On Saturday, India reported 165,307 cases of the coronavirus disease, the lowest since early April. The rate of fall of reported cases has been almost as sharp as the rate at which they rose through April, before peaking in early May. The numbers put this in context. India reported 81,413 cases of Covid-19 on April 1. By April 11, this climbed to 170,100; by April 15, 216,913. On May 5, the country reported 412,783 cases. The fall has come despite at least one potentially more infectious variant being responsible for some of the surge in cases.
The sharpness of the peak of India’s second wave has come as a lifeline for the country’s overwhelmed health care system, but, in general, such abrupt waves suggest extraneous factors at play — with the threat of a flare-up in infections once these factors are removed. The positive way of looking at this, of course, would be that these factors have worked. In the case of India’s second wave, there has been mainly one factor — and it has worked spectacularly.
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The factor is the lockdown, or rather, the lockdowns imposed by most states and Union territories across the country. With governments as well as citizens wary about the term — the 68-day-long national lockdown between March 25 and May 31 last year roiled lives and livelihoods, and took a huge toll on the economy — many states have been hesitant about using the term, but a lockdown by any other name works just as well in breaching the chain of infections. The main reason for the sharp fall in daily new cases is this.
It’s still not clear why cases continued to rise gradually through last year’s hard lockdown. Till March 25 last year, the first day of the lockdown, India had recorded only 657 cases of the coronavirus disease. On June 1, the first day after the nationwide lockdown was relaxed, this number was 198,220. Still, that was at a time — it seems so long ago — when most people in the country had not been exposed to the virus (sero-prevalence or antibody surveys now put the number as high as 50% in some parts of the country), when the disease was still largely an urban phenomenon, and when there was no vaccine (even on the horizon).
Today, India has three vaccines.
Till April 1, 49.2 million Indians had received just one dose of the vaccines and 9.5 million had been fully vaccinated. On April 11, these numbers were 78.5 million and 13 million; on April 15, 87.4 million and 14.8 million, and on May 5, 99.4 million and 31.5 million. On Saturday (May 29), these numbers were 123 million and 44.4 million. The size of the population currently eligible for vaccines is 940 million, which means around 18% of the eligible population has some form of protection against the virus. I’ve written previously that 40% plus non pharmaceutical interventions (masks, social distancing, a complete ban on large events, irrespective of whether they are social, cultural, or religious) will actually work almost as well as vaccine-proffered herd immunity (which is actually the only desirable kind of herd immunity), although the results will be very clear even at 25%.
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Slow as India’s vaccine drive has been, it is possible that at least some of the fall in cases is the result of vaccinations. If that’s the case, it’s all the more reason for the country to accelerate its vaccine drive, with an eye on that 40% number — around 375 million people who have received at least one dose of the vaccine. At that level, with non pharmaceutical interventions in place (it’s the reason Hindustan Times has repeatedly called for Class 12 board exams to be scrapped), and with the vaccinations gathering even more momentum as supplies increase (they are expected to, starting July or August), the country could very well aim at a return to normalcy.
Still, that’s several months away. With the second wave ebbing, many states and Union territories have started to partially relax lockdowns and ease restrictions on movement and activities this week. They would do well to remember how we got here.