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As of March 29, 2021 evening, there were 12,095,855 reported COVID-19 positive cases in India, accounting for about 9.4 percent of the world’s 128 million cases.
In March 2020, when the virus started to rapidly engulf the country’s landscape, the government had to make a hard trade-off of choosing between lives and livelihood. It chose the former, imposing one of the most stringent lockdowns, a standard, and perhaps the only, tool that embattled governments had at the time.
Curative medicines, let alone vaccines, were still a very distant certainty, as epidemiologists, scientists and biostatisticians rummaged through the mountains of data in mankind’s battle against the virus. The Indian government, much like most others, deployed the lockdown to slow down the virus’ spread.
In September 2020, when the first wave of COVID-19 infections peaked in India during the first wave, the seven-day daily moving average of daily infections in the country was more than 96,000.
In the first fortnight of February, when daily infections fell to the lowest before rising again, the seven-day moving average reached a low of less than 11,000.
As of March 29, 2021, the seven day-moving average of daily reported infections stood at 58,428, a level seen in the first fortnight of August 2020.
There are three major differences between August and September 2020, when the daily infection levels peaked during the first wave, and February 2021 and March 2021 when the infection count is rising alarmingly.
One, several restrictions were still applicable across as a large number of economic activities. For instance, multiplexes opened up only in October. Airlines were flying, but with restrictions. Hotels were not fully functional. Weddings and social gatherings had strict COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs) to follow.
Metros, local trains and city buses were plying, but with protocols and passenger limits. Inter-state trains were not running to full capacity and schedules. In some states, markets were allowed to open shops on alternate days. Restaurants were initially allowed only takeaways. Dine-ins were later allowed, but with limits of time and capacity.
A majority of the offices were functioning on the WFH (work from home) mode. Those operating on location were functioning at 50 per cent occupancy based on COVID-19 SOPs.
Two, the final data readouts were still awaited for a string of COVID-19 vaccines.
Three, importantly, there was primarily one strain of the virus that was infecting millions.
Four months later, the opposite is playing out. Buses (inter-state and intra-city), trains, metros are running to full capacity. So are domestic flights. People have begun vacationing going by the bounce-back in the hospitality industry. Hotels and resorts have reported brisk business since the end of last year.
People are rushing out for meals at restaurants. Pubs are open and packed during weekends. Multiplexes are back to beaming movies. Traffic jams are back in big cities mirroring a sharp rise in office goers. Footfalls at bazaars and malls show that shoppers have made a rapid return to markets.
High-octane political campaigns backed by mega rallies are on in five states—Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry. There are also religious congregations such as the Kumbh Mela that needs to be reckoned with.
Also, a new and highly infectious strain of coronavirus has been detected in India. It is in addition to the UK, South African and Brazilian variants already circulating in several states of India.
The most important difference between August-September and now, however, is that there are now two COVID-19 vaccines—Oxford-Astra Zeneca’s Covishield that the Serum Institute of India is producing, and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, that are being administered on people in India. A third—Russia’s Sputnik V that Dr Reddy’s Laboratories is producing in India—is on its way, with authorisation expected soon.
India’s immunisation campaign has gathered pace after a slow start with the government easing processes and urging people to shed vaccine hesitancy to contain the new surge in infections.
At more than 61 million, India has administered the most doses after the United States and China. But per-capita, India, with a population of more than 1.3 billion has a long catching up do on its COVID-19 vaccination exercise.
Even after three months, less than 5 per cent of the population has been vaccinated, partly driven by people’s hesitancy and partly by limiting the eligible population to a certain age band.
Here’s piece of data that shows the enormity of the vaccination exercise, given India’s population size and geographical spread. A run-rate of 2.5 million daily doses would ensure inoculation of about 30 per cent of the population by 2021-end, and 62 per cent by 2022-end, building in a two-dose vaccination regime.
India cannot afford another lockdown. It will serve a deadly blow to the economy that is showing incipient signs of recovery.
Mass masking up, strict enforcement of COVID-19 protocols with steep penalties and a massive scaling up of the vaccination run rate by making it eligible more population groups are the clearest ways to contain the spread and still keep the economy buzzing.
Otherwise, the cost for lives and livelihoods will be too prohibitive for the country to bear.Track our COVID-19 blog for live updates