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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Oh how the curve has steepened!
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Oh how the curve has steepened!

More than the numbers, the speed at which we are adding new infections is worrying

Photo: PTIPremium
Photo: PTI

Have you spent any waking moments wondering about the virus numbers in India? Consider that we’re back to finding the phrase “largest single-day increase" nearly every day in news reports about the pandemic. This is a memory from at least 6-8 months ago—a memory we probably thought would never turn real once more. Yet it has, and perhaps we should pay attention to what it all means. It seems alarming, but just how alarming?

First of all, remember that the country’s daily count of new covid cases generally increased for much of last year, so it’s not unprecedented that it’s increasing now as well. But some things have changed. On 11 September 2020, we had 97,654 new cases. Given the way that daily count had been trending upward for months before, on 11 September it seemed only a matter of a couple of days before we’d touch 100,000 new cases in a day. Now by itself, that is not a particularly significant number except for being a nice round one that makes for a good milestone. But just as we were set to zoom past the milestone, we didn’t. The daily numbers started flattening. They stayed in the high 90,000s for a few more days—reaching a high of 97,859 on 16 September—and then started dropping.

Here was a sure sign that we had reached some kind of Corona peak. Over the next two months, the downward trend in daily counts was just about as steep as the upward trend had been in the two months prior to the mid-September peak.

The decline slowed a bit after that, but didn’t stop. In fact, daily new case counts dropped steadily not just for two months, but for five months after that peak. On 8 February this year, India had just 8,957 new cases, the kind of number we had not seen since early June of 2020. It had been a long-enough decline, and 8,957 was low enough compared to September’s 97,859, to persuade us that we had licked this virus. With vaccines becoming available, with the rate of vaccinations picking up steam about the same time, it was easy, almost seductive, to believe that this pandemic would soon be a thing of the past in India.

How quickly things change.

But before we examine that, some observations about the numbers, past and present. Earlier in 2020, the growth rate in new covid cases had been disturbingly high. For example, on 19 April we had 1,580 new cases, which was an increase of 10.05% that day. That’s a sharp rise by any standard. Yet it was only to be expected, because the pool of infections was so much smaller than it would grow to—we had just 17,305 cases in India on 19 April. On 2 June, we had 8,821 new covid cases, but a total of 207,191 cases. So on a total case count that was then over ten times larger than it had been on 19 April, that was about a 4.4% increase.

Just over three months later still, on 16 September, we had a total of 5,115,893 cases, now over twenty times as many as in June. So the 97,859 new cases that day represented an increase of just 1.95%. What did this tell us? That even with the rise to nearly 100,000 new cases a day, even with that milestone in sight, the increase was slowing. It had slipped from 10.05% to 1.95% in about five months. This slowing suggested the peak that we reached in September.

We fell far indeed from that peak. When we had only 8,957 new cases on 8 February, we had a total case count of about 11 million; thus the increase that day was just 0.08%. The vision that brought us was seductive indeed: that the daily increase would soon drop to pretty much zero. 10.05% to 4.4% to 1.95% to 0.08%—yes, we could hope for zero. No wonder movie theatres opened, parks started filling ... after many months of precautions, a return to normal life looked imminent.

But that was just a dream, that was just a dream.

From that February day on, daily new case counts have been rising. By the end of that month, they were at 16,000. They crossed 50,000 by the third week of March. On 4 April, we shot past the 100,000 milestone that we had glimpsed but not touched last September, recording 103,793 new cases. We have since sped past the 150,000 milestone and with 185,248 cases on 13 April, it’s likely that by the time you read this, we will have left the 200,000 milestone mark behind.

Two things to note about this latest rise. First: on 13 April, we had nearly 14 million cases. The 185,248 new cases that day is, thus, only a 1.35% increase. “Only", because that’s small compared to the percentage increases we saw through most of last year. But second: compare it instead to the low of 8 February: it is almost 17 times greater than the 0.08% of that day.

To put that in some perspective: in 2020, it took about 50 days—late July to 16 September—for new case counts to double from 50,000 per day to almost 100,000. That translates to a 1.4% increase each day in those counts. This year, that same doubling (50,000 to 100,000) happened between 24 March and 4 April—11 days, or a 6.5% increase from day to day. That rate shows no sign of slowing, which is why new case counts will probably have doubled again, crossing the 200,000 milestone, when you read this.

Often with figures, there are different ways of looking at them, some of which can be reassuring. But with these most recent corona numbers in India, it’s hard to see a silver lining. In fact, almost more than the numbers themselves, it is the speed at which we are adding new corona infections that is the really worrying aspect of this latest surge in our battle with the virus.

When the battle began about a year ago, we heard plenty and often about the need to “flatten the curve". What that meant was not so much that we had to somehow reduce the number of infections. Instead, there was an almost tacit recognition that the brush with the virus would inevitably, inexorably, infect a large number of us; that there was no easy way to reduce that large number significantly. Even so, we could not allow the numbers to overwhelm our healthcare system. What did seem possible, then, was to slow down the increase in case numbers—that is, flatten the curve. This is why we have measures like masks and distancing, hand-washing and curfews, closed theatres and restricted use of public transport.

Follow such measures, the thinking went, and the number of people needing care at any given time will remain manageable. Besides, this way we buy time to ramp up our healthcare facilities.

To what extent we have been able to achieve these things, I’m not sure. Certainly we don’t hear much any more about flattening curves. Yet what’s frightening about the latest surge in covid infections is just how far from flat the curve really is. It was nearly flat in February. But since then, it’s like the side of a dizzyingly steep mountain.

It’s the mountain you and I are climbing together.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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Updated: 15 Apr 2021, 10:05 PM IST
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