Five ways to beat the second wave of Covid-19
That there is a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic on is now certain. The seven-day average of daily cases on Thursday night was 29,330, 167% higher than its post-first wave peak low; and the seven-day average of daily deaths, 151, 71% higher. Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh are all seeing a resurgence in cases. And despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s exhortations and warnings, in the course of a meeting with chief ministers on Wednesday, no one really seems to care.
The second wave, if left uncontrolled, could surpass the peak of the first wave, as the experience of other countries shows. The fact that it is raging at a time when new variants of the coronavirus disease, including the dangerous P1 variant that is wreaking havoc in Brazil, have all been sequenced in India, is cause for concern. The situation now is far more dire than it was exactly a year ago, when India started thinking about a lockdown, and finally implemented one at four hours notice on March 25, 2020.
Given this context, what should India’s response be?
One, a nation-wide lockdown is out of the question for two reasons — its impact on a still-fledgling economic recovery would be catastrophic; and after a year of living with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it is clear that other measures can achieve the same result as a hard lockdown.
Two, what should those measures be? There is, of course, the usual Covid-safety protocol of masking, social distancing, and sanitising. This is now being honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Most people do not wear masks; many, who do so, wear them improperly, as chin guards. Restaurants, perhaps delighted at the prospect of being allowed to operate after what has been many long hard months for them, are paying little attention to social distancing. And people, tired of isolation and quarantines, are socialising with a vengeance, and holidaying as if the end of the world is nigh (it could be, if they continue to do so). Most tourist and pilgrimage destinations in India are witnessing huge crowds — and the state of Uttarakhand has allowed the Kumbh Mela to go on without adequate Covid-safety protocols (one of the first moves of its new chief minister was to do away with negative Covid-test reports for visitors to the event, which happens once in 12 years, a requirement put in place by his predecessor).
It is time for the Union home ministry to issue a set of guidelines, and it is time for the states to follow these (tightening them, if needed, but not diluting them). The guidelines should mandate masking, social distancing, limit capacity in restaurants, hotels, malls and multiplexes, place restrictions on religious, social, and cultural events, and, perhaps, even bar inter-state travel.
Three, it’s time for Mumbai, and perhaps even the rest of Maharashtra, to lock down for two weeks. The numbers in India’s commercial capital, and one of its most important states, require this. Between March 1 and March 18, the number of cases in the state has risen 135%. On the basis of Thursday night’s numbers (from the HT dashboard), Maharashtra accounts for 65% of all Covid-19 cases in the country. The lockdown needs to be accompanied by aggressive testing, efficient contact tracing, and mandatory quarantining. The Centre and the state also have to work together to launch a large (and fast) vaccination drive in Maharashtra.
Four, as Hindustan Times has repeatedly called for, it is time for the Union health ministry and the drug regulator to approve more vaccines. If the latter could approve Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin on the basis of belief and not hard evidence — as expected by many, the evidence followed, and showed the vaccine to be highly effective, but vaccines should always be approved on the basis of science, not belief — there’s no reason for it to drag its feet over the Sputnik vaccine, or the Novavax one, which will be made in India by the Serum Institute of India. And once approved, it should allow their sales in the open market.
Five, again, as Hindustan Times has repeatedly suggested, the health ministry should open up vaccination for all, and perhaps focus on the 50 cities with a population in excess of a million in the country. It is clear that Covid-19 affects urban populations disproportionately, and even today, the hotspots (and the emerging hotspots) are all in urban areas. This, combined with vaccine hesitancy in rural areas, makes a good case for the drive to focus on cities first and the hinterland later. It is perhaps time to review the sequencing of the vaccination drive.
Complacency over the end of the first wave, misplaced confidence about the vaccination, and fatigue over Covid-safety protocols have brought us here — but smart and fast action, based on science and data, can lead us out.