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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Severe curbs may be the wrong medicine for the third wave

The ‘storm before the calm’ is one characterization of the surge in covid infections brought on by the Omicron variant. It is already quite a storm, although of a milder variety: Modelling by researchers at the University of Washington suggests 3 billion infections globally in the next couple of months, but with far fewer hospitalizations than during the Delta wave. Projections of this sort have been proven wrong during this pandemic, but the current speed of infections and increased transmissibility of the Omicron strain is indisputable.

The sense of calm that runs through analyses from scientists in the past few days and among medical personnel in South Africa is because hospitalizations and ICU admissions from South Africa’s Gauteng, where Omicron was first identified, to New Delhi have been markedly lower than during the Delta wave. Angelique Coetzee, who heads the South African Medical Association, this week told Karan Thapar in an interview for The Wire that in just a fortnight, the 7-day moving average of daily cases had halved in South Africa. Moreover, of the 114 patients that her own surgery unit had seen, only three were admitted to hospital and two of those were diabetic and obese. In an earlier interview, Dr. Coetzee recounted that many people she had seen at her clinic who tested positive for Omicron had cancelled their follow-up appointments because their symptoms were so mild. “By early February, we could be in a place where covid is ‘like the flu’," Bob Wachter, chair of medicine at the University of California told The New York Times this week.

In 2003, the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong and southern China followed a similar trajectory. Though SARS had a higher fatality rate than Sars-Cov-2, that pandemic quickly seemed to weaken as it spread beyond the initial clusters of hospitals and a densely-packed housing estate. I was based in Hong Kong at the time, reporting on the outbreak for the Financial Times, and was alarmed by doctors at hospitals that were the epicentre of the epidemic saying it could spread via touching an elevator button. (I briefly considered not taking the lift but the FT office was in a skyscraper that towered even over Hong Kong’s business district.) Eventually, the SARS outbreak ended in July 2003 due to many factors, such as frequent hand-washing, mask wearing and the high temperature and humidity of the region in summer months.

The past is not always prologue, especially in the mercurial twists and turns of the Sars-Cov-2 saga, but Omicron’s outbreak does feel like the beginning of the end of the pandemic. With the vast majority of residents in our major metropolises double vaccinated and with many having had covid in the horrendous second wave last year, India seems well positioned to weather it. Almost two-thirds of our population had been double vaccinated as of the end of 2021, and the numbers in major cities are well above the national average.

Paradoxically, state and city administrations in India are responding with something approaching the sledgehammer approach we have seen all too frequently. Bengaluru and Delhi will impose weekend curfews from Friday night, rather than limit the number of people who can gather in one place, which would be much more sensible and not deliver another body blow to service industries. Politicians continue to pose at vaccine camps of all places without wearing masks—which just about every expert believes we need to continue doing for the foreseeable future. Friends in Delhi who tested positive, albeit with very mild symptoms, had to argue with municipal officials and produce doctors’ certificates to avoid being marched off to hospitals. A friend’s niece who had come off a flight from Europe was forcibly hospitalized for ten days in Delhi at a cost of 10,000 a day and inexplicably denied an RT-PCR test for days. Meanwhile, the contrast between our government’s risk assessment for travellers from Europe and those from the US could not be starker. The former are tested as they get off planes and subject to home quarantines, while those from the US, where new infections crossed 1 million over a 24-hour period on Monday, saunter through. Perhaps India merely has different rules for superpowers.

As for boosters, all changed when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on 25 December that a “precautionary" dose would be available for those over 60 with co-morbidities. It’s still a puzzle why protein-based vaccines such as Covovax, which are, if anything, more effective in creating antibodies, were only approved a few days after Modi’s announcement and long after the World Health Organisation had approved Covovax.

Fresh off a plane from Hong Kong in January 2020, I did what I could to sound alarm bells over the approaching covid pandemic, interviewing a renowned epidemiologist a couple of weeks later. Now, I fear a kind of covid coverage-induced brain fog trying to understand our bureaucracy’s contradictory responses more than I worry about contracting Omicron. The good news from across the world is that the milder, gentler Omicron is triumphing in what The New York Times’ Carl Zimmer characterizes as a wrestling match-styled “cage-fight" with Delta. Omicron may even deliver herd immunity.

The government needs to ensure we wear masks religiously, meet outdoors where possible and stop large gatherings such as election rallies and large weddings. But let’s not choke India’s economic recovery with curfews and lockdowns.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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