India’s rising omicron wave brings a grim sense of déjà vu

Then, both men hit the campaign trail, often appearing
without masks in packed rallies of thousands.

“When it is our bread and butter at stake, they force
restrictions and lockdowns,” said Ajay Tiwari, a 41-year-old taxi driver in New
Delhi. “There are much bigger crowds at political rallies, but they don’t
impose any lockdown in those areas. It really pains us deep in the heart.”

As omicron fuels a rapid spread of new infections
through India’s major urban hubs, the country’s pandemic fatigue has been intensified
by a sense of déjà vu and the frustration of mixed signals.

It has been just a few months since the deadly delta
variant ravaged the country, when government leaders vastly underestimated its
threat and publicly flouted their own advice. The memories of overwhelmed
hospitals and funeral pyres working around the clock are still all too fresh

The metropolis of Mumbai on Wednesday reported more
than 15,000 new infections in 24 hours — the highest daily caseload since the
pandemic began, beating the city’s previous record of about 11,000 cases during
the second wave in the spring. In New Delhi, the number of daily infections
increased by nearly 100% overnight.

The sheer size of India’s population, at 1.4 billion,
has always kept experts wary about the prospects of a new coronavirus variant.
In few places around world was the toll of delta as stark as in India. The
country’s official figures show about 500,000 pandemic deaths — a number that
experts say vastly undercounts the real toll.

Omicron’s high transmissibility is such that cases are
multiplying at a dangerously rapid pace, and it appears to be ignoring India’s
main line of defence: a vaccination drive that has covered about half the
population. Initial studies show that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, a locally
manufactured version of which has been used for about 90% of India’s
vaccinations, does not protect against omicron infections, though it appears to
help reduce the severity of the illness.

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Sitabhra Sinha, a professor of physics and
computational biology at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai,
said his research into the reproduction rate of the virus — an indicator of how
fast it is spreading that is called the “R value” — in major cities like Delhi
and Mumbai shows “insanely high” numbers for cities that had built decent
immunity. Both had a large number of infections in the spring, and a majority
of their adult populations have been vaccinated.

“Given this high R value, one is looking at incredibly
large numbers unless something is done to stop the spread,” he said.

But officials appear to be latching onto the optimism
of the early indications from places like South Africa, where a fast spread of
the variant did not cause devastating damage, rather than drawing lessons from
the botched response to the delta wave in the spring that ravaged India.

Dr Anand Krishnan, a professor of epidemiology at the
All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, said India’s messaging of
the new variant as “a mild illness” has led to complacency.

“The health system has stopped being complacent. But
the population is complacent. People are not wearing masks or changing their
behaviour,” Krishnan said. “They think it is a mild illness, and whatever
restrictions are being imposed are seen more as a nuisance than necessary.”

Scientists say any optimism about omicron is premature
simply because of how many people the variant could infect.

“Even if it is a microscopic percentage who require
hospitalization,” Sinha said, “the fact is that the total population we’re
talking about is huge.”

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Although the percentage of newly infected people
turning to hospitals has been increasing in recent days, data from India’s
worst-hit cities — Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata — showed that only a small number
of COVID-designated beds were occupied so far. Data compiled by the Observer
Research Foundation showed that about 3% of the known active cases in Delhi and
about 12% in Mumbai have required hospitalization.

Dr J A Jayalal, until recently the president of the
Indian Medical Association, said what worried him was not hospital beds or
oxygen running out — capacity that Indian officials have been trying to expand
after the deadly shortfalls during the delta wave — but that the health system
might face an acute shortfall of health workers.

About 1,800 Indian doctors are known to have died from
COVID-19 since the pandemic began, Jayalal said. Health workers are struggling
with pandemic fatigue. Tens of thousands of doctors only recently called off a
strike protesting being overworked and a delay in recruiting new doctors.
Reports in local media suggest hundreds of doctors and medical workers have
tested positive in recent days.

“In our medical fraternity, a lot of positive cases
have been reported. That means they will not be available for work,” Jayalal
said. “The problem with mild infections is that they may not come to a major
hospital for admission, but they will still go to their family doctor or a
general practitioner,” putting those doctors at risk of infection, he added.

As with the delta wave, omicron is spreading in India
at a time of high public activity — busy holiday travel and large election
rallies across several states that are going to the polls in the coming months.

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Modi and his lieutenants have been holding large
rallies in Uttar Pradesh, the state of 200 million people run by a Modi protege
who is up for reelection.

Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi and a prominent
opposition leader, has also been a ubiquitous figure at rallies. He has been
trying to expand his small party in the several states that are up for
elections this year. Even as he put Delhi under restrictions, he continued
campaigning in those states.

A day after a large rally in the state of Uttarakhand
where Kejriwal appeared on stage without a mask, he had some bad news to share
on Twitter.

“I have tested positive for COVID,” he said. “Those
who came in touch with me in last few days, kindly isolate.”

Hours later, his party’s Facebook page put out new
instructions to residents of Delhi with a poster bearing Kejriwal’s picture.

“The war against corona continues,” it said. “WEEKEND
CURFEW announced in Delhi.”


© 2022 The New York Times Company

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