Kerala gag order on officials kicks up row; minister denies

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The Kerala health department’s order restraining officials from speaking to the media has kicked off a controversy but state health minister Veena George on Monday denied any gag order, saying some arrangements have been made for uniformity.

State health services director Dr VR Raju had issued a directive on Saturday making it mandatory for all health officials, especially district medical officers (DMOs), to take permission from the health directorate before talking to the media. An explanation was also sought from Kozhikode DMO Dr Omar Farooq who shared information with the media on a United Kingdom-returned doctor whose samples were sent for testing fearing Omicron infection. Samples of his mother and maid were also sent for examination.

Opposition parties and health activists deplored the move, saying it was aimed at concealing facts and the government was yet to learn a lesson from its “mistake of omitting many deaths from fatality list just to maintain its track record”.

“It was forced to add more than 5,000 deaths and many such cases are waiting. If court verdict was not there these deaths would have gone unnoticed. The latest is another move to fudge facts,” opposition Congress leader VD Satheesan said, adding the government wants everything a public relation exercise.

But the minister denied it. “It was not a gag order. The order was given to maintain uniformity and avoid confusion. It will also help contain unnecessary panic. It was aimed at streamlining information and facts through a single window,” George said.

But health activists said instead of bringing more transparency the government was forcing curbs on health officials, real foot soldiers of fight against the pandemic. “It is yet to learn a lesson from its mistakes. The minister admitted that 7,000 deaths were left out. It is another tactic to shut the mouth of officials. It is also keeping experts in the dark to indulge in public relations exercise,” said public health expert Dr SS Lal.

The Indian Medical Association’s Kerala chapter also questioned the move. “If none speak authoritatively, wild speculations will rise,” said IMA secretary Joseph Benaven.

Kerala was the first state to report Covid-19 infection in the country in January 2020.

The state reported 3,277 fresh Covid cases on Monday, after 45,414 samples were tested with a test positivity rate of 7.21%. It also reported 30 deaths but added 138 backlog deaths and total is 41, 768. It has an active caseload of 40,730, according to the state health ministry data. The state has, so far, reported 5,157,369 cases.

With 5,833 more people recovering from the virus since Sunday, the total recoveries reached 50,86,044 and the active cases dropped to 40,730, the state government release said.

Many health experts and opposition parties alleged that the government was not transparent with its data and it was after records and public relations campaigns. But the ruling CPI(M) denied it. “Instead of playing the role of a construction opposition it finds fault with everything the government does,” said CPI(M) leader A Vijayaraghavan.

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