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That we must learn to ‘live with the virus’ is a no-brainer, especially after 28 months of the covid pandemic. Economies need to be coaxed back to recovery, businesses need to function as before and human beings forced into isolation need to get their social synapses buzzing again. But complacency can be costly, as we found out last year, when we ran blind into a vicious Delta wave. And all those who might have declared the outbreak’s endgame should take a look at its curve: it is rising again. The Omicron wave peaked in January, when India recorded around 347,000 new cases a day, though most infections were mild, our hospitals did not get overwhelmed, and it subsided quickly. By early March, our seven-day rolling average of daily infections had slid under 10,000. By mid-April, that count was below 1,000. A flat line at a low four-digit level week after week got fingers crossed that covid was finally turning endemic. While that hope was weakened by an uptick in the second week of June, it was dashed over the weekend by India’s seven-day average, which crept above 10,000 cases per day again—a sign for us to get back on alert. Weary as we are, this isn’t over yet.

A surge in infections has been reported from Kerala, Maharashtra, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. There is no evident reason for panic, so far, but it means that letting down our guard will only extend how long it takes for the pandemic to end: that is, for us to reach a sustainably low and stable case count. Globally, while fresh daily cases are far below their last wave’s peak, they still number almost half a million. China’s recent upsurge left its economy reeling and biggest cities tormented, with its zero-covid policy seen as an example of what not to try, now that Sars-CoV-2 has evolved to become more catchy but less deadly. A world brought to its knees by a bug must pull itself together and minimize further scope for grief. Although the horror of it saw science rise to the occasion—vaccines were rolled out in record time, treatments adopted quickly and variants tracked—there is still some way to go. We know that the virus will not disappear. Its endemic existence among us would carry the risk of another freak mutation like Delta baring fangs horrid enough to create a health crisis. Our genome tracers took too long to spot that gene twist, and whether or not they’ve got their act up to speed, they cannot afford to let genomic surveillance slacken now. The elderly and immuno-compromised, after all, are vulnerable even to mild variants. There is another reason we must not underestimate the virus. We are still largely in the dark on long covid. By one estimate, about 40 million people in India are struggling with it. As it happens, studies on the prolonged effects of the virus on various vital organs are yet to help doctors take reliable lines of therapy.

So how can we put the pandemic in the past? There should be no let up in the scientific resources devoted to covid. But at the broad social level, we must not let precaution fatigue get the better of us. In many parts of India, ‘living with the virus’ is now a contact sport, played with reckless disregard for either mask mandates or distancing protocols. Booster jabs have fewer takers, state messaging has flagged and fatalism has seen a relapse. All this prolongs the problem. There is still an invisible killer on the loose and nobody can really be at ease till covid actually turns endemic.

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