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  • Ranganathan Vellor

The COVID Conundrum - Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

In about a week’s time, this Covid-19 virus would have been with us for about nine long months. We went through a series of hardships and several lock downs and restrictions throwing normal life out of gear. And today we see some signs of respite and in many towns, normalcy is returning. More importantly and worrying too is that people have no serious fear about this disease. How long is this going to last. Is this monster of a virus waiting stealthily to attack us again with a vengeance. Let us see

In India we recognised the seriousness of Covid-19 when our Prime Minister spoke to us on the 24th of March 2020 locking the entire nation of 138 Crore people (1.38 billion) for 21 days till the 14th of April 2020. Today we are on the 264th day since the lock down took effect on 25th March 20. On the 14th of April 20, we had a total of 10,815 reported cases. This comprised of 9,272 active cases + 1,189 cases of discharged patients + 354 reported dead due to this Virus. The country went for a 2nd lock down from the 15th April onwards. The 3rd lock down began on 4th May for another 14 days. On 17th May the count was a total of 90,927 cases with 53,946 active cases + 34,108 patients who were discharged and a total death of 2,873 people. In about a month between April and May 2020, the cases were ballooning to almost 9 times and the numbers were moving up in a geometrical manner. So, we entered Lock Down 4 on the 18th May till 31st May 2020. On that day – 31st May – the count was a whopping 182,143 cases consisting of 89,995 active patients + 86,983 discharged patients + a death of 5,165 people. That is, in about a fortnight, the numbers doubled. At the core of the problem as these lockdowns were imposed, was a very difficult choice that had to be made - whether to "flatten the curve" of the epidemic or whether to “flatten the curve” of the impending economic downturn. In hindsight, I feel that we in India took the right approach, although there are many who may have a different view altogether. By this time, in India, as the virus was spreading like wildfire, people, all, and sundry, had their own theories about this Virus and how to strike it down. Many advised grandma recipes, some seriously believed that the whole virus was bogus. And we saw hundreds of WhatsApp messages from various artistes! Many stays put wherever they were in March 2020 even now and continue to do so for the past about 9 months! We saw an exodus of migrant labour. Work from Home (it even has an acronym now – WFM), Zoom, WebEx, Team etc became a way of life and livelihood for some of the more fortunate ones. Millions lost their livelihoods. Many businesses shut shop. Students, young and old stopped attending their schools and colleges. Fear and uncertainty engulfed several millions. Office employees who had the luxury of monthly salaries literally came to the street to join the roadside vendors to earn their livelihood. Marriages were put off. People were afraid to visit hospitals even for regular treatments. Online shopping picked up. The corner shops or the Kiranas as we call them, proved their worth. On the whole ordinary life that we all took for granted turned upside down. From here on the country was witnessing severe restrictions and the bizarre behaviour of local administrations. We also saw the departure of many celebrities during this time, including our former President and the legendary musician S.P. Balasubramanian. To really understand the paranoia of the suffering public, look at the number of reported cases that were growing with no signs of taming the surging upward curve which peaked in September 2020.

Since October, the numbers started moving downwards and today as I write this article, there is a dramatic turnaround. We have an incremental figure of just 27,071 cases on 14th December compared to what we had on 13th December 2020 with the casualty at just 336 on an all-India basis. Now reported cases of the infection are lower in the last one month although we have seen crowds gathering for festivals, elections, farmers’ protests, with relaxations in restrictions.

The mood of this comforting flattening of the curve is seen in the attitude of the people now. They seem to have taken this pandemic in their stride and have started learning to live with it with lesser fear. They also notice that infected people are not rushing to hospitals and ventilators. There are many places in the crowded cities of India where you can see people moving about normally without even the basic precautions. Even the careful and paranoid folks seem to be a little relaxed and sometimes even negligent. Yet, largest number of cases are still prevalent in Kerala and Maharashtra whereas Bihar where the numbers were expected to rise dramatically after the elections and the Chhath festivals, have been reporting barely 500 to 600 cases a day. This virus is really playing a big circus with us. And its behaviour is not amenable to our logic and reasoning.

The arrival of the vaccine has also emboldened people; we don’t know when it will be available in India. Whether the vaccine will be effective or not, at least the perception that the virus can be tamed, is comforting to many and they are off their guard now. But the fear amongst certain people is still lingering as they keep hearing that many public figures are getting infected even now. Some die too. A common cold and associated sore throat and fever can still be a cause for worry as the symptoms triggered by the deadly virus are similar.

A UK grandmother has become the first person in the world to be given the Pfizer Covid-19 jab as part of a mass vaccination programme. Her name is Margaret Keenan, and she is 91 years old! This was the first non-trial dose of the vaccine given to her on the 8th December 20. In India, the Pfizer vaccine - The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine – has sought approval from the Drugs Controller General of India for the 'emergency use' authorisation of its coronavirus vaccine. We have also seen videos of how fragile this vaccine is and how cumbersome its administration. Whichever the vaccine, according to the Indian National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration of Covid-19 (NEGVAC's) recommendation, the distribution of COVID vaccine will start with the healthcare providers and workers, followed by frontline workers including police and armed forces, civil defence and disaster management volunteers and municipal workers. We have also read about the numerous unconfirmed news about the scare being spread about the hazards of this vaccine.

There is a school of thought that believes that speeding up the vaccine trials and their evaluation is fraught with dangers. No vaccine has ever been developed this fast. The TB vaccine took 28 years. The Ebola took about 6 years and AIDS does not have a vaccine yet, even though the disease has been around us for the past 40 years. But vaccine makers are facing tremendous public and political pressure to deliver a vaccine against this virus. These manufacturers are taking huge risks in these circumstances. India has not produced any original vaccine so far, except perhaps for cholera which was developed by Shantha Biotechnics in Hyderabad. India has the capability to mass produce any vaccine and certainly many global giants will explore that opportunity. But exploiting such an opportunity could be at the cost of their ability to continue to produce other vaccines that we need, and we already make them.

Now let us see what is happening around us. Sweden was (yes, I mean was) considered a role model for the world as they took a different track altogether. They did not lock down and continued to function normally with certain precautions. They were praised around the world for their stand. But they now realise that they have gone terribly wrong with that approach. Sweden’s Covid-19 hospital bed occupancy is rising faster than anywhere else in Europe. Their death per million is about 730 whereas the other neighbouring Scandinavian countries like Norway (72 per million), Denmark (162 per million) & Finland (82 per million) have substantially lower numbers.

The situation in Germany is worrying. Figures coming from Germany showed a daily increase of more than 20,000 cases of Covid-19. This was yesterday – Sunday the 13th December 20. Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, announced tighter restrictions including closing most shops from 16th December 20 to 10th January 2021; this is Christmas time. In other words, Germany is closing restaurants, bars and leisure centres. Germany’s death toll at 22,106 is comparatively lower than that of Italy’s at 64,036 which is marginally a bit higher than Britain’s figure of 64,026. South Korea, which has very low numbers, has also warned its people that the country is heading for more strict controls as the recent increase in new infections are alarming. United States is another story altogether. Confirmed death in the US is 297,765 with a death rate per million of 907 as on date.

Newspapers and online channels are now fed up with reporting on COVID-19 and therefore the focus is now more on political and other headlines. Daily statistics are still produced by the Ministry of Health which I religiously monitor and keep a record of every day. If normalcy is really returning to our society, then it is a matter of great relief. But is it?

As I was about to finish this article, a disturbing news came from Chennai today evening. The IIT- Madras Campus is under temporary lockdown after about 100 students and staff tested positive for COVID-19. Initial reports claim that the cause was overcrowding in the hostel mess. This is just about a week after the State Government permitted educational institutions to function from 7th December. What will happen if we open all the schools and other educational institutions and millions of students start moving about normally?

I am afraid that the COVID-19 is still hibernating and waiting for its next invasion. The downward trend in the numbers is comforting for sure. It is also true that our death rate per million is just 104 when you compare to the richest nations around the world with much lower populations where the rate is more than 1000 per million. It is also true that we are a young country with a population of 1380 million people. Our average age is 26.8 years. So far, we have done well. Yet, it is better to be cautious as this Virus without a body has a big ego. The moment you think you have won over the infections; this virus can pounce on us when we least expect it. Better to be safe than sorry. Keep that fear lingering in you. Wear the mask, keep that distance, avoid crowded places and wet your hands with the ubiquitous soap and the sanitizer.

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