Covid-19 announced itself to the world as 2020 dawned blitzing globally, unnerving health systems, nose diving economies and the beginning of a new normal. Of a first wave March last followed by a devastating second wave March-April. Barely, had life began to bounce back to pre-Covid days albeit all masked up, that the planet was inflicted by a new variant Omicron which surfaced in South Africa last month. After inflicting 63 countries, it reared its ugly head India with 48 cases and counting.  As we await the new variant to reveal our future, the only constant is the present.

Till date it has ensnared Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Chandigarh, Kerala, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Karnataka in its vicious tentacles. Warning Omicron to be highly contagious which would surpass Delta in its spreading speed the World Health Organization and a galaxy of medical experts recommend a booster dose to contain this tidal wave.

According to a recent study by UK’s Health Security Agency showed two standard doses of AstraZeneca /Oxford (Covishield) vaccine provided almost no protection against symptomatic Omicron when compared to the 69% protection they provide against Delta. But a booster dose of the vaccine exponentially increased the antibody level and efficacy to 71%-75%. This was echoed by many virologists and epidemiologists.

However, India continues to bury its head in the sand and vacillate. The Health Ministry told Lok Sabha the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 and the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) are considering scientific evidence related to justification for booster doses as there is yet no medical evidence to support the administering of these shots last week. Sic .

Discounting the theory, it is better to prevent than to wait for evidence as protection delayed can also mean protection denied, the Subject Expert Committee under the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation stated: Boosters cannot be recommended without clinical trials while reviewing Serum Institute of India application for the booster dose amidst rising demand for it. Resulting  in the company announcing a whopping 50% production cut because it has not got enough Government orders.

Questionably, if Omicron is thrice as transmissible as Delta why are we putting people at risk? Will this not ensure that many uninfected people may actually get infected? Don’t our BJP, Congress and Opposition  netas recognize that crowds, massive rallies and religious fervour will result in increased fatalities? Besides, there are a large number of vaccine doses lying unused whose shelf life would expire in some time to come why not administer to those who voluntarily want to take it? Are various agencies and experts missing the wood for trees?

Alas, we have slipped into business-as-usual mode once the second wave began receding. Minus the gains on the vaccine front, there are similarities between where the country is now and where it was in February prior to the bruising second wave. Put it down to complacency, ‘restriction fatigue’ and nonchalant approach to observing Covid norms. According to the Indian Institute of Public Health, “people are throwing caution to the wind going out meeting family and friends, partying etc.

Shockingly, markets are overcrowded with people jostling for space, restaurants are packed like sardines with no physical distancing or masks and there are incredulous scenes of crowds at various airports after the new travel guidelines whereby passengers from “at risk” countries have to undergo RTCPCR test and they cannot leave the airport until they get the test results which can take a wait of up to 6 hours. Big deal if it violates every tenet of social distancing norms.

The Government needs to realize communication in a pandemic needs to be nuanced so as not to promote carelessness. Instead we are treated to expert public discourses full of speculation. Leading people to surmise that no one, experts included really know what they are talking about, thereby creating deep mistrust for rationality and science.

Certainly we don’t want a repeat of the devastating second wave whereby our leaders and policy makers mismanaged the situation, lowering their guard with an abundant dose of bureaucratic incompetence and official arrogance ignoring critical signs even as they patted themselves of having got the better of the pandemic, “bent the virus like Beckham” and “conquered” Covid in January.

Till date India has fully vaccinated 55% of its adult population and partially inoculated 31%. Not a few experts feel the vaccines being used continue to protect against severe disease, hospitalisation and deaths. Consequently, for our policy makers the priority still remains to reach the unreached: providing two primary doses to as many adults as possible and those not already vaccinated. Alongside, pushing those who are resisting taking the vaccine and those who will not take a second jab by choice.

Said AIIMS Director Randeep Guleria, “It is unlikely that a third wave of Covid-19 of a magnitude comparable to the first and second will hit India. Its possibility is declining each passing day. With time the pandemic will take an endemic form. We’ll continue to get cases but the severity will be highly reduced,” he added. Really? How can he foretell the future?

Yet, many don’t buy his theory as incidences of people walking in and getting or buying a third dose of Covishield or Covaxin in private hospitals is gaining in numbers. Those who can afford it and are picky about the vaccine make are flying to Dubai, London and other destinations where shots are available

The Government must ensure that in a country of 1.3 billion we do not land up in a situation like we were in the second wave. Else we will lose the advantage of vaccination. Moreover, we need to learn from the two waves to battle the third.  Specially, with schools across the country returning to in-person classes, there is concern that children might trigger a new wave of infections.

It remains to be seen if the Government can improve timely booster vaccination rollout and give impetus to universal immunization with vaccine choices and put together a new vision, preparedness and a coherent stimulus plan. Our leaders need to realize that one death is one death to many.

Clearly, this is just an ongoing war. The Omicron saga tells us that if vaccines or boosters are not given every uninfected person will continue to be fertile factory for more and more mutants to emerge wherein jo kiya hai sab pe paani phir jayega. It is a race against time to defeat it.

Even as our leaders exhort people to exercise Sainyam and Sankalp, this alone is not enough. The Government needs to remain focused and get on with the job of vaccinating millions a day and giving booster shots. As we ready for a new tomorrow, there is no room for complacency. As American singer Kenny Rogers sang: “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, You gotta learn to play it right.” All India needs to do is play it right.


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