There is no question now that Indian authorities had become overconfident about the spread of Covid-19 in the country. Several weeks of steadily declining cases, even as new strains of viruses in the rest of the world led to a resurgence of infections, seemed to have lulled the Indian establishment into assuming that for whatever reason India would be subject only to a single wave of the pandemic. But in states such as Maharashtra and Kerala — which are more exposed to the world, given their globalised linkages — cases have begun to increase again. Maharashtra’s state medical authorities have even expressed concern about an indigenous variant that has been detected in Nagpur and Aurangabad and it may be, like some other new variants elsewhere, more transmissible and possibly have a greater chance of causing pneumonia among those infected. Some districts of Maharashtra have had to go under partial lockdown
In spite of relatively high seroprevalence in surveys taken of areas that were hotspots for the virus last year, there is no reason to suppose that India is anywhere near herd immunity just yet. Therefore, the danger of a second wave — possibly driven by variants of a virus that has proved itself uncommonly liable to dangerous mutations — was always present. The government should not have been so sanguine about its supposed achievement of controlling the virus’ spread. The authorities should start preparing the public now for the possibility of a recurrence of local lockdowns and a return to stringent social distancing norms in areas where the virus appears to have resumed its grip or where new mutations are being detected. That said the Indian public should also show responsible behaviour by adhering to the norms already in place.
The Union government has rightly advised states to increase the numbers of RT-PCR test they conduct, given that rapid antigen tests will not allow for a sufficiently granular understanding of the state of the pandemic in any given area. The great cause for concern in any second wave would also be the chance that it will hit areas of the country that might have — unlike, say, Delhi, Mumbai, and Kerala, the foci of the last wave — less robust health care systems and fewer free hospital beds. Thus, the tolerable level of infections per capita may be significantly lower than in the last wave.
The renewed threat of another wave of infections is a reminder that until vaccination has reached most of the country, the pandemic will remain a potent threat to lives and livelihoods. In this context, the laziness of the vaccine roll-out is inexplicable. As this newspaper has previously argued, the government must make use of excess capacity in the pharmaceutical and biochemical industry on a war footing. More than seven weeks have passed since two vaccines were cleared by regulators, and not a single dose has yet been given to those most at risk — the elderly. Nor have plans been drawn up for that stage of the vaccination programme. In fact, even the distribution of vaccines through the private sector is not on the cards at the moment. Given the imminent threat of a second wave, the government must review its position. The vaccine roll-out must be speeded up immediately, regulatory clearance granted to additional candidates already in use elsewhere such as the highly effective Pfizer vaccine, and the private sector enrolled as part of the fight against Covid-19.