Next week is an important one for India in its fight against the coronavirus disease. There are clear signs of a second wave — there have been, for some time — but the week starting November 30 will decide how rapidly this gathers momentum. For, this is when we will know whether the crowded markets seen just ahead of Diwali (November 14), and the Diwali celebrations themselves — they were muted this year, but there were some gatherings and family get-togethers, and some people did travel to be with their families — have resulted in a spike in cases. If there is one, it will actually start showing up in the numbers by the end of this week.
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That’s because anecdotal evidence — from Labour Day weekend in the US to crowding in a vegetable market in Chennai in May — suggests that cases peak two weeks after such events. And that’s because science suggests that superspreaders and also superspreader events play an important role in the transmission of the disease.
If there’s any chance at all that India will dodge this spike, it comes from the fact that Diwali came at a time that was either the end of the first wave, or the beginning of the second in India. It is possible, and also probable that the country’s second wave will, much like the first, gather momentum slowly, rather than being turbocharged right at its beginning by a sharp rise in case numbers.
In this, India is fortunate.
This week, the US celebrates one of its biggest holidays, Thanksgiving (on November 26) — one that usually sees a lot of people traveling to be with their families. In each of the past two weeks, the country, now seeing its third wave of the coronavirus disease, has added at least a million cases. And although the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people avoid travelling, over the weekend, US airports saw their busiest period since March, with three million people passing through them, according to data from the Transport Security Administration. That’s still around 40% lower than the number of people who travelled by air ahead of Thanksgiving last year, but media reports suggest that many people believe that travelling to be with family on Thanksgiving is worth the risk of contracting Covid-19, and also that there is a surge in travel. That’s bad news for a country that is doing around 175,000 cases a day on average, where cases are high and rising in almost every state, and where hospitals are being overwhelmed by a growing number of hospitalisations. Experts fear that a Thanksgiving spike could push several states and their public health systems over the edge.
It isn’t clear why the nature of waves across countries is as different as it is — the second wave seems to have peaked in much of Europe, which would mean that both waves in most European countries have lasted for less time than corresponding waves in the US (and also India).
India’s first wave lasted for months, gathering momentum slowly, peaking in mid-September, and then falling. Geographical and population size could explain this — it is one thing in common to both India and the US, and also Brazil (it has seen the third highest number of cases), which is also seeing a second wave, although that country’s numbers are far too patchy to be taken seriously.
In the US and elsewhere, the fact that four vaccines have now shown high efficacy in protecting people from Covid-19 could well be encouraging people to take risks they otherwise would not — the New York Times reported, citing data from a travel search engine, that travel bookings increased after Pfizer/BioNTech’s announcement in early November that their vaccine was effective in protecting people from the coronavirus disease.
This behaviour, stemming from the belief that the worst is over— it doesn’t have a name yet, but I am sure one will be coined soon — is just as bad as Covid- or pandemic-fatigue.
Sure, at one level, the success of four vaccines has changed everything.
Yet, at another, it has changed nothing.