India is now consistently logging a six-figure addition in cases every day while daily deaths are also hovering over the 800-mark.
This alarming surge in numbers — much severe and rapid than encountered during the first wave — has baffled everyone. Especially when it appeared that the country had successfully brought the situation under control just a couple of months ago.
But what has led to this scary spike? Is it callousness by citizens? Are new and highly infectious variants at play? Did we open up too much too soon?
Here’s what the government and experts believe …
What Centre says
The Centre has given three main reasons behind the ongoing surge in numbers: Lack of adherence to Covid norms (wearing of masks and social distancing), pandemic fatigue and lack of effective implementation of containment measures at the field level.
During his interaction with chief ministers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had mentioned how people as well as governments have become casual in their fight against coronavirus owning to a long and ardous battle against the pandemic.
The government has repeatedly said that people are not following Covid-appropriate behaviour in public place, which could be a top reason for the surge.
This is, in large part, linked to pandemic fatigue as people feel demotivated about following recommended behaviours to protect themselves and others from the virus.
Experts weigh in
Experts too believe that lack of Covid-appropriate behaviour could be the primary culprit behind the surge.
Virologists Shahid Jameel and T Jacob John agree that not following Covid-19 protocol, including informing people they must continue with precautions even after being vaccinated, and a sluggish vaccination drive are responsible for the surge.
Speaking to PTI, Jameel said the interplay of mutants and vaccines over the next couple of months will also decide the future of Covid in India and the world.
“The intensity of the surge also suggests that there were a huge number of susceptible people after the first wave,” the director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University in Haryana told PTI.
The fact that people lowered the guard and didn’t follow Covid protocols after the first wave was over is “certainly one valid explanation” for the surge, Jameel said.
“Everything opening up to pre-Covid levels and behaviour that was no longer risk-averse exposed the susceptible population in a big way. A new factor is emerging mutants — both imported and homegrown,” the eminent virologist added.
John, professor of virology at Tamil Nadu’s Christian Medical College (CMC), concurred with Jameel, saying not following Covid-19 protocols is partly to blame for the new wave.
“Lowering of the guard was led by the central government and followed by all political parties, all religious groups, and the public at large. Schools and colleges were opened without vaccinating all staff. This explains partly the second wave,” John told PTI.
“Wherever infection was rising, stricter imposition of discipline should have been taken but with the elections ahead, no leader wanted that. Elections during pandemic had to be carefully planned,” the renowned virologist told PTI.
Dr Gauri Agarwal, Founder-Director, Genestrings Diagnostic Centre told ANI that violation of Covid norms is now rampant across the country.
“The primary reason for the rise in cases is a rampant violation of Covid protocols. From the end of last year, we have seen how people have been careless about following protocols and this rise in cases is no surprise.
‘Variants also to blame’
The scientist also agreed that variants are the other reason for the second wave, adding that it was too late for India to look for mutants.
“The two factors came together and we were leaderless in response at the critical time. The speed of spread in the second wave is twice as fast as in the first wave. Partly due to variants and partly lowering of the guard,” John explained.
Referring to a health ministry briefing on March 24, Jameel noted that the UK variants now show up in about 80 per cent of cases from Punjab.
“A new double mutant has emerged in India and is reported in 15-20 per cent of cases analysed from Maharashtra. If this percentage goes up further, it would be a clear indication of its role in the Maharashtra surge,” said the virologist.
Dr Aggarwal said an in-depth understanding of mutations is required.
“The other factor (behind surge) can be the various mutations of the virus, some of which may have been more transmissible than others. However, a more in-depth understanding of the mutant strains and their virulence is needed by conducting genome sequencing of more samples,” he said.
In India, variants first identified in the UK, South Africa and Brazil have been found.
The government has said it is hard to link the current surge to mutant strains detected in the country. saying that the relation between the two remains “speculative”.
In late March, the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) announced that a new variant had been identified in samples of saliva taken from people in Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab.
The genome sequencing carried out by Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG), a consortium of 10 labs in India, identified two important mutations in the variant dubbed as “double mutant”.
Explaining that the UK variant is known to be about 50 per cent more infectious, Jameel said one of the two mutations in the double mutant was also found in California, US, where it was associated with increased transmission.
The experts also discussed the country’s vaccination drive.
According to John, the government started the drive too late and no outcome goal of vaccination was defined.
“India started slow vaccine rollout in January third week, but it was first a token reward to healthcare workers who were vaccinated even when there was no need — and we wasted a lot of vaccines,” he said.
“Was advance purchase order given to vaccine companies to get production accelerated during last year itself before approvals were obtained? ” John asked.
Jameel said there was “poor communication” by officials to people who were vaccinated on how they must continue with precautions like masks and social distancing. Describing India’s Covid-19 situation as “curious”, Jameel said the country was on a falling curve of daily infections when vaccinations started in mid-January.
“For various reasons, those eligible, including healthcare and frontline workers, were hesitant to get vaccines. Those above 60 also did not show enough eagerness even though cases had started going up by early March.
“Now we are on a very fast rising curve with only 0.7 per cent Indians having received both doses and only about 5 per cent having received one dose. That is too low to make an impact,” he added.
Council for Healthcare and Pharma president Dr Gurpreet Sandhu told ANI that vaccine hestitancy needs to be addressed in India.
“Despite the best efforts of the authorities the ongoing pandemic has brought out some of the inequities in healthcare access that continue to plague our country. Meanwhile, vaccine hesitancy in several parts of the country needs to be addressed. So, there is a need to re-energize our efforts to spread the ‘good word’ on vaccines to every nook and corner of the country. This too would help in bringing about health equity in the country. With the vaccination drive underway, a certain amount of over-confidence and negligent behavior is in evidence,” he said.
However, India’s vaccination drive is slowly picking up pace as the country relaxed the age limit to 45 years last month.
The Union health ministry on Saturday said that India has become the fastest country to reach the 100 million vaccination-mark, achieving the milestone in just 85 days.
But the immunisation programme is still facing several challenges, such as shortage of doses in several badly-hit states and the issue of vaccine wastage.
(With inputs from PTI, ANI)