So many rows, so little sense: Telangana govt's medical bulletin has reporters puzzled

Social media gurus have been encouraging people to pick up new skills during the lockdown. Whether reporters learn to brew dalgona coffee or not, they will surely emerge with sharper math skills at the other end of this pandemic!
Glaring mistakes in Telangana's medical bulletin
Glaring mistakes in Telangana's medical bulletin

The Telangana government has been blamed for not conducting enough COVID-19 tests, but when it comes to testing the math capabilities of reporters, one cannot find fault. Usually, bulletins are released to make people understand data at a glance, but on May 27, the Telangana government's medical bulletin achieved a rare feat -- of complicating the data to an extent that it was nothing short of a puzzle for woebegone reporters.

Quite like a student who does not know the answer to a question and rambles on, hoping the teacher will be impressed by the neat handwriting and decorations on the page, the bulletin had impressive looking rows and columns -- but made little sense.

Journalist Ranjitha Gunasekaran, tweeted just what most reporters were thinking: “The bulletin is a puzzle wrapped in a mystery covered in doublespeak.”

But why did the government do this? On May 27, the state recorded 107 new cases, a spike in recent times. The Health Department promptly changed the bulletin's usual format, perhaps in a bid to make the new cases and deaths seem insignificant. Six deaths were recorded on Wednesday but these were not mentioned in a separate column. They were sneakily added to the death tally -- maybe at least a few lazy reporters would miss them?

The high number of cases were attributed to 49 patients who were 'deported' from Saudi Arabia and 19 others coming from different parts of the country, who were categorised as ‘migrants’. 

The bulletin was riddled with glaring discrepancies. Two new columns were added -- ‘Saudi Arabia deportees’ and ‘Foreign Evacuees’-- along with the ‘migrant cases.’ And the cumulative total column was removed from the bulletin, forcing reporters to do their own calculations. When reporters added the figures of local cases (1842)+ migrants (173)+ Saudi Arabia 'deportees' (94) + foreign evacuees (30), the cumulative total number of cases came to 2139.

However, after allowing journalists more than an hour to practise their addition skills, the Director of Public Health and Family Welfare (DPHFW) offered a “clarification” which only confused the reporters further.  “Sir/Ma’am. Cumulative positive cases in Telangana 2098 (local+migrants +evacuees +'deportees'). Sorry for the inconvenience caused. Regards,” said G Srinivas, DPHFW, in the official media WhatsApp group, in which only the administrator can send messages.

As per the logic of the DPHFW, on Tuesday, the state recorded 1991 cases and 107 cases were added on Wednesday, giving the overall figure of 2098. What about the remaining 41 cases from the total of 2139? Nobody knows since no further clarification was offered on these conflicting numbers, and the DPHFW remained inaccessible as usual.

Unresponsive official

The settings of the media group, which was previously unrestricted, were changed in March, after reporters sought details about the contact tracing of a 76-year-old patient from Kalaburagi in Karnataka. The patient, who was identified as the first victim in the country to succumb to COVID-19, had come from Saudi Arabia to Hyderabad and had then gone to Karnataka before dying of the disease. 

In Telangana, the DPHFW is the single point contact, as he heads the COVID-19 command control centre. However, his communication mostly remains one-way, and if there’s any clarification required, the DPHFW is mostly inaccessible.

Usually, the bulletin, which is an update of COVID-19 cases until 5 pm, comes around 9 pm. It came an hour later on Wednesday, at around 10 pm. Despite taking an extra hour, the bulletin had other glaring errors too. For instance, in the  subsection, ‘Till date cases among 'deportees'/migrants/foreign returnees column’, the data says that so far, 173 migrants and 94 Saudi Arabia 'deportees' have tested positive for the virus. However, in the same bulletin, under the subsection of ‘Highlights’ written below, it says that 154 migrants and 82 'deportees' have been infected with COVID-19.

There have also been instances when the government has stayed away from releasing the bulletin if Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao or Health Minister Eatala Rajender had given the numbers during the press meet. As if no further analysis or questioning of the figures was necessary.

Social media gurus have been encouraging people to pick up new skills during the lockdown. Whether reporters learn to brew dalgona coffee or not, they will surely emerge with sharper math skills at the other end of this pandemic!


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