Warning bells: On Omicron cases in India

India must ensure more availability of beds, medicines and vaccines to deal with Omicron

Updated - December 23, 2021 08:03 am IST

Published - December 23, 2021 12:02 am IST

India has reported over 200 cases of the highly infectious Omicron variant and given that there were no cases when the month began, this has put the Centre in a high state of alert. An unmistakable foreboding was writ large in a letter by the Union Health Secretary to the Chief Secretaries of States and Union Territories on Tuesday that has asked them to be prepared for the worst. It said that Omicron was at least “three times more transmissible” than the Delta variant , and therefore “greater foresight, data analysis, dynamic decision-making, strict and prompt containment action” were required at the local and district levels. It also underlined two specific parameters which States have to be vigilant about: a test positivity of 10% or more in the last week and bed occupancy crossing 40% or more on oxygen-supported or intensive care units. There were echoes in the letter of the days when India was under a complete lockdown — it exhorted district officials, when required, to impose night curfew, strictly regulate large gatherings, curtail numbers in marriages and funerals, and restrict numbers in offices, industries and public transport. It also directed pre-emptive action.

Maharashtra and Delhi have reported the highest number of cases of Omicron, followed by Telangana, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Kerala and Gujarat. India’s daily case count has ebbed and has remained well below 10,000 for most of the month — a first since May 2020; close to 90% of the adult population has been vaccinated with at least one dose. From the numbers alone, India is in a much better position than from last year or even as recently as this summer when the devastating second wave struck a body blow. However, the consternation in the Centre appears to derive from the experience of the last two years when waves in Europe and the United States were harbingers of havoc in India. While last year it appeared that vaccines would be the world’s passport out of the pandemic, it now seems that even a third dose is inadequate. India is overwhelmingly dependent on a single vaccine in spite of two being produced here; none of the mRNA vaccines is available. Drug regulators are yet to clear vaccines for children and booster doses partly out of concerns that this may trigger a shortfall. A good 40% of adults — and they are still the most vulnerable to severe disease — are yet to be fully vaccinated. Crowds and public mingling are at pre-pandemic levels and the coming months will see huge crowds as part of election campaigning. The true impact of Omicron will be known over the next few weeks but the Centre must continue to strike the gong of caution while facilitating greater availability of essential medicines, hospital beds and vaccines.

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