Updated: January 2, 2022 7:35:20 am
In terms of daily detections of Covid-19 cases, India on the last day of 2021 finds itself in a situation similar to the one from a year ago. 16,000-odd cases were detected across the country on Thursday; on December 30, 2020, this number was 21,000-odd.
And yet, the situation in India today is very different from what it was a year ago.
At this time last year, cases were on the downward slope after the peak of the first wave in September, and an exhausted — and still inexperienced — country was entering the new year with the belief that the worst was probably over.
This time, cases are rising, the terrible memories of the second wave are still fresh, Covid curbs are in force at many places, and Indians are looking at 2022 with anxiety and trepidation.
The big question is whether the third wave could be as big, in magnitude and impact, as the second. There is no certain answer as yet.
But this is what all current assessments indicate: because the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which is driving the latest round of infections, is producing only mild cases, India may have to deal mainly with a surge in cases, not necessarily loss of lives.
It is reassuring that no study anywhere in the world so far — and there have been plenty of them — since the emergence of Omicron in late November has hinted at any evidence to the contrary, even though scientists have cautiously maintained that these studies are not yet conclusive.
No country in which Omicron is currently rampaging has seen a significant rise in the Covid death rate.
On Friday, Suresh Kakani, additional commissioner, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), said, “Out of the 327 Omicron patients detected in Mumbai so far, none of them required oxygen support. So, right now, the oxygen requirement among Omicron patients is nearly zero which is much higher in Delta patients.”
Another critical reason for hope: At this time last year, India had not begun vaccinating its population. On Friday, Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya announced that India was “ending the year on a great note by crossing the milestone of 145 crore Covid-19 vaccinations”.
This is an enormous achievement. Over 60 crore Indians are now double vaccinated, and the country will open vaccinations for adolescents and precautionary third shots for the elderly early in the new year.
But the key difference between the second and third waves in India could be the state of the country’s preparedness.
In the summer of 2021, central and state governments could claim to have been caught off-guard by the suddenness, magnitude, and ferocity with which the infection surged.
This time, India is entering the surge more than a month after the countries in the West. It has had time to plan and prepare an adequate response to prevent not just the loss of lives but also economic disruptions.
While the experience of the western countries suggests a lower hospitalization rate due to Omicron, the magnitude of the wave should be cause for concern in India.
The United States recorded more than 5.8 lakh cases on Thursday, smashing Wednesday’s pandemic record of 4.88 lakh cases. The United Kingdom, France, and Spain, all with much smaller populations, have been detecting close to 2 lakh cases every day for the past several days. These numbers are between two and four times the size of their previous peaks, and the surge isn’t done yet.
While this does not mean that India’s surge could also reach up to four times its second-wave peak of 4 lakh-odd cases, given the size and density of its population, the possibility of infection numbers bigger than those of European countries is very real.
And even at very low rates of hospitalization, the demand for beds, ICUs, and oxygen could become comparable to the second wave if a situation similar to the one playing out in Europe now is mirrored in India.
This is where the governments, as well as the people, must ensure that the situation of the second wave is not repeated. Two years into the pandemic, there is no excuse for not being prepared or not anticipating the wave. As the government has been stressing repeatedly, following the mandated Covid-appropriate behaviour — cutting down on non-essential interactions and gatherings, wearing face masks, and avoiding crowding, will be critical.
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