Covid-19: What you need to know today
Delhi recorded 24,375 new cases of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) on Saturday at a positivity rate of 24.56%. No Indian city has registered more; actually no city anywhere in the world has, at least to this columnist’s knowledge. Sure, Los Angeles saw 29,174 cases on December 26, in the worst phase of the US’s debilitating third wave of the viral pandemic, but that was because of Christmas (it recorded no cases on December 25). Delhi, some may argue, isn’t a city, but a city-state, and technically a Union Territory with a legislature. Still, it does have all characteristics of a large city — a predominantly urban population and 11 administrative districts that are tightly connected. It may be almost twice as large as New York, but it is marginally smaller than London. And right now, it is reeling under a fourth wave of Covid-19 — not just in terms of cases, but deaths too. On Saturday, it saw 167 deaths, the highest to date. Sunday’s numbers are not in when this column is being written.
How bad is the city-state’s fourth wave? According to Jamie Mullick, the keeper of HT’s Covid-19 dashboard (from back in the time when the numbers were not so easily available), Delhi’s fourth wave is actually as bad as the city’s previous three waves combined (in terms of peak case levels). The seven-day average of cases on Saturday was higher than the highest seven-day averages witnessed during the previous three peaks — taken together (see the tables accompanying this piece).
The numbers reflect that — in the seven days to Saturday, Delhi recorded 13.4% of the total (827,998) cases it has seen since the beginning of the pandemic.
The seven-day average of deaths presents a healthier (I know, unfortunate choice of words) picture. It was 104 on Saturday, still lower than the peak seven-day average seen during the last wave.
It makes little sense to dwell on what went wrong and how we got here. All the usual suspects — from complacence to apathy to misplaced priorities to a complete disregard for science and data — have been at play. But how do we get out of here?
Hindustan Times (after the country’s first, bitter experience with a 68-day-long lockdown) has maintained that comprehensive lockdowns are avoidable except in two cases. One, the health infrastructure of a city or a region is under threat of being overwhelmed, or already is, and a further rise in cases would result in (I apologise for the choice of words in advance but this isn’t the time to sugar-coat things) people dying on the streets. Two, the city or region continues to see a huge increase in cases, with a high positivity level (a clear indicator that things could get worse). On Saturday, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said at a press briefing that the city-state faces a shortage of oxygen, drugs, and ICU beds. Also on Saturday, Delhi’s positivity rate touched 24.56% (which means one in four tests turned up positive). The seven-day average of the positivity rate (on Saturday) was 16.5% and rising fast. Delhi clearly needs a short sharp lockdown, one that includes curbs on inter-state movement of people (not goods) without good reason, perhaps even on trains and flights.
It can be argued that there will be an economic cost to all this, just as the local government likely reasoned a few weeks ago — a time when it made sense to impose some not-so-drastic restrictions — that there would be an economic cost to these, but the alternative is unimaginable. Indeed, Delhi, and India’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic is a study in reactive management — we have always been a step behind the virus.
Delhi also needs to aggressively vaccinate people. A little over two million people have received one dose of a vaccine and around 440,000, both doses. That’s around 12% of the city-state’s population (more than many other cities and regions) that has some form of protection against severe infection and death (there’s enough research to show that even one dose substantially enhances this protection). The question I would be asking, if I were in either the state or union government is simply this: how soon can we double this number? Because 25% protected against severe illness and death definitely sounds better.