India may be entering the festival season on a note of hope. A panel appointed by the Union Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) has reported a steady decline in COVID-19 cases since September 17, when the country recorded nearly 98,000 cases — the highest spike in a day. The graph, in fact, has fallen sharply in the first fortnight of October — the number of active cases fell by about 18 per cent in this period. On Sunday, these numbers went below the eight-lakh mark for the first time in six weeks. The mortality rate is also falling appreciably. If the current trend persists, according to the panel, the contagion could run its course in the country by February. The past 10 months have, however, shown that the virus defies prediction. There is much about the pathogen that remains in the realm of the unknown — in fact, we still do not have a conclusive reason for the slowing down of the infection rate. The hope generated by reports of the disease being past its peak, therefore, needs to be tempered with caution.
While the jury is out on the precise impact of the dipping temperature on the coronavirus, the recent upsurge of cases in Europe suggests that the coming winter will be critical in the battle against the health crisis. As epidemiologist and a member of the MST panel, Gagandeep Kang, told this newspaper, “there is a seasonality associated with the spread of viruses and based on that experience, it would not be out of place to suggest that the coronavirus might spread in winter”. The high level of particulate matter in the air of several Indian cities during early winter could increase the vulnerability of those with respiratory ailments. A National Centre of Disease Control report has warned the Delhi government of a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases during the winter. The report’s suggestion to the Delhi government for the festive season — engage with religious leaders to ensure that celebrations like Durga Puja, Dussehra and Chhath Puja remain low-key affairs — is pertinent for governments in most parts of the country. The spike in Kerala’s caseload after the week-long Onam festivities in August is a warning — festivals can be super-spreaders.
The MST panel report should be seen in conjunction with the recent serological studies in several parts of the country. They indicate that about 30 per cent people have been exposed to the virus in urban areas — an ICMR study conducted across 70 districts in the country in September, in fact, points out that this figure could be as low as seven per cent at the all-India level. By all accounts, therefore, it would be premature to say that the virus has exhausted its supply of vulnerable people. The receding rate of infection should not bring a lowering of guard.
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