On 24 March 2020, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown to contain India’s covid outbreak, the virus had infected about 500 Indians and claimed 10 lives, by our official count. Almost a year later, we seem relatively inured to far worse numbers as we confront a second wave of the pandemic, the first having crested last September before it slid into a February trough. We logged nearly 47,000 new cases on Sunday, about half our peak figure for a single day. Yet, another national lockdown is not on the cards. For good reason. Extended till the end of May and then lifted in phases, last year’s was assessed to be the world’s harshest. It brought life to a standstill, jammed production, battered our economy, and left millions jobless. Given the unknowns back then, there may have been few other options. But, while there exists evidence of the snap action’s early efficacy, poor preparation in terms of food and shelter provisions inflicted untold misery on our multitudes. As desperation came to prevail over distancing, hordes scrambled from big cities to their villages, many of them in dense crowds. A re-run of all that is now unthinkable. Most importantly, the shutdown’s principal objective was to buy time for our healthcare system to equip itself for the crisis and respond, and this has largely been done.
Compared with 2020, this year’s contagion is accompanied by a lower mortality rate. Credit this to better informed and equipped medical attention, above all, even if a role is played by wider antibody prevalence. Though virus variants are being studied for signs of weakening virulence, conclusive data on this evades us. Mutations might multiply; at least two are already seen to enable faster covid transmission. In Maharashtra, our worst-hit state, infections are growing faster than in the first wave. Overall, the danger may seem concentrated in a few states, but this in itself does not decrease India’s vulnerability. On current trends, if we fail to stem our rising caseload soon, even with a less scary death-to-infection ratio, we could end up with an eventual toll far in excess of the 160,000-odd citizens who have lost their lives to covid so far. Vaccination, the special weapon we now have in our arsenal against the disease, will not be able to achieve the coverage required—estimated at over two-thirds of everyone—over the next few months for herd immunity to keep the spiky bug at bay. Our jab administration is too slow and thinly spread. What we could do, however, is focus our efforts closely on flare-up zones.
Several states have resorted to localized lockdowns. To the extent that these help isolate hotspots and employ testing-and-tracing mechanisms without depriving anybody of essentials, such curbs are reasonable. But we must also deploy a new strategy of vaccine jabs micro- targeted at high covid-risk clusters. Immunity takes a couple of weeks to develop after a second shot. If our Aarogya Setu app works as promised, then even emerging hotspots could be identified from its database (in advance), an optimal schedule crunched out, and express jabs delivered to all adult residents of target localities. Such an exercise, done in the spirit of survival kits being air-dropped, should be zone rather than age-specific. There is much that we have learnt over the past year, be it socially, medically, operationally or administratively. Before covid’s second wave gets a chance to engulf us, all of it must converge quickly upon the task of securing lives and livelihoods.