Easing off: On coronavirus situation in India

India’s COVID-19 case and fatality rates have fallen from the peaks reached in September

As 2020 draws to a close, Indians will look forward to the new year with wariness and hope after suffering one of the worst years in history, health-wise (nearly 1,48,000 registered deaths due to COVID-19) and economically (loss of livelihoods). The pandemic continues to rage — daily infections and deaths are scaling fresh peaks in Europe, the U.S. is closing in on 20 million confirmed cases and 3.4 lakh deaths and in some countries in Latin America, cases have remained high and are rising. In contrast, while India still registers the highest number of daily infections and deaths in Asia, the daily rate has come down significantly to a seven day rolling average of less than 24,000 cases and 250 deaths between December 20-26, from the peak of close to a lakh and more than a 1,000 deaths a day in mid-September. These are much lower numbers compared to the U.S. and comparably fewer than those registered in the larger countries in Europe and Latin America. India still tests a middling number: 732 tests and 15.8 confirmed cases per million people, compared to the rest of the world. The testing numbers have fallen slightly in the past month, but the significant drop in recorded deaths suggests that, rather than experiencing a new peak in daily infections and deaths, India still remains in the “down phase” since the September peak. That the case and death curves are headed further south is a good sign for the health infrastructure.

While no other country barring the U.S. has reached or crossed the per day peak of nearly one lakh cases that India registered in September, the lower number of cases registered recently even as the country eased its physical distancing measures and travel restrictions and went through a festive season might come as a surprise. But as virologists Jacob John and M.S. Seshadri have argued, the peaking in September denoted the pandemic’s widespread nature in urban and semi-urban areas and was reflected even more apparently in the ICMR’s serosurveys. These serosurveys revealed a much higher number of undetected infections, many of them asymptomatic, before the September peak. As the virus ravaged the urban centres and spread to rural areas, the virologists estimated that nearly a third of the population had already been exposed, indicating that half of the “herd immunity” level required to end the spread had already been reached by mid-September. This explains why daily case and fatality rates stay low and also suggests that after India begins its vaccination drive, the epidemic should ease further and could become endemic. This does not lessen the dangers of local outbreaks and the complications of the spread of new variants from abroad. The standard safety measures — mask wearing, hand hygiene, absence of crowding and renewed testing and tracing — must remain.

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