A sense of complacency has crept in the hearts and minds of people who otherwise have been wary of contracting COVID in the last three years. People are setting out for travel, arranging and participating in social functions and, in a nutshell going about their normal lives.
In the meanwhile, speculations are also rife about an impending fourth wave of COVID.
Chandrakant Lahariya, vaccines, public policy and health systems expert allays the fear being fanned by such speculation.
“Even if we go by the projections of next wave coming around June or July, merely two to five percent are susceptible. It is an intelligent guess that since more than 90% have been vaccinated and, more than 70% have developed antibodies after having Omicron so they are protected for the next six months.”
He said there is limited evidence to believe any dire predictions related to the next wave of COVID. According to him people in the country must now move towards normalcy.
He urged people to return to their normal lives and let their children resume studies in the school environment.
“Impact of COVID on the children has been negligible. UNESCO and UNICEF had also made appeals to all the member countries long ago to send their children to the schools, for the sheer reason that the children are at the lowest risk. But in India similar restrictions which were put on adults were imposed on children too. Scientific and epidemiological reasoning have not been taken to make decisions.”
He said there has been a lack of much needed societal dialogue on COVID. “Pandemic starts with a virus but ends with a socio-political consensus that there is not a pandemic anymore. The circulation of COVID cases is more in number at present than in December but people are now more comfortable and not worried about catching the disease,” he said.
Ambarish Satwik, senior consultant at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital too echoed the same sentiment of the need to live with the pandemic.
“India should not have a national program of two dozes of vaccination or booster shots. Only people suffering with hypertension and diabetes should be vaccinated as priority. Many a times, people themselves don’t know if they have an extreme form of diabetes or hypertension, so the government must run a program to screen people for these diseases and provide them vaccination.”
For people outside the bracket of co-morbidities, he said there is not much requirement for medicines for anti-viral illness. “20% of our population usually suffer from illness like pneumonia for which you don’t need much treatment. Omicron was like that. In cases where symptoms last for three to four weeks are fine and normal, though we are yet to fathom the reasons for symptoms prolonging in some cases.”
As Vibha Varshney, senior journalist puts it, “COVID is now endemic. It has not come to an end. Its mutation will continue to happen.”
Vipin M Vashishtha, director of Fellow of Indian Academy of Paediatrics (FIAP) said, “Pandemic and its variants have been happening for a number of reasons such as climate change, growing urbanization, new emerging pathogens like the Nipah virus etc. 75% of emerging diseases in humans are of animal origin and the cause of which could vary from human animal conflict to merging of animal habitats with human localities.”
According to Varshney, as the pandemic is a new reality for mankind, the Centre and state governments must invest in bringing about a robust healthcare system to facilitate medical treatment for everyone and come up with new technologies in vaccine diagnosis and other related fields and, provide a strong governance to curtail the reach of virulent disease.
There is a section of experts who have begun to tell people to start living their normal lives vis a vis COVID. Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan, founder and director at Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy in USA said, “COVID is a normal respiratory pathogen which became pandemic in our living memory. Despite lockdown, COVID spread. Lockdown was imposed more so because India suffered from absence of health care.”
He said, a small section of 10 % turned out to be super spreaders for almost 60% of the population, from venues like schools, hospitals or events like sports match etc.
The readers also know the role election rallies or large religious gatherings in different states played in being super spreaders.
Laxminarayan also mentioned in an article that “The number of COVID-19 deaths is likely four times the official figure, reaching upward of roughly 1.2 million—by far the highest total in the world. India had many disadvantages going into the pandemic. It has what can at best be described as a weak health system because of decades of under-investment.
K. Srinath Reddy, president, Public Health Foundation of India talked about structural problems in the health sector,
“Indian health system was quite challenged, whereby vulnerable sections like the poor and nearly poor felt the financial burden while spending on healthcare and, most even could not seek care for paucity of finances.”
“We neglected primary health care system for decades. Urban health care remains notional and rudimentary. Connect between primary, second and tertiary health care is bleak. Fragmentation of efforts in the states and centre was also noticeable,” he said.
He also expressed concern over the capacity of our regulatory agencies in certifying vaccines for COVID, which found difficulty in gaining acceptance worldwide.
India cannot afford to remain lackadaisical anymore and has to learn its lessons urgently. “We need reserve capacity for medical supplies like drugs and vaccines and procurement resources. We also need adequate and multi-layered human resources and infrastructure in place,” he said.
There are a number of ambitious health missions run by the states and the Centre. Reddy is of the opinion that these missions must be effectively implemented along with home-based care systems and a government controlled primary health care system.
“Upscaling of our primary human resources such as ASHA and anganwadi workers is critical. Their numbers need to be doubled. Similarly, we should strengthen our medical colleges and hospitals and their distribution across the country.”
Seema Sharma is a Chandigarh based freelance journalist who writes about the environment, climate change, human rights and gender issues. She tweets at seema_ env