By Dr. Gyan Pathak
Amidst the visible falling number of new cases of COVID-19 in India, the invisible threat of the third wave of the pandemic may be approaching faster than expected. Complacency among the people as well as in government may add to its speed at a time when we actually need to be more alert and ready to run the race against the most dangerous Delta variant spreading in different parts of the world, the earliest sample of which was found in October 2020.
We cannot ignore the fact that within four months, i.e., by February 2021, this highly contagious variant was also found responsible for the devastating second COVID-19 wave in India. The second wave peaked on May 7, when the country registered 414,188 new cases daily, overwhelming medical facilities and leading to severe oxygen crisis. Thereafter, daily new cases have been falling and only 43,399 cases were registered on July 9. Though we cannot forget that we have already lost 4.06 lakh lives during the pandemic, we are now seeing crowded places and people roaming without masks, throwing social distancing to the wind.
It should instill a sense of fear, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi told his council of ministers on July 8, a day after the cabinet reshuffle. This is not a time for complacency, he said, adding that a single mistake would have far-reaching effects and would also weaken the fight to overcome COVID-19. His warning has come after the warning issued by the union health ministry expressing its concern over people indulging in “revenge travel” at a time when the second COVID-19 wave is hardly over and the threat of a third wave is looming large. The ministry has termed people thronging the hill stations “frightening” as 73 districts across 17 states and Union Territories are still reporting a positivity rate of over 10 per cent. Not only Shimla, Mussoorie, but people also have started crowding local markets in Delhi, Mumbai as well.
Though we all know how the fight against COVID-19 was mishandled by none less the Prime Minister’s Office, a scapegoat was found in Health Minister Harsh Vardhan and subsequently removed from his cabinet. The PM’s warning is still worth listening, because people’s lives and livelihoods are depending on his decisions. He has now a new union health minister, and let us see what steps are taken, apart from the sermons he is fond of delivering day in and day out showing himself sacrosanct during the battle against COVID-19. We can have a long list of his mistakes as PM and of his government, the chief among them was ignoring the creation of health facilities to successfully deal with the situation.
Both the government and the people must change their behaviour since the experts have warned that the third wave in India might be “inevitable” as we have been seeing in other countries. It may hit as early as August or September. The seriousness of the warning lies in the fact that northeastern states are now reporting a higher test positivity rate while cases in Kerala and Maharashtra are also not coming down. Even on July 8, India’s active COVID-19 cases recorded a spike after 55 days and the number of new cases surpassed the number of recoveries, marking a departure from the recent trend of higher recovery rate than new daily infections.
The most dangerous element in the third wave would be the Delta variant, which is more contagious and dangerous, and twice as likely to necessitate hospitalization. We have already seen in the first and second wave of COVID-19 how an increase in infection alone is devastating due to overwhelming of our health system leading to over 4 lakhs of death within one and half year, over half of them during the three months of the second wave. No one can anticipate the devastation in the third wave with more dangerous and contagious Delta variant. Several countries in the world are grappling with this variant, which is becoming dominant, and WHO has already given warning for its being a dominant variant of the near future. Delta plus has also been reported, and there are unknown threats of other mutations of the future. The speed of infection can be just imagined from the fact that in UK it has quadrupled in a month. A research has found that infections could double in six days. In India, Delta variant accounts for 81 per cent of the samples sequenced recently.
What India should do now? The answer to this question is the same as usual. There should not be any complacency either on the part of the government or the people. Blame game must be avoided, people must take precautions until the threat is over, and the government must prepare for the approaching threat in terms of hospital facilities and speeding up immunization to delay the third wave, which will be potentially more devastating, since there is a risk of the Delta variant to escape immunity. It has been reported that the third wave can be delayed if 30-40 per cent of people are vaccinated, but we are far behind the requirement. Only about 5 per cent people are fully vaccinated. Scientists are working hard to make effective drugs and vaccines, which our government must support. The drugs and vaccines already developed must be made available to the people in time.
Since COVID-19 has now been spreading from the metropolises and big towns to the small towns and villages, the Union government, instead of shifting all responsibilities to ‘expertise and fund starved’ states, must do much more than has done in the last two waves of the pandemic, which killed over 4 lakh people, most of them due to lack of medical facilities, such as oxygen. Vaccines and drugs will have to race against the variants, people must remain ever more alert against the contagion, and the government must rise to the occasion leaving its all the mistakes of the past behind and come forward with open liberal mind to accept all sane suggestions to successfully counter the new threat. (IPA Service)