Updated: April 3, 2021 9:51:52 am
The most striking feature of India’s second wave of infections has been the speed at which the numbers have been growing. On Friday, more than 62,000 positive cases were detected in the country. Just ten days ago, this daily count of cases was less than 30,000.
Last time, it had taken 23 days for India to move from 30,000 cases a day to 60,000. And, at that time, in July and August last year, there were far greater number of susceptible people who could have been infected. After infecting a critical proportion of the population, the spread of the epidemic is expected to slow down. This critical proportion is not necessarily 50 per cent. The slowdown can occur even after 30 or 40 per cent of the population has been infected. This is because of the corresponding reduction in the number of uninfected people who can potentially get infected.
Five months of continuous decline in coronavirus numbers, after the peak achieved in middle of September, had given rise to hopes that the critical infection level in the community had already been reached. And, though the possibility of a fresh waves was never ruled out, it was expected that these would only be short-lived with lower and lower peaks compared to that achieved in September.
However, at the rate at which new infections are getting detected, there seems to be a real threat of the September peak getting surpassed. Till now, the second wave has been powered primarily by Maharashtra. On Friday, Gujarat and Punjab also notched up their highest single-day numbers ever, but their previous peaks were one-tenth that of Maharashtra.
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States like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have just begun to show the surge. Apart from Maharashtra and Kerala, the two states that have reported more than 10,000 cases in a day, are Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Tamil Nadu’s peak is at 7,000. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have started reporting about 2,000 cases a day now, after seeing their daily counts drop to less than 500 in February. Andhra Pradesh, whose daily count had dropped to double digits in the first week of February, is now approaching 1,000 cases a day. If they go the Maharashtra way, and surpass their previous peaks, India’s second wave could be much worse than the first.
This is also because Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, three of the top five populous states in the country, have still been largely unaffected by the second wave, and there is no reason to believe that they have any special immunity against the epidemic. While Bihar and West Bengal had peaked around 4,000 last time, Uttar Pradesh had reported more than 7,000 cases in a day in September. West Bengal and Assam are going through election season, with large crowds participating in political rallies. Punjab’s experience shows that a delayed surge is very possible. States like Odisha and Telangana also fall in the same bracket as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal right now.
The other remarkable feature of the second wave is the high concentration of cases in a few states. Maharashtra has been contributing more than 60 per cent of the cases every day. The state has been the biggest contributor of cases on most days throughout the epidemic, but never had its daily share touched even 40 per cent. With more than 26.37 lakh confirmed cases till now, it accounts for 22 per cent of all cases detected in India since the start of the epidemic, but during the second wave, which started in the second week of February, its contribution has been more than 56 per cent, reporting almost six lakh out of the 10.5 lakh reported from across the country.
Maharashtra also accounts for over 60 per cent of the active cases in the country right now. The state currently has more than 2.83 lakh active patients. At current rate of detection of new cases in the state, it is likely to exceed three lakh on Saturday itself. Last year, the state had seen its active cases swell to 3.01 lakh before the decline started. The active case count had dropped to 30,000 in February. A ten-fold rise in active cases has happened in just 43 days. The last time, it had taken more than 110 days for the active cases in Maharashtra to rise from 30,000 to three lakh.
The only consolation has been the fact that the health infrastructure in Maharashtra has still not been overwhelmed the way it had last time. The facilities built last year, and the experience in dealing with a surge, has had a role to play, but all evidence has also been suggesting that the infections in the second wave have been resulting in relatively milder form of the disease. But this situation is likely to change soon. Many hospitals in Pune, which has over more than 50,000 active cases, have been reporting more than 80 per cent occupancy. The situation is not very different in Mumbai, which has close to 40,000 active cases.
As of now, there is no indication that this second wave is coming to an end anytime soon. It could again happen all of a sudden, like last time, when the numbers, rather inexplicably, had begun to come down after reaching 98,000 cases a day. With more and more people getting vaccinated, and a large proportion having already been infected, the expectation is that the second wave would last for a shorter period of time than the first.
What is also possible is that different states might peak at different times. That has already happened earlier. Kerala had been reporting very large number of cases when the rest of the country had fallen silent. When Maharashtra started rising again, Kerala began to decline. We could see this happening in other states as well. It is possible that Maharashtra begins to show a decline in a few weeks’ time but by then the action might shift to Andhra Pradesh, or Karnataka or Tamil Nadu. Still later, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh or West Bengal might begin their second wave when other states go in a decline.
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