Into the third year of the pandemic, governments the world over now have the benefit of experience to shape responses to a surge in infections. In India, the second wave during the 2021 summer was a searing experience. No less important in terms of imparting lessons was the fallout of a nationwide lockdown the year before. All these experiences need to be brought together as states and municipal corporations prepare to cope with the third wave of Covid infections.
The inflection point in the current surge took place last week when the daily caseload increased by 46% in a day to touch 9,184 on December 28. The rise since has been exponential and the national daily caseload reached 58,097 between January 4 and 5. It has been accompanied by a jump in daily positivity rate to 4.18% from just 0.73% a month ago. Many states have responded by curbing mobility, the most blunt instrument available in their toolkit. Delhi has a night curfew in place which will be supplemented by a weekend curfew. Tamil Nadu too has opted for a night curfew along with a full lockdown on Sundays. West Bengal’s government has limited flights from Delhi and Mumbai to three a week.
The ongoing surge in infections is happening in a context that has important differences when compared to the second wave. Around 65% of the adult population is fully vaccinated and over 8 million children in the 15-18 age group have been administered a single dose. Moreover, we have the benefit of observing the trajectory of the Omicron variant in other countries. The combined impact of these differences calls for a more sophisticated approach by state governments. Resorting to partial curfews and lockdowns will impose a disproportionate cost on the most economically vulnerable segments and not really curb infections.
The primary aim for governments is to ensure that the healthcare infrastructure doesn’t get overwhelmed. When seen in this context, Maharashtra’s approach makes sense. Media reports indicate the state is inclined to use Covid bed vacancy as a measure to choose policy options. A smarter approach along with tighter enforcement of masking rules and capacity restrictions in public spaces will help states strike a fine balance between controlling the spread of infections and limiting its economic fallout. India can neither afford to let its healthcare infrastructure collapse nor impose lockdowns. The current surge needs to be managed by a smarter set of tools.
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