Western media outlets are currently paying a great deal of attention to India and the apparent impact of COVID-19. The narrative is that the coronavirus is ripping through the country – people are dying, cases are spiralling out of control and hospitals are unable to cope.
There does indeed seem to be a major problem in parts of the country. However, we need to differentiate between the effects of COVID-19 and the impacts of other factors. We must also be very wary of sensationalist media reporting which misrepresents the situation.
For instance, in late April, the New York Post ran a story about the COVID ‘surge’ in India with the headline saying, “footage shows people dead in the streets”. Next to it was an image of a woman lying dead. But the image was actually of a woman lying on the floor from a May 2020 story about a gas leak in Andhra Pradesh.
To try to shed some light on the situation and move beyond panic and media sensationalism, I recently spoke with Yohan Tengra, a political analyst and healthcare specialist based in Mumbai.
Tengra has carried out a good deal of research into COVID-19 and the global response to it. He is the co-author of a new report: ‘How the Unscientific Interpretation of RT-PCR & Rapid Antigen Test Results is Causing Misleading Spikes in Cases & Deaths’.
For India, he says:
We will never know statistically if the infections have really increased. To be certain, we would need data of symptomatic people who have tested positive with either a virus culture test or PCR that uses 24 cycles or less, ideally under 20.”
He adds that India is experiencing mainly asymptomatic cases:
For example, in Mumbai, they declared two days back that of total cases in the city, 85 per cent were asymptomatic. In Bangalore, over 95 per cent of cases were asymptomatic!”
In his report, Tengra offers scientific evidence that strongly indicates asymptomatic transmission is not significant. He asserts that as these cases comprise most of India’s case numbers, we should be questioning the data as well as the PCR tests and the cycles being used to detect the virus instead of accepting the figures at face value.
As in many countries across the globe, Tengra says people in India have been made to fear the virus endlessly. Moreover, they are generally under the impression that they need to intervene early in order to pass through the infection successfully.
The medical system itself works to boost the number of positive cases. Even with a negative PCR test, they are using CAT scans and diagnosing people with COVID. These scans are not specific to SARS-CoV-2 at all. I personally know of people who have been asked to be hospitalised by their doctors just based on a positive test (doctors can get a cut of the total bill made when they refer a patient to a hospital). This also happened to a Bollywood celebrity, who was asked to be admitted by his doctors with no symptoms and just a positive PCR.”
Faulty PCR testing and misdiagnosis, says Tengra, combined with people who want to intervene early with the mildest symptoms, have been filling up the beds, preventing access to those who really need them.
Addressing the much-publicised shortage of oxygen, Tengra implies this too is a result of inept policies, with exports of oxygen having increased in recent times, resulting in inadequate back-up supplies when faced with a surge in demand.
According to Tengra, the case fatality rate for COVID-19 in India was over three per cent last year but has now dropped to below 1.5 per cent. The infection fatality rate is even lower, with serosurvey results showing them to be between 0.05 per cent to 0.1 per cent.
The directors of the All India Institute of Medical Science and the India Council of Medical Research have both come out and said that there is not much difference between the first and second wave and that there are many more asymptomatic cases this time than in the so-called ‘first wave’.
Tengra argues that the principle is the same for all infectious agents: they infect people, most can fight it off without even developing symptoms, some develop mild symptoms, a smaller number develop serious symptoms and an even smaller number die.
Although lives can be saved with the right prevention plus treatment strategies, Tengra notes that most of the doctors in India are using ineffective and unsafe drugs. As a result, he claims that mortality rates could increase due to inappropriate treatments.
As has occurred in many other countries, Tengra notes the way that death certificate guidelines are structured in India makes it easy for someone to be labelled as a COVID death just based on a positive PCR test or general symptoms. It is therefore often difficult to say who has died from the virus and who has been misdiagnosed.