Is a third wave of Covid-19 coming this festive season?

With major festivals coming up through the month of October, there are fears of the dreaded disease spreading again

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The prospect of a third wave of Covid-19 looms large over India. If it is not coming, why is the government not declaring it? If it might arrive suddenly, like the sudden deadly wave this summer, which killed tens of thousands and left people gasping for breath, often in the open and outside hospitals with no treatment, due to a severe scarcity of oxygen and beds, then, is the government and the Indian society prepared for a new virus variant?

Will it be a mild variant as in the first wave, or will it be a killer virus as in the third wave? From Alpha to Delta to the next one, what is it going to be like in its multiple mutations? Or, truly, and magically, and happily, has it finally disappeared from the scene in overcrowded India? If it is so, is it back to normal as in the pre-pandemic days?

And that is the dilemma, and there seems no clarity. In other countries, especially in Europe or the Scandinavian countries, governments have formally announced the end of lockdowns and how and why life can be resumed normally. In France you need vaccination proof to enter restaurants. In Norway, people celebrated all night in the pubs and streets recently after the lockdown was finally lifted and Norway was declared safe and sound by the government. Ditto with Sweden etc. Many parts of America, which are fully vaccinated, like Boston, have allowed public spaces to reopen with Covid protocol.

However, in India, the confusion hangs, like much of the other things which are forever in limbo. There are no clear instructions or clarifications offered by the government – the states seem to be simply following this tacit cue from the Centre, with absolutely no clarity. Are we still living in the pandemic times of isolation, with fear and uncertainty in the air, or, is it all hunky dory now, back to business?

The metros in Delhi are packed, more so in peak times. Physical distancing is impossible though most passengers are wearing masks. The shopping malls are throbbing in all the metros with thousands of footfalls. The Press Club of India is regaining its old reputation as a watering hole and a shared space of camaraderie and exchange of ideas – even as it hosts press conferences. Local markets are bustling with people. There are routine and regular traffic jams in Delhi and Kolkata, and other cities. Domestic flights are apparently full – even as fares have been hiked during this festive month.

As in recent times in the hills of Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, when thousands of tourists from Delhi etc, following no Covid protocol, thronged the tourist centers such as Shimla and Mussorie, thereby apparently creating fears of another wave among the local hill-people, the tourist flow might yet again boom. Will the boom bring another wave across the different tourist destinations? There is indeed a huge section of rich people who just don’t care – for them the pandemic is just a minor obstacle to the insatiable hedonism of their daily life of excess and consumerism. So, it was normal for them to take selfies with no masks, and walk around the markets with no physical distancing. Many of them actually were collectively jumping into a water body near Mussorie.

In the pre-election phase in 2019, India was stalked by unemployment which was stated to be the highest in 45 years. Efforts were made then by the central government to hide and fudge the data. With over approximately 140 million people jobless in India in the post-pandemic scenario, including in the corporate sector, and thousands of unemployed migrant workers refusing to return to the cities which are yet to offer full-fledged employment, some sections of the working class are back to work, including daily wage workers. According to a Pew Research Centre study, millions among the middle class have been pushed into low-income groups.

The number of the poor in the post-pandemic era has increased by 75 million in India, according to the Pew study – which means a huge crisis among a huge population trapped below the poverty line. The poor constitute now about 130 million of the population, and the number has increased massively during the pandemic. Almost half of the women workers in the unorganized sector seem to have disappeared, even in cities like Delhi; they are now being called the ‘Missing Women’. Almost 47 per cent of women in the organized sectors have lost their jobs permanently.

This is an unprecedented crisis of unprecedented magnitude. It seems there is mass malnourishment, hidden hunger and invisible suffering around the remote rural and small-town interiors and in urban ghettos, especially in the Hindi heartland. It needs strong and emergency measures on a war-footing.

However, only some states seem to have moved in with great efficiency and effective relief measures to combat this social and economic crisis, especially among the poor, such as West Bengal and Kerala. In UP and Bihar, the condition remains as abysmal as ever.

Except for PR exercises and image management, there seems no effort from the Prime Minister and his government to tackle this massive national crisis. Indeed, the Prime Minister seems more concerned about this grandiose multi-million Central Vista project, then this mass economic and social crisis stalking the vast Indian landscape.

There are reports of malnourishment and hunger among the poor, especially women and girl children. There are fears of child marriage increasing among girls and a vicious spiral in child labour and human trafficking due to abject poverty and economic deprivations. The working class and daily wagers, including the likes of street vendors and small shopkeepers, have no option. They have to come out and work, and look for job opportunities, and earn something for their daily survival after such a prolonged phase of unemployment and scarcity. “If Covid does not kill us, hunger will,” is a common refrain among the unorganised working class.

In this largely bleak scenario, in Kolkata, and West Bengal, people seem excited about the Durga Puja this time though the thrill and the chill is missing in the air. It was so quiet, subdued and restricted last time, hence the manifest anticipation and great expectations. Popular markets like Garihata, or the shopping malls, and the famous Park Street, are jostling with people – a large number of them without masks. In local markets like the Garia vegetable and fish market, thousands of people are out on the streets, while shared autos are working full-time with packed passengers, some without masks.

In Kolkata, the night curfew has been suspended for 10 days during the Durga Puja, so, everyone seems happy – the shopkeepers, the food-joints, and the nocturnal creatures looking for celebration. The concept behind the suspension of the night curfew is interesting: this will lead to less overcrowding in the day time – and some people will thereby choose to only come out in the night. Even before Puja, restaurants and bars are back with customers, while people are on a shopping spree. Largely, most care a damn for any Covid protocol.

However, there are large number of people still living in isolation, or refusing to go out into public spaces, including senior citizens. Many offices across India are shut and it is still work from home. Others are only going out if and when it is of utmost importance. Many have not moved out of their homes since summer and the second wave. Others are waiting for the festive season to end. Most others are still in a dilemma – because there were warnings that the third wave might arrive in September-October.

“What is the point of buying and wearing new clothes during the Durga Puja, if there is dying and death everywhere once again due to Covid,” said a senior woman consultant in a multinational company, now living in home isolation in Kolkata for more than two months since March 2020. Her doctors have categorically told her to be patient and stay at home. The doctors are also cynical – the manner in which thousands of people are crowding the markets in Kolkata, who can stop the third wave?

A 70-year-old retired professor in Bangalore, has postponed his plans to travel to a loved one in October. Covid cases have been rising in the building complex where he lives. He wants to go out, since he is fully vaccinated, but he is hesitant and not sure. Restrictions have been imposed in his apartment complex. No one is sure, really, especially those who are senior citizens, or, those who want to take precautions since they are aware that this disease tends to spread in crowded places. 

A social activist said, “In Kerala the cases might be rising now. It is now being called the second wave in Kerala. This is because they tackled it so well during the first wave and when the entire country was being ravaged by the second wave. They had functioning oxygen plants, fully equipped and totally free government hospitals, a chain of medical, community and social networks across the towns and villages, panchayats and local collective networks always ready to help, an efficient information system, organized and mass-testing, and a highly sensitive and responsive health ministry and government machinery. People were not afraid that the private hospitals will fleece them, or, that they will die due to lack of oxygen, beds or specialized medical support. That is why they were confident that they could cope with the killer Covid. This is how they controlled Nipah even now, and earlier. Even in Kolkata, where private hospitals charged exorbitantly high rates during the second wave, the free government hospitals were fully-equipped and effective, with the best doctors and health workers. This is not the case with many parts of India, including in Delhi, as it was witnessed during the second wave. Hence, the fear of an impending catastrophe with no government or community support system stalks large parts of the nation. Treatment in private hospitals have financially ruined so many people.  Many people fear that they will be left to their fate if they get the disease.”

So, what to do now? Stay in isolation? Wait for the third wave? For how long?

No one seems to know and while others don’t seem to care. The central and state governments are mum. The medical authorities are silent. The doctors and frontline health warriors are worried, and so are those who are facing a tough and depressing task in tough and prolonged isolation, especially single men and women, or, the elderly, who live all alone in alien cities, often, with no support systems. The jobless are broke, jobs are not coming by even in the corporate sector, instead, there is mass retrenchment; and savings are fast dipping. Only those employed in the bureaucracy, in universities and colleges, and government jobs, seem to be having a nice time with regular salaries.

Interestingly, in late August, news reports came out which were a warning, and rather alarming. Surprisingly, there have been no follow-up on this important revelation in the media, and even the authorities in Delhi, or, in the states too, have chosen to keep quiet for reasons still not known. A panel of experts, constituted by the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), predicted a third wave of Covid-19 across India between September and October. It seriously recommended rapid mass vaccination as the only effective way to stop it. The reports stated that the panel was instituted under the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). That means, this expert committee was reporting to the highest authorities in the country – namely, the home minister and the prime minister. The report was apparently submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

The experts expressed the fear that children might also face a risk as the adults did in the second wave. It was stated that the pediatric infrastructure in the Indian hospital and medical establishment, both in the private and public sector, is still not fully equipped to tackle a major health crisis in terms of Covid among children.

The report categorically stated: “Leading experts have repeatedly warned of an imminent third Covid-19 wave in India. Epidemiologists predict a series of surges till we achieve herd immunity through infection or vaccination and the disease becomes endemic.”

The report quoted the predictions made by IIT Kanpur earlier which had posed three likely scenarios, apparently based on a mathematical model. First, the third wave could peak in early October with 3.2 lakh positive cases every day. Second, if new, virulent variants emerge, the third wave could peak in September with likely five lakh positive cases per day. (These two scenarios have, as of now, proved wrong.) And, third, the third wave could make a late surge in late October with two lakh positive cases every day.

This report had also presumed that herd immunity could be achieved if around 67 per cent of the population become immune – by infection for a certain period, and by vaccination. However, what will happen if unpredictable, much more deadlier and virulent variants mutate, especially when a large population is not vaccinated, remains in the realm of uncertainty and speculation. In that case, only full vaccination of 80 per cent of the population could stop the killer virus.

The good news is that under a new and more actively engaged Union Home Minister, Mansukh Mandaviya, the frustratingly slow and uneven process of vaccination, and the acute lack of vaccines across many states, prevalent till recently, has been overcome now. Free vaccination has been initiated in a mass scale and there seems no shortfall of vaccines as of now. Almost 65 per cent population has got one dose and around 25 per cent have been fully vaccinated. This percentage seems to be rising with a daily count, though it can be multiplied many times more on a war-footing. At this count, the challenging task of total and full vaccination across India for adults by December might seem a not-so-difficult target. According to official statistics, critical cases have plummeted to less than 25,000 per day all over the country.

The confidence level in the Union health ministry is also high given the fact that it has stated that vaccine production in the country has shot up. So much so, there are efforts to rectify the failed international promise made by the Indian government to supply vaccines to African countries. It failed the promise because it was running terribly short of vaccines since April 2021, despite the lofty claims made by the prime minister at World Economic Forum’s Davos Dialogue in January 2021.

However, the ministry is of the opinion that the vaccine supply to the African countries and elsewhere can be started by October, given the high level of vaccine production in India in the current scenario. This is part of the global deal under ‘Covax’ signed by India. Covax is a vaccine-sharing global body.

The Serum Institute of India has apparently doubled its output of the AstraZeneca shot to 150 million doses, according to reports. Earlier, surprisingly, before it had stopped exports in the summer of 2021 due to what seemed a total botch-up and acute shortage of vaccines, the central government in Delhi had donated or sold 66 million doses to around 100 countries.

Reuters has reported that the African Union has accused the manufacturers of denying the African nations a fair chance to buy vaccines. The African Union has asked India, and other manufacturing nations, to lift export restrictions. Over 5.7 billion plus doses of vaccines have been reportedly administered globally. However, only 4 per cent of the African people have got vaccination till now. Only 9 African countries have vaccinated 10 per cent of their population. The rich nations, predictably, despite promises to Covax, has betrayed the poor nations and chosen to only prioritise their own population, though it is an established theory that this is a global disease and will continue to spread if any part is left unvaccinated.

Indeed, in India now, it almost seems like the pandemic has disappeared and so has the virus. Is it really so? Or, is it a mere deception?

Several parts of the world have been under lockdown. Auckland brought in a shockingly hard lockdown after only one case of Covid which arrived from neighbouring Australia apparently, because New Zealand was in a literal bubble with a zero case scenario, though vaccination, surprisingly, had been low. As the cases started rising in this efficient and small country, run by an equally efficient, pro-people, and democratic Labour Party leader, Jacinda Ardern, Auckland was put under tough restrictions. 

Australia itself has been going through strong phases of lockdown in what is called its ‘second wave’. In Vietnam, which literally started with a zero case scenario last year, lockdown is back. Indonesia suffered mass deaths and mass cremations in burial grounds in recent times, perhaps as worse as the cruel Indian summer, and, yet, it is still struggling. In Europe the prosperous ‘western bloc’ such as Germany, France, Denmark etc have had mass vaccination, while the ‘eastern block’ such as Poland, Slovenia, Hungry are lagging behind.

South Korea, Japan and Malaysia have given more vaccine doses per 100 people – it is much better than what the US could do. In South Korea, vaccination has stopped hospitalization for most people. In Japan, crucial cases have lessened by half in September, to just about 1,000 cases a day. However, the situation in Japan is still not safe — 31,000 cases of hospitals have been reportedly recently. It was as high as 230,000 in late August.

In America, the supporters of Donald Trump and the ‘Red Republican Areas’ in the map are still witnessing a surge of Covid cases with a large number of hardliner Republicans and others refusing to get vaccinated. After his post-presidency promise to vaccinate 100 million people in 100 days, Joe Biden has announced stricter measures – compulsory vaccination of 100 million health workers, federal contractors and others in the private sectors, and most CEOs have come along with him.

The New York Times in a survey has created graphs which show that all those states which voted Trump have high Covid cases and are unvaccinated, unlike those which voted for the Democrats. Biden has said that the section of the population not getting vaccinated are allowing the virus to spread and thereby threatening those who are already vaccinated and stopping the process of economic and social recovery. He has said in a press conference at the White House that other critical patients like those with heart and other ailments are not able to get treatment because the unvaccinated people are now over-crowding the health centers and hospitals after being afflicted with the virus.

He has now pushed third booster shots for those above 65, health workers, frontline workers like grocery store owners, etc, and there are 80,000 pharmacies giving the shots free of cost across the country. Biden, 78, has himself taken a third booster shot. However, his opponents are calling him a dictator saying that not getting vaccinated is in an individual right and he has no business to interfere in their individual decisions. Surprisingly, several frontline health workers are refusing to take vaccination in America, so they are being replaced by other professionals, including from the security apparatus.

Given the global circumstances, India still remains in a twilight zone. There is still no clarity. While thousands are out in public spaces, there is no roadmap about the future, or, what is the action plan for the nation. If another surge of the deadly virus suddenly arrives, there will be perhaps less panic this time, and there will be more preparation, but, yet another phase of lockdown and collective and individual crisis will stalk the nation. People will continue to suffer across the spectrum, especially those in the margins.

If it does not arrive, then, will the nation’s economic and social life continue as usual – with absolutely no clarity or future course of action? Will there be a massive economic boost and mass job creation? Will offices, cinema halls and campuses be forever shut? Will travel become safe and secure? Will the private hospitals stop fleecing? Will government hospitals take charge and give free treatment, and total and full confidence to the people? Will the millions of jobless get back on their feet? Will the social and personal isolation, the depression and emotional crisis faced by millions of people, who are compulsively avoiding public places and crowded spaces, ever end?

The answer is not blowing in the wind. Only the questions loom large. 



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