The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has brought sanity to travel guidelines by abolishing the need for compulsory RT-PCR tests for passengers travelling by rail, road or air. This effectively puts an end to the excessive caution adopted by some states like Karnataka which were mandating RT-PCR tests even for fully vaccinated travellers coming from high-infection zones like Kerala and Maharashtra.
This is not to say that Karnataka’s guidelines were wrong or unscientific. In fact, the fact that you are vaccinated only means that you have some degree of protection; it is no guarantee that you are not carrying a viral load without knowing it and capable of infecting others who don’t have the same immunity. So, if you want to be overly cautious about travellers coming from high-risk zones, it does make some sense to additionally demand RT-PCR negative tests with 72-hour validity.
But here’s the reality: despite the moderate risks of a third wave, which could be beginning even as we speak with Kerala as the spearhead (it has reported over two-thirds of the daily additions over the last two days), there is good reason to put livelihoods over lives, and move away from over-caution.
Covid is not going away anytime soon, but there is now a growing need to abandon a morbid fear of infections even if cases start rising again. We can learn to live with the virus, with infections being nothing more than a temporary nuisance for the vast majority of the people.
As of today (27 August, 11 am), with 476 million adults having received at least one dose of the vaccine and 138 million with two doses, 73 per cent and 15 per cent of the eligible population (ie, those in the 18-plus category) have been covered by some form of immunity. By December, it is a fair bet that half the population would have been fully vaccinated, and the rest would have received at least one dose. That is, only the vaccine-hesitant parts of the population, or those located in the remote areas, will remain without any form of protection.
Factor in the sero-survey results of June, which said 67 per cent of the population has already been exposed to the virus, and it is quite clear that between vaccines and in-built immunities we are no longer as vulnerable as we were at the start of this year.
A top epidemiologist, Jayaprakash Muliyil, has been quoted by The Times of India as saying that the possibility of a third wave is a stretch of someone’s imagination. “For a wave to be created, the virus must have enough people who are susceptible. And those who are susceptible don’t live together in a corner.”
The World Health Organization’s Chief Scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, says that India may have entered the “endemic” stage of the pandemic, where there may be low or moderate levels of transmission, but nothing to overwhelm the system’s ability to cope. The endemic stage implies that the population is learning to live with the virus.
This does not imply that governments must not be prepared in terms of keeping their healthcare systems battle-ready at all times in order to cope with any unexpected surge, or by the creation of a new vaccine-evading virus mutant, but the case for excessive caution is evaporating by the day. At worst, we may see limited geographical outbreaks that can be quickly brought under control through local restraints.
The fear of Covid is now over-blown, and we should not allow it to colour our responses to it. Curbs on economic activities must steadily be lifted, but individual caution (masking, safe distancing when possible, working in well-ventilated rooms, and washing hands frequently) is very much warranted.
If nothing else, the virus could, with some luck, become no worse than flu. The virus is probably making us stronger now.
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