Omicron Isn't Going To Spare Us; It Will Be Tamed By Rising Immunity, Not Movement Curbs
The only real solution to the problem of Covid and its endless mutations seems to be the building of immunity in the population.
This implies that defeating Covid is about improving health and healthcare facilities, not curbs and restrictions.
The headlines relating to Covid-19 are beginning to turn scary once more. "National covid count soars 44% to 13,155 in a day, doubles at record pace”, screams a Times of India headline in Mumbai. “Covid cases surge globally, raising quarantine fears”, frets one business daily. “50% Omicron cases were double-jabbed…”, notes another, thus make us worry twice over about whether vaccination is any good at all.
Vaccines apparently cannot quite stop Covid in its tracks. New Covid cases in the US are heading towards 500,000 daily, something which even India did not see during the second and deadlier Delta wave earlier this year.
The worst response to this growing sense of panic over Covid is the urge to “do something”. As media adds to the hysteria, worried state governments are already imposing curbs, starting with night curfews and bans on gatherings in public spaces, including restaurants and malls.
This is how we repeatedly get derailed in our fight against Covid. First, the numbers look manageable and governments assure us that there is nothing to worry about; then there is a rapid spike, and the media starts looking at scarier scenarios, to which doctors add their bit. Then politicians jump in blaming each other for the spike and being callous about public health. Then governments “do something” to show that they care, and that achieves nothing.
Let’s first start with some home-truths that all sensible epidemiologists and data crunchers know.
First, as experience with the first two waves showed, the sharper the spike, the sharper the decline in infections. This implies that if we try to curb the infections artificially – that is beyond enforcing masking and restricting large gatherings – the wave will take longer to ebb. And vice-versa. This does not imply that either approach is wrong, but it does mean that the severity of the curbs should be dictated by the healthcare system’s ability to handle serious infections that require hospitalisation or intensive care units. If the healthcare system is able to cope, the curbs should not be severe. This is the lesson we learnt from Kerala and Maharashtra, where the Delta wave was prolonged, but the healthcare systems were able to cope.
Second, the “do-something” bit about government policy should be in the area of aggressive ramping up of health facilities for handling more cases, and putting more public transport on the roads, not restricting people from going about their routines normally. Beyond masking and hand washing, people should not be told to stay indoors all the time. The risks indoors are as great as walking in public places that are not over-crowded.
Creating new vaccines to handle Omicron should be another priority, as should analysing more samples through gene sequencing. The chances are Omicron cases may be 10 times as much as is currently being reported, and so it is necessary to assume the worst and be prepared for it.
Third, the only real solution to the problem of Covid and its endless mutations seems to be the building of immunity in the population. In most cities, sero-positivity is over 90 per cent, and in the population as a whole, it is closer to 70-80 per cent. To repeat, this implies that defeating Covid is about improving health and healthcare facilities, not curbs and restrictions.
To the extent the media scare-mongering helps improve public behaviour on masking and safe-distancing, it is good. But beyond that, the scare is only doing damage. Politicians in a democracy, unfortunately, do not have the luxury of doing nothing, and so they must focus on doing something that is really useful in the long run. It is best if they focus on doing the right things in the face of political criticism rather than doing the wrong things and damaging livelihoods and incomes.
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