India is clearly in the grip of a second wave of coronavirus infections. It is poor consolation that much of Europe too is in the same state, though this only underlines that getting on top of the rogue genome is still a challenge for the scientific community. For, newer mutants emerge daily to torment populations as far apart as South Africa and UK, India and Brazil. A ‘double mutant variant’ of the coronavirus was detected in the country, according to Dr V K Paul, chairperson of the Covid-19 Taskforce. In Punjab, one of the most affected states in the second surge along with Maharashtra, it is the UK variant which seems to be rampant. He said it was important to break the chain of transmission. “Testing, quarantine, and containment will limit the spread of the virus.”
No doubt there is a clear link in the second spurt and the careless behaviour of the people who shun even basic precautions such as wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, etc. There were 53,476 new cases recorded on Wednesday. Some states are considering imposing fresh lockdowns and other restrictions. In view of the festival of Holi later this week, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in particular are considering limited-period lockdowns and night curfews. According to one report, the current surge might peak only in mid-April.
In the meanwhile, the government may have to step up the immunisation drive further. So far only about five crore people have been delivered first shots. This is too slow for a country of our size. Now that those above the age of 45 years too are to be inoculated beginning April 1, it is hoped the vaccination process will be free from obstacles. Supply of adequate number of vaccines was a key problem with the two major suppliers, Serum Institute of India, Pune, and Bharat Biotech, Hyderabad, unable to meet the huge demand. Consequently, the government has had to temporarily suspend the export of Covishield vaccines made by SII (while thus far Covaxin of Bharat Biotech has not been granted permission to export. Besides, its production is not enough even to meet the local demand).
The suspension of export has evoked resentment in the UK, Saudi Arabia and a few other countries to which prior commitments were made by the SII. But India cannot take chances, given that the people who have received the first jab would soon require the follow-up second one, though in the case of Covishield, the gap between the first and second has been increased from the earlier four to eight-twelve weeks, partially, we suspect, due to supply constraints. The suggestion that the two companies which have the licence to manufacture the vaccines should get these made on contract by other pharma firms in order to boost supplies needs to be considered. This is being done abroad under licence from the original makers of the vaccines.
Meanwhile, if the policymakers needed to be persuaded any further about the need to vastly step up the vaccine drive they ought to scan the newspaper headlines which are screaming out warnings about the havoc the fear of a second surge has caused in the markets and generally in the economy. For two days straight the share markets have suffered sharp fall due to the return of the pandemic. RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das was cautiously optimistic that further lockdowns would not be necessary, but the point to ponder is even before the economy could get back to normal it is being buffeted by fears of a second surge.
An analytical report last week found that the service sector was still to get back its mojo, given that key sectors such as restaurants, hotels and entertainment were far from getting back to the pre-coronavirus normal. Meanwhile, shouldn’t we set up an expert committee to examine the question why in the states in the grip of electioneering, with big public gatherings in full flow, the coronavirus dreads to go. Small wonder, we are a nation full of paradoxes and ironies.