A flicker of hope: On declining COVID-19 numbers

Expansion of vaccination must be accompanied by efforts to track virus variants

Updated - September 25, 2021 01:20 am IST

Published - September 25, 2021 12:02 am IST

India’s count of active COVID-19 cases has hit a six-month low with the number dropping to 3,00,162, according to a Friday bulletin from the Health Ministry. Helped by the nearly 56 crore tests done so far, positivity rates — or the percentage of those tested who turn out positive — have also been showing encouraging trends. The weekly positivity rate has been less than 3% for the last 91 days and the daily positivity rate has been around 2% for the last 25 days. But this is no time to be complacent. Last September, active cases in India appeared to have peaked at a little over 10 lakh after which there was a steady decline. Around December 20 it had gently descended to a little around 3,00,000 or the levels seen today. Around the same time, the first reports of the clinical trial successes of the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccine brought cheer. Even India’s home-grown vaccines seemed to be around the corner, and all of these triggered an optimism that India may have passed the worst.

The lack of alacrity in hunting for new mutations, underlying dangerous new variants, meant that the insidious emergence of the Delta variant, which caused the catastrophic peak in April-May, was only understood in hindsight. The nature of the virus, its propensity to evade antibodies and the inevitable socialisation that normal life entails means that there is no absolute nadir in a country's pandemic trajectory at which it can be sure that a fresh threatening wave will not rise again. The 3,00,000 active cases last December, saw around 300 deaths being reported every day. Even today, those numbers are fairly similar. While the spread of infection can be controlled in limited ways, the availability of vaccines and the fact that many large countries now are getting closer to having half their population inoculated with at least one dose means that the biggest threat associated with the pandemic — severe disease and death — is much more tractable than last year. Because crores of Indians have been vaccinated, and Government officials have optimistic projections that most adults will be vaccinated with at least a single dose by the year end, there is again an air of optimism. This time, however, the Government messaging is more cautious with warnings that the second wave was yet to abate, and recommendations of continued behavioural caution. This is also accompanied by projections that say, at its worst, a possible third wave cannot be as catastrophic as the second wave peak, even accounting for significantly more infectious and lethal variants suddenly emerging. Thus, to expand vaccination and track new variants are the only real ways forward.

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