Rational safety measures and scaled up vaccinations can rein in COVID-19
India’s aggressive second wave of coronavirus infections marked by over 1,50,000 cases a day and many deaths is clearly the result of irrational exuberance early in the new year. After prematurely assuming that COVID-19 was virtually over, governments made rash decisions to allow large religious gatherings and political campaigns with little regard for disease control. The lapse is now threatening a nascent economic recovery. Rather than view the crisis as a political setback, the government should focus on a mitigation strategy that will not hobble the economy, while stopping the wildfire spread of the virus. A key intervention would be to protect the labour force through a scaling up of vaccinations in industry and workplaces. Employers must also be encouraged to retain or opt for staggered working hours and work-from-home protocols. The national vaccination strategy, however, remains inscrutable and non-transparent, since more vaccines, including WHO-approved ones, remain unavailable to Indians for unspecified reasons. Allowing all proven vaccines to be offered in cities with suitable cold chain capacity at prices comparable to European or U.S. acquisitions — typically under $20 a dose for m-RNA vaccines — would be as much a decision on the economy as on public health, making more Covishield and Covaxin doses available to priority recipients. This cannot, of course, be a silver bullet, given the big population that remains to be covered, the fast pace of virus spread enabled in part by variants and younger age groups showing symptomatic disease. At present, the social vaccine — masking, healthy distancing and public etiquette — is vitally important, more so because the health system is not equipped to handle severe disease countrywide.
The scientific view of pandemic fatigue is that people see the opportunity cost of prolonged adherence to demanding restrictions as too high, considering the value of things lost. That includes access to education, meeting with loved ones, performing life rituals, and the conflict of both work and home confined to the same space. This universal experience is made worse in India by deficits in housing, mobility options and good living conditions. It is important for the government, therefore, to come up with rational activity curbs, keep them stable and incentivise people, including through financial rewards. These initiatives can lower the perception of lost opportunities and compensate workers in the affected sectors such as the travel, food and hospitality industries. This road map can be reviewed when vaccines become widely available and cases decline, although a return to a carefree past is a long way off. Political communication on the state of the pandemic lacked a clear sense of purpose during festivals and poll campaigns. Now, the COVID-19 strategy can avert costly partial or full lockdowns only with public cooperation, and that calls for building credibility and trust.