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The poet Khalil Gibran once said that forgetfulness is a form of freedom. Too much of it, however, can prove very costly, as the covid pandemic has demonstrated. Around the world, over 238 million people have been infected with Sars-CoV-2, with more than 4.8 million lives lost to it so far. India’s official case count is nearing 34 million, cumulatively, with over 450,000 deaths recorded. Infections are at a low ebb right now. On Saturday, the country watched its 7-day rolling average of daily cases slip below the 20,000 level. The tone of celebration that accompanied reports of it seemed to stoke amnesia over the last time we slid under that mark. It was the last day of December and our covid curve beguiled many of us with the suggestion that as we rolled in a New Year, the great scare of 2020 would be discussed mostly in hindsight. As it turned out, this fond hope did not survive long. Our rolling-average of daily cases had gone exponential by mid-March, a spike that overwhelmed our healthcare capacity, to peak at over 390,000 on 8 May. If those dark days seem lost in the haze of time now, put it down to a mix of memory repression, festive easing and data comfort. Despite predictions, a third wave has not reared its head yet, we have wide vaccination coverage to count on (with over 950 million doses given), and the virus’s recent mutation path has begun to make this summer’s deadly Delta variant look like a freak occurrence. The big lesson of our covid graph, however, is that this pandemic defies extrapolation and wishful goodbyes.

As long as covid remains a threat, its slide in salience should worry us. A recent survey by online platform LocalCircles found laxity on safety protocols all around. Conducted among 65,000 respondents in 366 districts, the poll found only 6% classifying social-distancing norms around them as “good". Mask compliance fared only slightly better, at 13%. Granted, these are just perceptions. Also, that questions of public morality often get responses biased by their tone of reproach. But anecdotal evidence suggests that these dismal observations offer a fair representation of reality right now. Staying apart never went by the double-arm’s-length minimum to begin with, but the hustle-bustle of public squares and elbow jabs of crowds are back, even as masks turn less functional and more decorative. In many places, a release from covid anxiety on popular demand appears to have stirred a frenzy of motion. Market research data says sanitizer sales in August had fallen 40% since May. It’s all part of a palpable shift.

Social behaviour tends to be contagious in most settings. A neglect of precautions can cue others and spread out on the false assurance of safety in numbers. Festivities that draw people together in ritualized endeavours could be even more susceptible to that. Alarms need not be sounded, but sober voices of caution need to be amped up. All India Institute of Medical Sciences director Randeep Guleria has advised covid vigilance for the next 6-8 weeks. Note that several countries have come to regret taking a high vaccination ratio as a go-ahead for life as usual. After having achieved 80%-plus vaccine coverage, Singapore is currently suffering its worst outbreak. Earlier, Israel learnt that herd immunity could elude even a widely-jabbed population. We have suffered 18 months of covid. Another six of self-control would not be a big ask. While its known unknowns are fewer today, thankfully, here’s a known known we mustn’t forget: It won’t be over till it’s over.

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