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Open schools, all-India wave dip early February, says genomics institute head

🔴 Speaking at the Explained.Live event of The Indian Express, Dr Anurag Agrawal, director of Delhi-based Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, made a strong argument for the reopening of schools, at least in areas where the Covid curve has begun to go down.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: January 28, 2022 9:17:45 pm
School reopened in Navi Mumbai on Monday. (Express Photo by Amit Chakravarty)

Making a strong argument for the reopening of schools, at least in areas where the Covid curve has begun to go down, Dr Anurag Agrawal, director of Delhi-based Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, said on Thursday that the pandemic is now entering a stage where normal activities can resume with relatively small and not very difficult precautions.

Speaking at the Explained.Live event of The Indian Express, Agrawal said that keeping children away from school had potential adverse impacts on their physical and mental development that, in his opinion, was a bigger problem in the current context than the risk of Covid infection.

“The risk to children’s mental health and development by not going to schools is far greater than their risk of having anything to do with Covid-19. In fact, I would argue if I were to simply calculate, the risk of a child from Covid-19 has always been not much greater than the risk of going to Leh. So, if you don’t worry too much about that (going to Leh), then there is no reason to worry too much about this,” Agrawal said in response to a question on whether it was safe to send children to school.

He said the situation that India is currently in — high rates of vaccination, high levels of immunity, and low risk of severe disease or deaths from Omicron — it is advisable for people to “get on with their lives” with some precautions. “Open the schools. That would be top on the list of my priorities,” he said.

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Dr Anurag Agrawal (right) in conversation with Amitabh Sinha

Agarwal, who is the chair and only Indian member of the World Health Organisation’s Technical Advisory Group on Sars-CoV-2 Virus Evolution, said the third wave had most likely peaked in several big cities, and was likely to plateau very soon at the national level as well.

“In the metro cities, it is getting over in many places… As a nation also, we are pretty much near the plateau and very soon we will see it (daily infection count) coming down. I would have to temper this statement with one important thing. What we look at are known cases, which depend on testing. And, testing is not uniform across India. My impression is that by early February, the true peak and decline would start for the whole of India. But if you look at the (official) counts, the decline should start anytime now,” Agrawal said during an hour-long conversation with Amitabh Sinha, Resident Editor (Pune), The Indian Express.

Asked whether the pandemic was in its endgame now, he said it depended on how the term “endgame” was defined.

“The word endgame has very different meanings for different people. If in people’s mind, endgame means that this is the end of Covid-19, then that endgame is not quite here. But if what people mean by endgame is that it’s the time that our schools will reopen, it’s the time that we will go back to near-normal with relatively small and not very difficult precautions, I think, that endgame should have already started. To be very honest, I don’t see any reason why we need to continue closing schools for so much longer in the big cities, not all over India,” he said.

“I think that part of the endgame is already starting because that endgame does not have to do with the end of Covid-19 in terms of (disappearance of) Sars-CoV2 virus. It has to do with the end of Covid-19 as a threatening disease,” he said.

Agrawal said the complete elimination of the virus, like those of smallpox or polio, might not happen. “If I have to pick between the direction of smallpox or polio on one side, where there is a true endgame, and (that of) flu on the other side where there is a continuing struggle, I would pick the direction of flu. Because Covid-19 is not going to go away. It will very much stay. It will get less and less frequent, affecting only the immune-suppressed or the unhealthy, or severe high-risk people… as time passes. But otherwise, the destruction and difficulty it causes will become much less in times to come, until and unless the virus changes very significantly. That is a possibility but not an immediate high possibility,” he said.

Agrawal, however, warned that it would be wrong to consider the latest Omicron variant as a “natural vaccine”, because it was continuing to cause hospitalisations and deaths.

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