Anyone travelling through India’s northern states would be forgiven for thinking that the pandemic is over.
In the smaller towns, few people wear masks, fewer practise social distancing and Covid-19 rarely comes up in conversations. The only visible reminders are the billboards thanking politicians for tackling the virus. In the national capital, Delhi, most people are masked because of rules that demand it. But the city is once again in full swing, from crowded markets and busy restaurants to packed social calendars.
Low case counts (India has been recording around 10,000 new Covid cases daily) and the ongoing vaccination drive (nearly 80% of the 940 million eligible adults have received at least one dose so far) seem to have dimmed the memory of a brutal second wave in April and May this year.
ut the fact is the pandemic is not over. Cases are rising in Europe again, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to say it is “very worried”.
The emergence of a new variant, initially named B.1.1.529 and now Omicron by the WHO, is another cause for concern – although more research is needed to determine how dangerous it is. So the inevitable question to ask is: Will there be a third wave of Covid-19 ? And if so, is India prepared?
It’s likely India may not see a major rise in cases because studies suggest the majority of Indians have antibodies against the currently predominant Delta variant, and four-fifth of all adults have also been partially vaccinated.
But that isn’t enough cause for cheer.
The recent reports of a dengue virus outbreak – an endemic disease – in many Indian states is proof that the health system is still not equipped to detect and tackle emerging and re-emerging diseases.
And therein lies the problem. When the pandemic arrived in early 2020, the hope was that the stringent lockdown would afford an opportunity for the government to strengthen an understaffed and under-funded public health system.
Top political leaders and senior health policy makers repeatedly said that was the objective of the first lockdown. But a year on, a second Covid wave devastated India as hospitals ran out of beds, medicines and oxygen. Medical bills soared in a fragmented market with spotty insurance coverage, and people borrowed money or sold family assets to pay up. Soon after, in July 2021, the government did announce a second Covid-19 package to strengthen health infrastructure. But some argued that the amount set aside was too little, and there was no visible urgency to put it to action.