Over the past week, the number of Omicron cases in India more than tripled, with 781 infections now recorded, up from 236 last Tuesday.
That may not seem like a lot in a country of 1.3 billion people, but the rapid spread of the variant to other countries – many of which are currently experiencing dramatic outbreaks – is enough to make health experts nervous. And the actual number of Omicron cases is likely higher than official figures due to insufficient testing.
“If India looks at the same pattern as the UK, and if we compare the populations of the two countries, 80,000 daily cases in the UK would mean around 1.4 million daily cases of Covid in India,” said VK Paul, head of the country Covid Task. Force, during a press conference on December 17.
Since one month, India has consistently reported 6,000-9,000 total Covid cases per day – but several of the country’s largest cities have seen infections spike in recent weeks.
The Mumbai financial center, which had reported 600 to 800 new cases daily in previous weeks, recorded 2,510 cases on Wednesday. New Delhi, the nation’s capital, also recorded more than 900 cases on Wednesday – a large increase from the start of the month, when new cases daily numbered in the dozens.
The Federal Ministry of Health warned last week of “the first signs of an increase in Covid-19 cases,” researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology predicting that a third wave could peak between the end winter and early spring.
The second wave was also preceded by state elections which saw large political rallies even as cases rose and doctors’ warnings went unheeded. Today, experts fear India is on the cusp of a third wave.
And from early January, India will start immunizing children between the ages of 15 and 18, as well as distributing boosters for priority groups such as health workers and the elderly.
In India, the risk of the virus spreading rapidly is compounded by the fact that many people have stopped wearing face masks, are getting tested less frequently than before, and are flocking together in large numbers.
The variant contains a high number of mutations, which makes it difficult to predict, said Om Srivastava, an infectious disease and immunology expert based in Mumbai. While “there is potential, it will be sweet and pass … all you need is one of these mutations to become unpleasant,” he said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen if things go wrong.”
It is not known how many new emerging cases are of which variant because a specific test is needed to detect the Omicron spike protein, which is not commonly used and has more complex steps for “genomic fingerprinting”. he added. “But the (overall) numbers are climbing.”
In recent months, India had largely lifted restrictions on gatherings, travel and public spaces as infections declined. But last week, the central government recommended states put in place containment measures such as nighttime curfews to tackle the “heightened detection” of Omicron, and reopen the Covid “war rooms” that were put in place during the second wave.
Shortly after the notice, a number of major cities announced new restrictions. In the Union Territory of Delhi, which encompasses the national capital, New Delhi, all social, cultural, political and festive gatherings have been banned until further notice. Bars and restaurants have been capped at 50% of capacity, with face masks required for entry, while gyms and swimming pools will be fully closed. A nighttime curfew was announced on Tuesday.
Mumbai has also capped all social, religious and political gatherings – including weddings and business functions – at 50% indoors and 25% outdoors until further notice.
All mass gatherings in Karnataka state were completely banned until January 2. In Haryana state, only fully vaccinated people will be allowed in public spaces like markets, bars, restaurants, cinemas and bus stations, starting January 1. And Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, has imposed a nighttime curfew.
Some health experts and authorities fear that these precautions are not enough. “Right now we don’t track social distancing, so I have to say that’s the right kind of framework to make Omicron go horrible,” Srivastava said.
As five Indian states prepare for elections in early 2022, political parties – including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – have staged a number of events drawing large crowds, especially in the state of the battlefield of Uttar Pradesh.
Although Modi has yet to start campaigning with election rallies, he has traveled extensively across electoral states for various political announcements and inaugurations; in the past month alone, he made seven visits to Uttar Pradesh.
Last Thursday, he spoke to hundreds of thousands of people to announce development projects in his Uttar Pradesh constituency in Varanasi. Videos from the event show crowds of unmasked supporters pressed against each other.
Modi was also unmasked as he spoke, although he made numerous personal appeals to the public to wear face masks throughout the pandemic.
The prime minister has another visit to Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh this week, and also visited Goa and Uttarakhand this month, all in preparation for state elections next year.
Ram Singh, a laborer from Uttar Pradesh, said only New Delhi residents still wear masks, while residents in neighboring northern states such as Haryana and Punjab go without them. “I don’t wear a mask very often because it’s uncomfortable,” he added.
Also last Thursday, a Uttar Pradesh High Court judge urged Modi to ban gatherings, arguing that social distancing was simply not possible given the huge crowds, or even to postpone the elections. “If this is not stopped in time, the result will be worse than the second wave,” he warned.
Shortly thereafter, Uttar Pradesh announced a nighttime curfew to contain the surge in Covid numbers – but did not mention any restrictions on gatherings.
Modi acknowledged the Omicron threat last week and called on officials at a high-level meeting on Thursday to ensure the country’s health infrastructure can cope with any emerging challenges.
In an address to the nation on Saturday, the Prime Minister warned Indians to take precautions but not to panic as the new variant spreads.
However, he also expressed confidence in India’s ability to cope with another peak. The country has 1.8 million isolation beds, half a million oxygen beds and 90,000 beds for children, he said on Saturday.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal echoed Modi’s assurances. In the second wave Delhi was registering as many as 27,000 new cases per day – but now the territory is “ready to handle even 100,000 cases per day,” he said last week.
But thousands of medical residents across the country have been on strike since December 17, protesting a delay in allocating hospitals to doctors who have passed their postgraduate exams – leaving them unemployed and unable to support them. the country’s efforts against Covid.
“In the perspective of the impending third wave (…) if this (postgraduate) council is not organized, with the limited manpower, it will be too difficult to manage the third wave in the country” , said the Indian Medical Association (IMA), one of India’s largest medical networks, said on December 23. The delay resulted in a “shortage of 45,000 primary care physicians,” he added.
And the supplies touted by Modi and Kejriwal are largely focused on response capacity – while experts warn the country needs much more stringent prevention measures to avert an outbreak in the first place.
“Any contributor who creates overcrowding would be a major contributor in (the increasing cases),” Dhiren Gupta, senior pediatrician in Delhi, said on Friday, adding that political rallies could become “a big-ticket event.”
“There is no doubt that we should postpone election rallies for at least two months,” he said. “Prevention is the best medicine for India.”