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Indian scientist quits Covid task force after criticising Modi government

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Indian scientist quits Covid task force after criticising Modi government
Shahid Jameel resigns from advisory group as ruling BJP pushes back against opposition to policies
yesterday
Indian authorities have been lambasted for the country’s slow rollout of Covid-19 vaccines © Bloomberg
A leading Indian scientist has resigned from a government-appointed Covid-19 task force days after publicly criticising Narendra Modi’s government for its handling of the country’s devastating second wave of the pandemic.

Shahid Jameel, a virologist, was chair of the scientific advisory group for the Indian Sars-Cov-2 Consortium on Genomics, an organisation set up to study variants of the virus.

His resignation followed the publication of a comment piece in the New York Times last week, in which he lamented the government’s “stubborn resistance to evidence-based policymaking”.

Jameel’s decision was reported by Reuters and local media. He did not respond to requests for comment and has not publicly explained the reasons for his resignation.

Indian scientists and public health experts have expressed deep frustration at the administration’s Covid-19 response. “Evidence and science were selectively neglected,” said Swarup Sarkar, who sits on the Indian Council for Medical Research’s national Covid task force. “Only those messages were picked up which people in power wanted to hear.”

But Jameel has been unusually outspoken in public forums. He criticised the government for declaring victory over the virus in January, its decision to hold elections rallies in West Bengal ahead of state elections last month and for permitting other large public gatherings.

Shahid Jameel, a virologist and former chair of an Indian government-appointed coronavirus task force, has criticised the Modi government’s handling of the pandemic © Science Policy Forum/YouTube
“There was a lot of mixed messaging coming through that made people very complacent . . . and led to people thinking that ‘somehow we are special’,” Jameel told a seminar in April as the number of new Covid cases was increasing sharply.

The government is facing a rising tide of public anger as confirmed daily coronavirus cases surged to a peak of more than 400,000 and deaths rose to more than 4,000. Prime Minister Modi’s popularity ratings have fallen and the ruling Bharatiya Janata party has launched a propaganda offensive to stifle criticism.

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Police in New Delhi — who answer directly to Amit Shah, India’s home minister and Modi’s most trusted political lieutenant — have arrested 25 people in recent days for plastering the city with posters lambasting the government’s previous vaccine export policy.

“Modi-ji, why did you send our children’s vaccines abroad?” the posters read.

India, one of the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturers, exported more than 60m vaccine doses in February and March before blocking further exports as domestic cases surged.

Jameel has called for India to step up the pace of its vaccination drive, which is administering 1.8m jabs per day, far below the 7m-10m he believes is needed to mitigate a potential third wave.

The level of daily infections has begun to fall as lockdowns across large swaths of the country, including most big cities, have helped slow the spread of the virus.

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Authorities reported about 281,800 infections on Sunday and more than 4,000 deaths, pushing the country’s confirmed toll from the pandemic to 274,000. But experts believe the toll is far higher due to limited testing.

Rijo John, a health economist, said India reported 13 per cent fewer cases last week compared with the previous seven-day period and testing had declined by just 4 per cent. The national positivity rate has fallen to just under 14 per cent, down from more than 20 per cent a few weeks ago.

But John cautioned that there was little clarity about the trend in rural areas, where testing remained limited. “If only there was a way to know exactly how much of these additional tests were done in areas that are not yet peaked!” he wrote on Twitter. “Rural testing data, anyone?”
 

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