Launching one of his schemes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi applauded Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on June 26, for his “effective handling” of the coronavirus pandemic. He said that only 600 people had died in such a gigantic state that has more people than four European countries put together. He also claimed that had Yogi not been “so efficient”, UP would have suffered 85,000 deaths.
In the week since this fulsome praise was heaped upon Yogi, another 120 persons have died, another 4,000+ cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, bringing the state’s total tally of confirmed cases to nearly 25,000, according to information released by the health ministry, and collated by Newsclick’s Data Analytics Team. [See chart below]
Modi has not had much to say about how various states have been handling the pandemic even though his Central government has passed on the responsibility deftly to state governments of late. But the UP Chief Minister is his favourite, having been handpicked by him to lead the government after a spectacular victory in the 2017 Assembly elections.
And, perhaps more relevantly, the saffron clad Yogi has been equally fulsome in praising Modi for everything, including the handling of the disease. So much so that in early June, Yogi had declared that “the credit for these achievements by the state should go solely to Prime Minister Narendra Modi”. So, it’s a mutual admiration society.
Be that as it may, what is the truth about the COVID-19 situation in UP? How come this giant state has relatively so few confirmed cases?
Third Lowest Testing Rate in India
One of the key reasons behind this lies in testing for COVID-19. By making all the right noises about increasing testing, building health infrastructure and fighting the coronavirus with resolve and dedication, the bizarre and rather tragic reality is that UP has one of the lowest testing rates in the country.
According to Covid Today, a volunteer team of health and IT professionals that is tracking COVID-19 related data released by the Central and state governments and putting it in public domain, as of July 3, an average of 6,779 tests per million population were being done every day in India.
But in UP, this testing rate was half of that – just 3,285 tests per day. There are just two other states which have a lower testing rate – Bihar (1,948) and Telangana (2,493). Just for context, Delhi is doing 31,890 tests per day, Andhra Pradesh was doing 18,025, Tamil Nadu – 16,324, and even neighbouring Madhya Pradesh was conducting more – 4,559 tests per day.
As the chart above shows, testing per day has been wildly swinging and erratically organised. Strangely, despite knowing that the testing rate is shamefully low, the UP government has been proudly claiming that it has successfully controlled the transmission of disease in the state.
If you don’t test people for COVID-19, you don’t know how many have been infected. Even if they tragically die, they may not be tagged as COVID-19 deaths. Of course, this also means that the disease would be far more widespread than perceived, and that the suffering would be much more. This also means that in the future there could – possibly – be explosive growth in cases and deaths. But, the thinking seems to be that the UP government will cross those bridges when they come to them – as of now, collect all the applause, and bask in the glory of Modi’s praise.
Yogi Admits More Testing Will Mean More Cases
Perhaps somewhere there is a niggling doubt in the minds of Yogi and his advisers because, of late, he has again started saying that testing capacities will be increased. As far back as June 19, Yogi was announcing that every district in the state will have testing laboratories. What has happened to that plan is anybody’s guess.
According to the latest ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Reseacrh) data, UP has four private laboratories and 24 government laboratories approved to test Real-Time (RT) PCR tests; 92 government laboratories and four private laboratories approved for TrueNat tests and five private laboratories for CBNAAT tests for COVID-19. In all, this adds up to 116 government labs and five private ones. The testing capacity per day is not known, but it cannot be so low as to explain the roughly 22,000 tests being done currently.
There is even the admission that increased testing will lead to more cases! Announcing the launch of a special testing drive and checking for vector-borne diseases in six divisions of Western UP, Yogi reportedly said that when every person in the state is screened, “the figure of those affected by the coronavirus will increase but it will certainly succeed in reducing death figures”.
This may have come after Union Home minister Amit Shah held a meeting to discuss the COVID-19 situation in the National Capital Region (NCR) which includes three districts from UP – Baghpat, Ghaziabad and Gautam Budhha Nagar (Noida). He was reported to have indicated to Yogi that the current testing rates in Ghaziabad (78 per million) and Noida (72 per million) were unsatisfactory.
What all this means is that despite an increased capacity for testing, the Yogi government – with the sanction or approval of the Modi government at the Centre – has been going slow on testing. This may be an unwillingness to expand testing for fear of increasing the case numbers or it could merely be that Yogi is on a learning curve, he is slowly realising the importance of testing. Either way, the situation in UP is worrisome – something has to give somewhere.