India is witnessing one of its bleakest, cruellest summers this year. The unrelenting second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to extract a heavy toll as the days go by. Death continues to stalk our homes and neighbourhoods. We are now the second-most-affected country after the United States, accounting for nearly half the daily number of Covid-19 cases and nearly a fourth of the daily deaths. More worryingly, 533 of India’s 718 districts are now reporting a positivity rate of over 10 per cent. The question on everyone’s mind is, ‘when will this nightmare end?’ Unfortunately, the second wave is not over and experts are predicting a third wave.
India Today Magazine May 24, 2021 cover, ‘When Will It End?’
As Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist of the World Health Organization (WHO), told us, “Right now, it is going up and up. Unlike last year, the virus is not confined to a few states and seems to be everywhere.” The 320,000 cases we recorded on May 11 was the lowest figure in 14 days—but still one of the highest in the world. The positivity rate is now 21 per cent, which means that roughly one in five persons is testing positive. The second wave will be under control only if the test positivity rate dips to 5 per cent. The key, therefore, is to understand just when this might happen. The US and the UK have had two waves of the pandemic where they have seen an explosion in cases. There are lessons in what they have gone through. While the virus itself may have mutated, the way it propagates has not changed. Hence, if you wear your masks and maintain social distancing, you will reduce its spread. The great dilemma is that when you start opening the economy, which is required for people’s livelihoods, especially in a poor country like India, there is a high probability that there will be a surge, as people ignore Covid protocol. This is no rocket science. When you don’t follow these precautions, you witness a surge of the kind we saw from March 1, where we went from 12,000 new Covid-19 cases per day to over 300,000 a day this month.
We still don’t have the statistics to accurately predict where we are with the second wave at present: whether we have plateaued or whether there could be a hidden rural surge that we have somehow missed completely. So, we consulted three mathematical models prepared by experts to map the second wave’s possible trajectory. All three models talk of us hitting a peak in mid-May—ranging from 400,000 cases on the low side to 1 million cases at the other extreme. The experts we consulted were unanimous in the opinion that it will take 1-2 months for cases to fall. The only debate is about where the graph will go after that. Will it be an extended plateau as it presently is in Brazil, or will it taper off sharply as it has in the US?
For now, the trends remain alarming. The national positivity rate remains quite high and while the worst-hit states — Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Bihar — have shown a decline in the number of daily infections, the death rates have yet to fall significantly. There is also a serious apprehension that there has been significant underreporting of Covid deaths and that testing has also slowed down in many states. Unfortunately, there has been a major uptick in recent cases in the Northeast, West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
The new mutant strain of the virus is another big concern. Since it spread out of China in 2019, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has rapidly mutated, with several of those mutants seemingly infecting people at greater speed. The so-called UK variant was earlier declared a mutant of concern because it has the potential to spread globally. And now, it is the so-called Indian variant, a highly contagious triple mutant, B.1.617, that the WHO has flagged as a global health risk. We are yet to establish how this mutant strain, first detected in samples in Maharashtra, spreads. We know the Indian variant is more infectious, but it is not clear whether it leads to more people becoming seriously ill or dying as compared to the first wave. The most effective tool against it has been to break transmission by reducing social contact. As a result, at least two-thirds of India is currently under some form of lockdown or restriction on movement. These measures might impact the economy in the short term but are vital to breaking the spread of the virus in the long term.
Ultimately, vaccinations are the only effective protection against the collapse of the medical infrastructure we are witnessing now. This realisation acquires a greater urgency as the virus spreads to rural areas where medical facilities are sparse or ramshackle. After all, vaccines also shield people from severe infection and lessen the strain on hospital infrastructure.
Our cover story package, ‘When Will It End?’, answers these big questions. First, Group Editorial Director (Publishing) Raj Chengappa analyses the likely scenarios of the virus’ spread. Then, Executive Editor MG Arun and Deputy Editor Shwweta Punj examine the impact of multiple lockdowns on the economy. Next, Executive Editor Sandeep Unnithan examines the military’s role (and its limitations) in this health emergency. Finally, PB Jayakumar, Senior Editor, Business Today, looks at the shortages stymieing the vaccination programme.
Predictive mathematical models are just that — arithmetical. The results depend on the assumptions which have been made. There are many moving parts to the trajectory of the virus. For example, how do you predict people’s behaviour when lockdowns are lifted — since lockdowns cannot go on forever. It also depends on the pace of the vaccination programme, which for now looks uncertain. Most importantly, it depends, as we have seen in many countries, on the political leadership and the measures they take to check the spread of the virus. For us to defeat the virus as a country, there must be transparency, accountability, clear leadership, trust and unity in purpose. Sadly, this remains elusive in India, even as the virus ravages us.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, ‘When Will It End?’, for May 24, 2021)