Editorial

Pandemic peak: On Finance Ministry's report

The Finance Ministry in a report said that while the pandemic was far from over in India, the country may be “past its peak” of the COVID-19 case load. It premised this on a declining case load from September 17-30 when the daily positive cases dipped from 90,000 to 83,000 a day. This, along with an increase in testing had led to a falling test-positivity (or the number of tests needed to find a positive case) and so was a sign that India ought to be ‘further freeing up its economy.’ The pandemic being past its peak in India is irrational optimism. Last week the chief of the Indian Council of Medical Research, while announcing the results of the second all-India serology survey, said only 7% of Indians had been exposed to the virus. The Health Minister too, referencing the same survey, said that India was “far from any sort of herd immunity.” The decline from 90,000 cases a day to around 75,000 for over a fortnight is certainly welcome but can be deceptive. In the United States, daily cases steadily plummeted from 70,000 in July to 24,000 in September, to ascend again to 50,000 this week. India’s test positivity is declining but not substantially. On September 23 it was 8.52% and as of October 4 had fallen to 8.29% — an improvement but not close to the World Health Organization-suggested safety barrier of less than 5%.

What further complicates projections based on ephemeral undulations in cases is that it does not take into account the dynamic nature of the virus itself. The early optimism that its spread may be contained by changes in the weather, behavioural modifications and imposing a sudden, stringent lockdown has been belied. If a complete shutdown could not stop it, it is hard to fathom how allowing public transport and religious congregations, permitting schools and educational institutions to restart, opening up malls in a season that is particularly conducive to viruses, will not catalyse the movement to a new peak. The so-called peak is a statistical artefact closely connected to the number of tests a country administers. If testing were to decline, more cases would be undetected, and conversely, an increase in tests could push this hypothetical point even further. Therefore, it is only after sufficient time has elapsed and in retrospect that a country’s peak can be inferred. India has been opening up the economy and this increases the average person’s exposure to the virus. Countries with much fewer cases have been far more cautious with opening. The lockdown had shown the disruption in the economy, and it is understandable if Finance Ministry officials seek a justification for opening up. But just as it would be surprising for epidemiologists to forecast GDP growth, officials ought not to be prognosticating outside their ken merely to revive economic sentiment, when several alternatives based on fact and reason exist.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 4:34:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/pandemic-peak-on-finance-ministrys-report/article32776225.ece

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