The LANCET’s Pessimism on India’s optimism

Both, human nature and human custom, has constraints and boundaries which keep reminding us of human imperfection and of the fragility of real communities. Pessimism is the recognition that these constraints and boundaries make impossible any planned, rational transformation of society. However, history is replete with examples where societies have been transformed through the belief that we can advance collectively to our goals by adopting a common plan, and by working towards it. Optimism is therefore the key to change and transformation while pessimism guards the hierarchy and status quo. As they say, excess of everything is bad, so is true for optimism and pessimism, which is why there is a concept of realism.

On 26 September, the Free Press Journal published a news article saying that “The renowned medical journal, Lancet, has cautioned India on the danger of presenting the current pandemic situation with too positive a spin. It not only clouds reality but also hampers vital public health initiatives.” The link can be found at  Having carried out some forecasting for COVID-19 cases in April and May 2020, purely for academic joy, this news report intrigued me and motivated me to look up at the “THE LANCET” caution.

 “The LANCET” which began as an independent, international weekly general medical journal in 1823, claims to make science widely available so that medicine can serve, and transform society, and positively impact the lives of people.

People in general and decision makers around the world have a great regard for “The Lancet” which has over time evolved as a family of journals across various medical and health specialities.

“The LANCET” has captioned its editorial to Vol. 396, September 26, 2020, on p. 867 as “COVID-19 in India: the dangers of false optimism.”

First things first – this is an editorial opinion and not a piece of research. An editorial opinion is expressed with the purpose of influencing public opinion and public-policy and may not be taken as non-purposive or unbiased. While this editorial makes some palpable hits, it is hard to separate the wheat of philosophical wisdom from the chaff of prejudice.

Next – it is a well accepted cardinal principle that false optimism is fraught with peril. False pessimism is equally fraught with peril. If the fallacies of optimism are human universals, what is more corrupting is not the attempt to do the impossible, but the failure even to attempt it. Progressive changes, however, rarely happen by chance. History is a narrative of humans rationally and consciously transforming the world. To give up on “goal-directed policies and politics” is to give up possibilities of betterment.

The example of DG of ICMR envisaging launching a coronavirus vaccine on Aug 15, quoted by The LANCET, is surely an optimism of “unscrupulous” form, but questioning the lower case-fatality-rate in India because it is lower than the reported rate in other (western) countries is unscientific. In order to support such unscientific opinion, The LANCET goes on to suspect the entire COVID-19 data from India and suggests that this number is a political spin.

Case-fatality-rate is the ratio of deaths to cases; and its lower value would mean lower deaths for same number of cases. It could also be lower if the reported number of cases is higher for same number of deaths. What is The LANCET alleging – is India under-reporting deaths or over-reporting cases?

A scientific mind should question previous results in face of new data rather than the reliability of the new data unless one is sure that the previous data was more reliable than the new data. Data is the message and data-reports are brought by messengers; new data should lead to questioning of results, not the message.

Is this pessimism of some “unscrupulous” kind clouding the mindset of LANCET which is unwilling to accept that India might be making headway in war against COVID-19 leaving behind the expected leaders of any such success?

How would The LANCET react if one were to say that this editorial is a political spin against India’s success to protect the world’s perception of traditional western supremacy?

Is The LANCET advocating that, rather than seeking utopian solutions, radical alternatives or bold initiatives, India should muddle through with “compromise and half measures” mindful that no ultimate solutions are up for grabs?

Is The LANCET proposing for India to be “a community without convictions” marked by irony and subservience?

The LANCET is posturing as if it is exposing the blindness and the hypocrisies of the Indian politics, but its editors seem to be notorious for never acknowledging that there might be some too in the developed west. The LANCET’s editorial calling India’s COVID-19 numbers as ‘false optimism’ lacks logical or scientific reasoning and suffers from survivorship bias of quantitative back-testing using past indices.

I am neither a leftist nor a rightist. I hold no brief for India or its political class, but I do wish to raise my voice as a citizen of India, which has held on to traditions of conservative political philosophy but, which is unwilling to shut her eyes to continued propagation of western supremacy, who have tried to make heaven on earth, and ended up making it hell.

(First published 28 Sep 2020)


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Published by

Mukul Gupta

*Educator, researcher, author and a friendly contrarian* Professor@MDIGurgaon

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