tested the resilience of government systems and individual choices alike – it is crucial more than ever before that we have a meticulous plan in place. The Centre should strongly consider expanding its testing strategy to account for a variety of imminent challenges, including reopening of public places, gathering of crowds for festivals and weddings, and the deteriorating air quality. Pinning hopes on a vaccine cannot be the only remedy.

(The author is Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP)

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