INDIA 20/20

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The third wave is a tsunami

Omicron ensures that we rollercoaster into yet another pandemic year

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On January 5, India’s smallest state -- where I live -- registered over 1,000 new Covid-19 infections for the first time in almost six months. 

For some perspective on what that figure means for Goa’s tiny population of under two million, it’s useful to note that is roughly the same number of cases as China tallied in the entire preceding week. 

The scale of those numbers is undeniable. They confirm that we have entered the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic, just a few ticks behind the explosion of Omicron in the Western countries. Earlier this week, we saw the US, Britain, and France report record case numbers, as the new variant breaks through all existing vaccine defences. Now it is the turn of South Asia to face the same trial.

Besides the obviously ominous tidings in this rapidly developing new global scenario, there is also some surprisingly good news. Ongoing studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) confirm that most Omicron infections tend to stay in the upper respiratory tract rather than settling deeper in the lungs, which has resulted in a growing “decoupling” between dramatically higher infection rates and the percentage of the people who are severely affected.

Nonetheless, the WHO’s chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan cautions against any misplaced optimism. On Jan 4, she tweeted: “#Omicron is not the common cold! Health systems can get overwhelmed. Important to have systems to test, advise, and monitor large number of patients as the surge can be sudden and huge.”

That is precisely what appears to be underway in countries like the US, with inevitable implications for the rest of us. It turns out that Omicron doesn’t just evade vaccines, it also resists the best treatments that have been developed over the past 23 months. Even though much smaller percentages of those who get it become severely ill, those fractions still add up to huge numbers of people in our heavily populated part of the world.

Thus, we are now at another major crossroads, and the choices we make will indicate a great deal about the kind of societies that we have constructed. Do we turn the apparatus of the state to protect everyone to the greatest extent possible? Or is it our intention to persist with business as usual, and file away the haemorrhage of vulnerable lives as “necessary to keep the economy going?”

On this topic, the acerbic Serbian-American economist Branko Milanović made an excellent point on Twitter this week: “If China's [C]ovid death rates were the same as the death rate in the US, there would be 3.6 million deaths in China. If [it were] the same as in the UK, there would be 3.1 million deaths. Now, imagine the titles in the [New York Times] and [The Guardian].”

Driving the message home, Milanović added, “The simple truth is that the richest countries in the world, including the US that spends 17% of GDP on health, were just unwilling to save human lives [at] the cost of GDP. It is very simple: [M]oney mattered more than lives. Punto.”

Of course, it is not just the richest. South Asia is second to none in citing economic imperatives as the rationale for pandemic-times public health risks. It is why Goa stayed open throughout the “high season” past Christmas and the New Year, despite uncontrollably large crowds of tourists who triggered off the skyrocketing caseload. Even now, there are many who insist that there should never be another lockdown because “we have to learn to live with Covid.”

That sentiment is not just wrong, it is criminally callous. Most crucially, there is no scientific basis for it because many countries have done very well by choosing differently.

In this regard, the young academic Ravi Veriah Jacques (he is a 2021 Schwarzman Scholar and Stanford graduate) tweeted perceptively that, “It is simply false that ‘everyone will catch Omicron’." He pointed out that while “the likes of Britain and America have just given up on trying to contain the virus,” others have not.

Jacques -- who has survived Covid with lasting after-effects -- says “countries that rely solely on the vaccine won’t contain Omicron. Countries that combine the vaccine with track and trace, int’l quarantines, masks, and effective lockdowns will contain Omicron, thereby preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths and #LongCovid cases.”

Everything we know indicates that it really is that simple. 

We do know what works to keep Covid contained in our communities. The results of the measures listed by Jacques are working effectively in countries that possess the social wherewithal, and are blessed with mature leadership to make the right choices when it counts.

So why do those same strategies seem so impossible to implement in South Asia? It is something to ponder, and perhaps even correct, as we rollercoaster into yet another pandemic year.

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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