Signalling the end of the third wave that began in the last days of 2021, the Government, on February 16, asked States to review and amend or end additional COVID-19 restrictions. Restrictions that hinder the free movement of people and economic activities may no longer be necessary considering that the third wave seems to be truly coming to an end, the Government noted. From less than 7,000 daily fresh cases in the fourth week of December 2021, the number of cases began rising sharply in the last days of 2021 and increased exponentially before peaking on January 20, with over 3,40,000 cases recorded. The decline in daily fresh cases too witnessed a sharp fall after peaking. But relying entirely on daily fresh cases might give a misleading picture as the Government revised the testing strategy on January 10, which makes only those with symptoms and certain at-risk contacts of laboratory confirmed cases eligible for a test. The sale of self-test kits soared in many cities but the reporting of results by their users was poor. In addition, the mild nature of the disease in many fully vaccinated and previously infected people might have led to complacency and a reluctance to get tested. Despite the limitations in the measurement of cases, the sustained decline in the number of cases and in the positivity rate since the third wave peaked does indicate that the third wave is nearing its end. For the first time since the third wave peaked, the seven-day average test positivity rate nationally fell below 5% on February 12; it was 3% on February 16. But 16 States still report a seven-day average test positivity above the national average; it is very high in the Union Territory of Puducherry (28.8%), Mizoram (26.2%), Odisha (19%), and Kerala (18.4%). The true indicator that India has reached the fag end of the third wave is reflected in the reduced number of hospitalisations.
The waning of the third wave caused by the extremely infectious Omicron variant should be no reason to lull India into complacency. The notion that India’s enhanced surveillance, manpower and infrastructure can “fight any possible COVID-19 waves in the future” not only reeks of overconfidence but is also dangerous. Viruses continuously evolve and what shade and characteristics the next variant will have and the impact it will have even in a population which has a large proportion of people fully vaccinated and/or naturally infected is unknown. Such bravado a year ago before the deadly second wave driven by the Delta variant resulted in a large-scale loss of lives and badly impacted the livelihood of millions in India. As long as the virus is in wide circulation in a large percentage of the world population, India should not lower its guard even when all restrictions to free movement are removed and economic activity is fully restored.