With over 240 COVID-19 variants surfacing in country, the pandemic is anything but over
We cannot or should not totally stop the economic wheel, but it’s necessary to follow ‘Covid-appropriate behaviour’. Wherever possible, ‘work from home’ should be extended
Surfacing of over 240 new corona virus variants across India has put the country under new threats causing a fresh surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths despite the inoculation drive being underway since January 16, 2020. The disquiet on this account has greatly increased since the new strains could be highly transmissible and dangerous, and could re-infect even people with anti-bodies and those who are already inoculated.
Under this new situation, the Union and state governments need to devise better strategies, not of the nature of panic reaction, but more wise than ever before.
The five states that have been witnessing a spike in numbers of infections and deaths are Maharashtra, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Punjab. The situation in Jammu & Kashmir is also worsening fast, causing a great concern. From monitoring mutant strains to increasing the proportion of FT-PCR test, the Union government has written to these states to implement a multi-pronged strategy, while the Chief Minister of Maharashtra has warned of “a second wave in knocking on the door”, telling people of the state to observe precautions or be ready for another lockdown starting March 1.
India’s total tally of COVID-19 cases has already surpassed 1.10 crore with 14,199 new infections reported on February 21, 2021, the 334th day of the lockdown with just 90 deaths. A total of 1,56,385 people have already died. The new daily infections and deaths are much less than the earlier high of 93,199 on September 16, 2020, and 1133 deaths two days later, but it should not generate a complacent view among the people, since the rates have been on the alarming rise for a week in several states.
Maharashtra has reported a weekly positivity rate of 8.10 per cent against the national average of 1.79 per cent. Kerala’s positivity rate is also too steep – ranging from 8.9 per cent to 13.9 per cent. The positivity rates in all the six states are on the rise.
Moreover, the new strains are not all Indians. Some of them have come from Africa and the United Kingdom. Both the new domestic and foreign strains of COVID-19 are believed to be tameable with great difficulties.
Since we have now a year of experience of handling COVID-19 outbreak in the country, we are better informed and equipped to successfully handle it. It would require only a deft handling of the new situation to save lives and livelihoods both. One lesson we have already learnt is that the extreme step of locking people down in their homes and totally shutting down all the economic activities puts the very survival of the people at stake.
The second lesson is not to leave any stone unturned to avoid, identify, track, and treat infections to avoid loss of lives. It is between these two most important lessons that India needs to devise its new strategy in the shortest possible time because corona virus spreads not in months and years but in hours and days. The carefully planned strategies then need to be implemented fast.
The most important view in this regard has come from the Director of AIIMS Dr Randeep Guleria, who has said that the herd immunity for coronavirus is a myth in India because at least 80 per cent people need to have antibodies for the whole of the population to be protected. The group of people who are spreading the myth that the low rate of infections and deaths and high rate of recovery are due to ‘herd immunity’ are thus contradicted.
We must be careful in the light of his assertion that the new strains found in Maharashtra could be highly transmissible and dangerous, and can even cause re-infection in people who have developed anti-bodies to the virus.’
And there are 240 new strains across the country as Dr Shashank Joshi of Maharashtra Covid Task Force has been quoted in several reports.
Dr Guleria’s explanation is also worth noting as to why herd immunity is not achievable in near future. “Mutations or variants in the virus have ‘immense escape mechanism’. They can threaten the immunity
achieved by a person through vaccinations or the disease and cause re-infection,” he said.
It also should be taken into account that the government’s vaccinations plan depends, among other things, on creating herd immunity by immunizing a critical mass of people. Though the vaccination process is still very slow and it is most likely that completion of even the first phase of immunizing 3 crore health and frontline workers may not be possible by August 2020.
Only after that the second phase of inoculation could be started for another 27 crore people above 50 years of age. The process of inoculating the whole population of about 139 crore may take years.
The new situation demands that the government should continue the vaccination drive with great care, along with all the measure that can be termed as ‘Covid-appropriate behaviour’. People should also be encouraged not to abandon Covid-appropriate behaviour while the threat is still looming large.
Dr Guleria is right is asserting, “India needs to go back to aggressive measures of testing, contract tracking and isolating infections.” It is important more so because the COVID-19 vaccines being used in India, though effective against the new variants, could lose much of their efficacy. The situation may arise when we would need to battle the second wave of the disease as Manaus city of Brazil that is struggling even after achieving herd immunity in October.
Therefore, there must not be any laxity in proper handling of COVID-19 cases, both medically and administratively. Medical facilities must be further strengthened, not only for COVID-19, but also for other diseases that are more or less ignored since the lockdown on March 24, 2020. Non-COVID-19 diseases may now pose a grave threat if they remain unattended.
On the question of containment measures and lockdowns, we need to apply our utmost wisdom. We cannot or should not totally stop the economic wheel and thereby the means of survival, but we certainly can regulate the crowd to make them sparse and enforce them to follow the ‘Covid-appropriate behaviour’. Wherever possible, ‘work from home’ should be extended. The activities or works that require physical presence could be allowed in the areas without infection but with all preventive measures.
Stringent measures such as curfew and lockdown should be resorted to only in the places with infections, the degree of which could be decided on basis of positivity rate. All non-economic gatherings, such as election rallies, must be stopped. Common people, politicians, or any other influential person must be encouraged or enforced not to participate in any inessential gathering or create one.
(Views are personal)