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MDX lecturer uses mathematical modelling expertise to understand the COVID-19 pandemic in India

Dr Murad Banaji, who has compared outbreaks in different states, warns of Indian authorities' lack of transparency

Health workers in personal protective equipment rest during a check up campaign for COVID-19 in a slum area of Mumbai, India, August 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

A Middlesex lecturer has been analysing the Covid pandemic in India, where a surge in cases has overwhelmed hospitals with tragic consequences.

Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Dr Murad Banaji, a specialist in dynamical (time-dependent) systems, calls for random sampling to give a better idea of real infection levels and scaled-up genome sequencing to detect quicker-spreading variants. India has recorded almost 200,000 Covid fatalities so far, but Dr Banaji says that on the basis of the most optimistic estimates using international data and taking the age profile of India’s population into account, Indian officials may have undercounted some half a million Covid deaths. The true toll of the pandemic could be considerably higher.

In interviews with leading news platforms in India and his own writing, Banaji backs measures including temporary vaccination centres, better public health education such as guidance on correct mask-wearing and government support for non-essential workers so they don’t put themselves and others at risk by going out to work.

Banaji has recently returned to the UK from India after spending a large part of 2020 under lockdown with his family in Mumbai, and having also travelled to other regions. From very early in the pandemic, he used his mathematical practice and instincts to investigate Covid infection data by using models, trying different modelling approaches.

By regularly speaking to journalists formally and informally he hopes that he has promoted more careful reading of the data in media coverage.

Prior to the latest Covid resurgence, he was a strong critic of the narrative that India was approaching herd immunity, arguing that this was very unlikely to be the case. He has warned of Indian authorities’ lack of transparency, which has made it exceedingly hard to get reliable data in many cases, he says. Alongside other commentators, he also raised concerns about the “worryingly slow” pace of vaccination in India.

When it comes to comparisons of different countries’ pandemic experiences, Banaji stresses that he’s “not a fan of nationalist narratives… I would emphasise the commonalities across developing and developed countries”. Painting lower Covid mortality in some developing countries as a landmark achievement is problematic, he adds: “if fewer people live to an age where they are most at risk of dying of Covid, is this a ‘success’?

In the UK, he worries about vaccine hesitancy, which among minority groups he suspects is less about the appeal of anti-vax views as such, and more because of “long-standing experiences of racism and marginalisation - and suspicion of government which is not in itself irrational”.

Now back in London, he is writing a paper on Mumbai's epidemic, “trying to draw together the different strands of data available, along with modelling, to create a coherent story”. He has shared insights from his initial research at a virtual talk he gave at Nottingham University. He also hopes to write up as academic studies other aspects of his work on Covid in India.

Find out more about studying Mathematics at Middlesex

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