Even with declining infection rates, public activity needs to be guided by caution
The course of the coronavirus pandemic in the new year presents a picture of contrasts, with some rich countries running out of vaccines, experiencing a tide of new cases and deaths, and poorer countries going without access to vaccination, while India reports a case decline. Vaccine hesitancy may even be wasting precious vials in some States. Amidst suggestions that the worst is over, the Home Ministry has proposed further relaxations in the protocols for public activity from February, including occupancy levels in cinema theatres, holding of exhibitions and access to swimming pools. This will come as a relief to some of the outlying sectors that could not fully unlock so far, although, as the Ministry points out, all other activities have been permitted. The January 27 guidelines for Surveillance, Containment and Caution also create a window for further relaxation of international air travel, but the DGCA has decided to maintain status quo on scheduled flights till February end. Full-fledged inter-city rail services await a decision too. In an economy struggling with a demand contraction for goods and services, a graded opening is the prudent course, with strict enforcement of public health measures. It would be wrong to read the MHA’s unlock advisory, without taking cognisance of the protocols that must continue to be followed: use of face masks, healthy distancing, staggering of working hours, workplace sanitisation and firm action against spitting in public. These legal requirements, however, have been rendered moot in many instances by crowded election campaigns, agitations and gatherings. Many States are not even trying to persuade recalcitrant people in public.
India’s declining infections have prompted a further relaxation of activity curbs, but there is no cause to lower the vigil. Genetic mutations of the coronavirus in South Africa, the U.K. and Brazil pose a new worry, with implications for those who have avoided infection so far or have recovered after a difficult battle. Poor communication and lack of transparency on vaccine efficacy data have produced hesitancy, resulting in low uptake in some States. On the other hand, the virus variants have turned the spotlight on second generation vaccines that are expected to protect against them but will take time to arrive. Without ready pharmaceutical remedies, citizens and policymakers have to fall back on the default toolkit of safe behaviour. There will be considerable interest in new measures in Europe, where governments now require use of masks of N95 or FFP2 standards, to offer higher protection in public places and transport; Germany is to give these free to people over 60 and to vulnerable individuals. In India, even with a sizeable population exposed to the virus, as seropositivity surveys show, the spate of infections in Kerala and Maharashtra underscores the value of the precautionary principle on the road to universal vaccination.