As the masks slid down and vaccine lethargy set in, on cue came a reminder that we are always one variant away from chaos and vulnerability. It also hammered in the point that we have, to learn to live with Covid, at least for a while- quantifying the time span is immaterial, right now across the board it feels like the longest tunnel.
WHO says that Omicron is a ‘variant of concern’ carrying a ‘high risk’ and countries are scrambling to isolate nations in tandem with the irrefutable learnings from the pandemic that the world is not one big family. The new variant originated in Southern Africa- a part of the world that has been at the receiving end of vax inequity as rich nations monopolised and hoarded vaccines.
So, South Africa once again finds itself on the no-fly zone, even though its efficient genome sequencing is ensuring that information discovered flows out simultaneously for prompt containment measures to be taken globally. The news of the variant comes at a time when several countries in Europe were already imploding irrespective in the last several weeks, winter forcing indoor socialising without masks.
The doctor who alerted scientists to the Omicron variant has told NDTV that the infection is mild with most patients below the age of 30. But WHO points out that Omicron has 32 mutations on the spike protein, which makes it easy to not just enter the human cells but also evade antibodies produced in the body through vaccination. As nations scramble to get ahead of the spread, the only clarity is that as of now, there is more speculation than certainty.
Where does that leave India?
The second wave earlier this year took a heavy toll especially from those living in the National Capital Region. Our health care was overwhelmed, and chances are that its own recovery is still taking time. The labs were heaving to such an extent that it was a wait of agonising days to even get Covid results, getting treatment was another story.
Your best teacher, they say is your last mistake. Hopefully lessons have been learnt and pre-emptive actions are being taken without the wait for all answers. Some areas where we can have an immediate re-look are:
1. Several temporary hospitals were dismantled after the first wave, so that when the pandemic peaked the second time around, patients suffered. This time around there have been ample warnings especially when ICU beds, oxygen and essential medicines as we learnt are not a given.
In all this, it is always easy to neglect rural health care, but all systems have, to be a go even if we are fortuitously not hit hard. The ambulance sirens and families wailing, no one deserves to witness it again.
2. Only 31% of India’s population has been fully vaccinated while globally the clamouring for booster shots has got an immediacy with the new variant. It doesn’t take science to realise that at least frontline workers and those with comorbidities need to get these boosters immediately.
Those who can are getting jabbed again behind the red tape of the system, while another section of the population still battles vax hesitancy. Public awareness on a war footing is the only way to get citizens to centres including those who didn’t return for their second dose. Despite the murmurs of Omicron evading immunity, scientists are unanimous, it will not be life threatening for those vaccinated.
3. It has been almost two years of the pandemic and our children continue to soldier on- vulnerable and exposed. Covid-19 Task Force Chairman Dr N K Arora says a “comprehensive plan for immunising 44 crore children under the age of 18 is in place and the plan will be made public soon.”
It is not the first time he has said this and unfortunately, time is running out as children not only stare at a new variant but also make their way back to school. The urgency is to go beyond the policy framework and bring our children on par with their global peers who are getting vaccinated.
4. Contrary to the finger pointing, Omicron has not originated in South Africa, but the country’s scientists have done a stellar job of genome sequencing while in India the research got lost somewhere between test and trace with barely 1% of Covid positive samples sequenced.
Private labs which have the capacity to fill in were barred from doing so when the pandemic first hit, akin to private hospitals literally begging for permission to vax. Identifying the new variants in circulation through genome sequencing especially of travellers will allow India to avoid some mistakes it did when the Delta variant emerged.
5. The global aftermath of supply chain disruption by the pandemic has still not been erased. In India while recovery is optimistic, the hit to small businesses has been irrevocable and the delay with closures has led to an exponential rise in prices of essential commodities. If borders shut again, India may need a plan that is flexible, resilient and hybrid with focus on digital in the long term even if it is too early to forecast the impact of Omicron.
6. During the second wave, there were several super spreader events including election rallies. It is déjà vu as polls to key states including the politically charged Uttar Pradesh are around the corner with rallies gathering momentum. With worries of Omicron’s transmissibility, hundreds huddled together in close, proximity with masks missing may suit the politician but not an image that has already faced international scepticism once.
7. And finally, it isn’t over till the fat lady sings or maybe not even then. Complacency is our bête noire, panic can wait. Transmissibility is not always severity, but three rules of Covid appropriate behaviour continue, to be carved in stone. Mask up, vaccinate and social distance. As WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom said, “Many of us might think we are done with Covid-19. It’s not done with us.”