With over 2.76 crore total recorded cases, 3.2 lakh fatalities and a daily caseload verging on 1.86 lakh (as on Friday), it would be fair to say that it might be a while before the second wave of the pandemic shows signs of ebbing. A three-member panel of scientists set up by the Centre had informed two weeks ago that it might take until July for the second wave to subside. More tellingly, the scientists have also warned us that a third wave can be expected in six to eight months.
Not that the revelation was any surprise. Earlier this month, the Principal Scientific Adviser to the government, K Vijay Raghavan had said that the recurring mutations make the possibility of a third wave inevitable. However, Raghavan had clarified subsequently that if effective containment strategies are employed in a city, district, and state-wide level, the third wave could be prevented. These remarks are a throwback to the time when the first wave of the pandemic had hit India, and global health experts had warned that true to its nature, the pandemic would hit developing nations in waves – owing to geographic and population concerns as well as the expected delay in vaccinations, which would take several cycles before becoming accessible and affordable.
The quandary here is that delay in vaccinations could also bring up the risk of reinfection among fully vaccinated individuals. As per the results of a recent sero survey conducted by the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), neutralising antibodies dipped sharply after a gap of five-six months, which makes people vulnerable to reinfections.
The government’s National COVID-19 Supermodel Committee is relying on mathematical models such as the SUTRA (Susceptible, Undetected, Tested (Positive) and Removed Approach) model to ascertain when the second wave would peak in specific states. As per the model, Tamil Nadu is said to witness its peak between May 29 and 31. The state had breached the 2 million mark, in terms of total COVID caseload on Friday. The spread, which was limited to major cities during the first wave, has now extended to small towns and rural India, which are rendered vulnerable owing to the absence of the necessary healthcare framework.
A cause of concern is that a higher number of people have been infected in the second wave as compared to the first wave, with a positivity rate that is four times as much as the first wave. The fact that it took India more than 10 months to hit the 1 cr mark in total caseloads in the first wave, and that it took just about four months to add the next one crore shows precisely the kind of contagion levels we are staring at. As per the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent health research centre based out of the University of Washington and based on the current toll, the number of COVID deaths in India could hit 6.65 lakh cases by August.
The Central and State governments have a huge task ahead of them. There is a need to beef up the existing healthcare infrastructure in India. A centralised nodal agency to track essentials like distribution of oxygen cylinders and life-saving drugs and vaccines must be maintained by the Centre. The instances about foreign aid material languishing at sea-ports and airports should not be a recurring phenomenon. There is also a shortage of healthcare staffers pan-India. Unless the government puts together a cohesive action plan that accounts for these realities, India might be in for consecutive waves, from which recovery might be a far-fetched dream.