India has been spared the worst, but efforts must continue
India has crossed the 10-million mark for recorded infections of Covid-19. This moment has come considerably later than was earlier predicted. The pace of increase, at national level, has also been slower than feared. The health ministry has pointed out that the daily new cases have been fewer than 40,000 for at least the past three weeks. There was a minor peak towards the end of November, but the daily new infections have been trending downwards since then and were lower than 27,000 on December 19. This compares with over 90,000 in mid-September. India never crossed the 100,000-infection-a-day barrier, and many experts hope that now it never will. Several occasions when there might have been a major spike in infection rates have already passed, including the festive season and Assembly elections in the populous state of Bihar.
That said, the onset of colder conditions across much of the country means that the virus will find a more congenial environment for its spread, given what is known about its length of survival on surfaces at different temperatures. There is also no reason to suppose that mutated strains of the virus that spread more effectively may not arrive on India’s shores. In Britain, London has gone into an enhanced lockdown following the identification of one such strain that is 70 per cent more infectious. The Union government must be quick to respond to such developments and consider, for example, halting arrivals from Britain till more is known about this new mutation.
Altogether, India has so far managed to endure the months of the pandemic better than many other countries. In terms of the number of registered and related deaths per million people, India is around 100th in the world. While a fuller understanding of the toll will only come after excess mortality is properly accounted for subsequently, there is no question that this is better than hoped for. Part of this can perhaps be ascribed to the early and stringent lockdown imposed by the Union government — though, as recent work has found, the inability to convince migrant workers to shelter in place undercut the lockdown’s effects by spreading the virus significantly nonetheless. It is worth noting also that, while India’s efforts may look good in comparison to the rest of the world — particularly those countries that have a much higher proportion of their population over 65, and thus more susceptible to severe Covid-19 — in comparison to its South Asian neighbours, India’s achievement looks less impressive. Bangladesh and Pakistan have fewer than half as many deaths per million than India; Sri Lanka has less than a tenth as many. There is little reason, therefore, to celebrate India’s response and enough to be wary.
The next step must be balancing the management of the vaccine rollout and the continued need for social distancing. There is little doubt that, even with the arrival of the vaccine, social-distancing norms and regulations will be required for many months yet. Given the natural human tendency to relax when a solution appears in sight, managing the next few months will tax the government’s ingenuity and resources. It cannot let up. While the pandemic may not now rage through India’s vulnerable population as much as was feared earlier this year, many thousands may yet be lost to it.