At the Kumbh in Haridwar
At the Kumbh in Haridwar

The latest surge of the coronavirus is proving to be far more challenging for the health authorities than the previous spreads. All having lulled themselves into believing that the worst was over, and that the virus’s back had finally been broken one year after it first began to menace humanity, the current crisis seems to have overwhelmed the health infrastructure.

Maharashtra is set to take very stringent steps to try and contain the spread. Delhi too is experiencing night-time curfew. So are neighbouring UP and Haryana. Punjab is among one of the worst affected states along with Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. The daily number of infections is rising fast; Delhi recorded over 13,000 in the previous 24 hours. Overall daily infections are hovering close to two lakhs. Besides, a good number of cases remain off the official radar because many people home quarantine themselves and also because local governments are not conducting as many tests as required.

Surprisingly, amidst the spurt there are disconcerting scenes of people flagrantly defying commonsensical precautions such as wearing of masks and maintaining physical distance of at least five feet and washing hands, etc. The most worrisome is the congregation of the semi-naked men at Haridwar without nary a care about the raging ‘mahamari’, bathing themselves in the Ganges in the name of religion and thus becoming potential spreaders of the virus upon return to their respective villages. The Kumbh gathering stands on its head the Prime Minister’s oft-quoted dictum, ‘jaan hai to jahaan hai’. For, not only the devotees in Haridwar risk their own lives they risk others’ as well.

The authorities claim that they have enforced a number of restrictions this year, but all these go for a toss when the huge crowds of semi-naked sadhus in close proximity to one another take a dip in the river. We do not think any religion prescripts them to behave in such a reckless manner.

Meanwhile, the run on the vaccines continues. The latest surge seems to have persuaded even those who were hitherto wavering about taking the jab to rush to the nearest government health care facility for actually taking them. It is in this context that the decision to grant licence to the Russian Sputnik vaccine ought to be most welcome. This should help augment the supply from the two indigenously manufactured vaccines to some extent. But given our 1.36 billion population, we need several more vaccines made by other pharma companies.

On Tuesday, it was heartening to hear that India was keen to license the vaccines made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. A senior government health official invited these companies to seek approval for use in the country. Vaccine nationalism in the face of a global pandemic was most unhelpful. Vaccines which have received approval in the US, UK, Japan, including those listed by the WHO, ought to be granted emergency-use approval for use in the country. It will help in bridging the huge gap in demand and supply from the existing two local manufacturers.

Meanwhile, the resurgence of the virus seems to have cast a huge shadow on the share markets. Foreign investors have been net sellers in the last couple of sessions while the rupee has suffered a free fall, crossing the psychologically significant 75 barrier on Monday despite the RBI stepping in to prop it up. Overall Forex reserves too have seen small contractions in recent weeks. Industrial output fell for the second month straight in February, at 3.6 per cent.

Worryingly, retail inflation increased to a four-month high at 5.52 per cent in March due to the rise in food inflation. It may be still in the RBI’s remit of the upper band of six per cent but it could cause the Central bank not to press ahead with the intended further reduction in the policy rates. Hopes of an early economic recovery have received a severe setback due to the sudden but sharp surge in the virus. We seem to be in for tough times.

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Free Press Journal