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

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

NEW DELHI – When the Omicron coronavirus variant spread in India in late December, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the nation to be vigilant and follow medical guidelines. Arvind Kejriwal, Prime Minister of the Delhi Capital Region, quickly introduced night curfews, closed cinemas, reduced restaurants and public transport to half capacity.

Then both men would campaign, often without masks, at thousands of rallies.

“When it comes to our bread and butter, they enforce restrictions and bans,” said Ajay Tiwari, a 41-year-old taxi driver in New Delhi. “There are much larger crowds at political rallies, but there is no lockdown in these areas. It really hurts deep in our hearts. “

While Omicron is fueling a rapid spread of new infections across India’s large urban centers, the country’s pandemic fatigue has been compounded by a sense of déjà vu and frustration of mixed signals.

It has only been a few months since the deadly Delta variant devastated the country when leaders underestimated its threat and publicly disregarded their own advice. The memories of overcrowded hospitals and pyres working around the clock are still all too fresh here.

The metropolis of Mumbai reported more than 15,000 new infections within 24 hours on Wednesday – the highest daily number of cases since the pandemic began and surpassed the city’s previous record of around 11,000 cases during the second wave in spring. In New Delhi, the number of daily infections rose almost 100 percent overnight.

The sheer size of India’s population of 1.4 billion people has kept experts always on the alert for the prospect of a new variant of coronavirus. Few places in the world have the tribute from Delta been as severe as in India. The country’s official figures show roughly half a million pandemic deaths – a figure that experts say is well below the real figure.

Omicron’s high transmissibility causes cases to multiply dangerously quickly, and it appears to be ignoring India’s main line of defense: a vaccination campaign that has hit roughly half the population. Initial studies show that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the locally made version of which has been used for about 90 percent of Indian vaccinations, does not protect against Omicron infections, although it does appear to help reduce the severity of the disease.

Sitabhra Sinha, a professor of physics and computational biology at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai, said his research was on the reproduction rate of the virus – an indicator of how fast it spreads known as the “R-value” – in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai shows “insanely high” numbers for cities that had built up decent immunity. Both had large numbers of infections in the spring and much of their adult populations were vaccinated.

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

But officials seem to be clinging to the optimism of the early signs from countries like South Africa, where rapid spread of the variant didn’t wreak havoc, rather than learning from the botched response to the spring delta wave that devastated India.

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

“The health system has stopped being complacent. But the population is satisfied. People don’t wear masks or change their behavior, ”said Dr. Krishnan. “They consider it a mild illness and any restrictions are seen as a nuisance rather than a necessity.”

Scientists say any optimism about Omicron is premature just because so many people could infect the variant.

“Even if it’s only a microscopic percentage that needs to be hospitalized,” said Dr. Sinha, “the total population we are talking about is huge.”

Although the percentage of newly infected people visiting hospitals has increased in recent days, data from India’s hardest hit cities – Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata – showed that so far only a small number of Covid-labeled beds have been occupied. Data compiled by the Observer Research Foundation showed that about three percent of known active cases were hospitalized in Delhi and about 12 percent in Mumbai.

Dr. JA Jayalal, until recently president of the Indian Medical Association, said what troubled him was not the hospital beds or the lack of oxygen – a capacity Indian officials tried to expand after the fatal deficits during the Delta Wave – but that the health system could face an acute shortage of health workers.

About 1,800 Indian doctors are known to have died from Covid-19 since the pandemic began, said Dr. Jayalal. Health workers grapple with pandemic fatigue. Tens of thousands of doctors recently called off a strike in protest of overwork and delays in hiring new doctors. Reports in local media suggest that hundreds of doctors and medical staff have tested positive in the past few days.

“Many positive cases have been reported in our medical profession. That means they are not available for work, ”said Dr. Jayalal. “The problem with mild infections is that they may not come to a large hospital for admission, but still see their GP or a family doctor,” which puts these 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 vacation trips and large election rallies across multiple states with voting in the coming months.

Prime Minister Modi and his deputies held large rallies in Uttar Pradesh, the 200 million state ruled by a Modi protégé who is up for re-election.

Kejriwal, the prime minister of Delhi and a prominent opposition leader, was omnipresent at rallies. He has tried to expand his small party in the several states that are up for election this year. Even when he restricted Delhi, he continued his campaign in those states.

The day after a major rally in Uttarakhand state where Mr. Kejriwal appeared on stage without a mask, he had bad news to share on Twitter.

“I’ve tested positive for Covid,” he said. “Isolate those who have contacted me in the past few days, please.”

Hours later, his party’s Facebook page posted new instructions for Delhi residents with a poster of Mr. Kejriwal’s picture.

“The war against Corona continues,” it said. “WEEKEND EXCLUSION announced in Delhi.”

Hari Kumar Reporting contributed.

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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