In January, the Union government told the Rajya Sabha that the pandemic was on the decline in the country. But, by the second week of March, the scenario changed and has continued to get worse. On April 5, India recorded more than one lakh fresh Covid-19 cases, its highest one-day spike ever.
Despite the emergence of mutant strains, experts say the surge is mainly because of crowded gatherings and events, free movement of people post unlocking and a lack of Covid-appropriate behaviour.
As the second wave grips the country, Maharashtra has been worst affected, so far. It recorded an unprecedented five lakh plus cases in less than a month. The 57,000 plus cases it recorded on April 4 was an all-time high 24-hour spike; the state’s caseload stood at over 30 lakh. Mumbai, which accounted for around 4.5 lakh of the cases, also hit an all-time high 24-hour spike (11,163) on April 4. To tackle the surge, the state government announced a night curfew and weekend lockdown till April 30.
The spike in cases first became evident in February in western Maharashtra’s Pune and Satara districts and Vidarbha’s Yavatmal and Amravati districts. It subsequently led to the imposition of lockdowns and stringent restrictions. The rural areas of Amravati reported a higher number of cases than the urban areas, continuously for a week. This is consistent with the emerging trend of infections in the second wave.
“The second wave of Covid-19 is peculiar in many ways and in Maharashtra itself, which is badly hit for the second time, various trends emerge,” said Dr Shahsank Joshi, a member of the state’s Covid-19 task force. “The first wave was limited to the urban areas and metropolises to a large extent. This wave has spread its tentacles to the remotest areas and has affected entire families and households. In Maharashtra, for instance, it started in Vidarbha and Marathwada where the people were not exposed to the virus earlier.”
He added that the rise in cases was in tandem with a lack of Covid-appropriate behaviour and zero masking. “Because these people were never exposed to the virus, they thought it had disappeared,” said Joshi. “Then, gram panchayat and local body elections happened in Maharashtra and Kerala, and because of non-compliance to Covid rules, we started getting clusters of hotspots.” On March 17, the Central government, too, highlighted that the virus was moving “closer to rural areas” alongside its spread in tier-2 and tier-3 cities.
On March 24, the health ministry said that a new and highly infectious strain, which may render vaccines less effective, was detected in India. However, this possibility has been ruled out by most, saying that the new double mutant variant (L452R+E484Q) has so far not been found in numbers sufficient enough to establish a link with the surge in cases. “At this stage, it is difficult to say that it is the causal factor,” said Dr Raghini Ranganathan, public health official and epidemiologist. “Any correlation between the emergence of the variant and the increase in spread and fatalities will be coincidental, at present. Unlike the UK variant (it was established that the transmissibility had increased and case fatality rate remained low), we do not have proof for the Indian variant. The Brits went into fresh lockdown once that variant was discovered. But, mutations happen all the time and the 71 variants of the novel coronavirus that have been identified so far behave ‘uniquely’.”
In March, more than a dozen states, including Punjab, Karnataka, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, and the Union territories recorded their highest numbers in the second wave and accounted for close to 78 per cent of all fresh Covid-19 cases in the country. Delhi, too, saw a sharp spike in cases in the last few weeks.
Punjab and Chandigarh are a cause for concern as cases are rising alarmingly. These regions have been very slow with the vaccinations. In fact, the Centre dispatched a team to Chandigarh to help guide local officials on managing the surge. The team comprises experts from Ram Manohar Lohia and Safdarjung hospitals in Delhi and is led by Vijoy Kumar Singh, additional secretary and financial adviser, ministry of textiles.
The seriousness of the situation can be further understood by looking at the R-naught (R0) of India. R0 is a value which calculates the average spreadability of an infectious disease. And experts say that India’s current R0—close to 1.13—is “extremely worrisome”.
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