Omicron, The Crafty Virus

It would appear as if there is a central committee of viruses that meet, learn from their experience and adapt with new strategies. That is of course a metaphoric statement. Viruses are not meant to have brains nor a sense of social community, let alone a strategy team. But what has happened and has happened in the past with dangerous viruses, is not far from this myth.

The Omicron variant of the SARS-Cov-2 Virus is far less potent than its predecessors but more infectious, spreading like wildfire once it takes hold in a population. According to three studies quoted in the British Medical Journal, the infection rate is faster but hospitalisations rate is about 15-80% less than its first predecessor and even the Delta variant. It also lasts shorter, between two and seven days. Some people have almost no symptoms but found to have the Omicron virus on testing.

The studies were done in England, Wales and South Africa. The number of people needing intensive care and oxygenation is even lower. Deaths are far fewer than the first Covid wave.

However that is no reason to let the virus rip through society. India is beginning to see an exponential increase in Omicron cases. That is the pattern with this virus. It starts with a few cases, but then within weeks, there is a steep curve of number of people infected.

The three studies so far have different populations. The South African study is based against a background that over 70% of South Africans have contracted Covid-19 last year and then subsequently the Delta variant. They have developed a natural immunity as the number of vaccinated people are less than countries like UK or India.

Cheryl Cohen, the South African doctor from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases who did the study even declared that their study suggests a positive story with reduced severity.

The England and Wales studies were against a background of over 80% people having been vaccinated twice. The percentage of people with the third, booster vaccine dose, was lower when the study was conducted. The study shows that people with booster dose are least likely to have any serious illness from Omicron. Those with two doses are at slightly higher risk. But most people needing hospitalisation have been those who were not vaccinated. Britain has escalated its booster dose programme and has even declared that it will reach its target before the end of the year. Vaccinators were working during the holidays too.

The studies have implications for India. The number of triple jabbed people is not high. India’s hospital infrastructure needs a lot of investment and is no where near that of developed western countries.

ALSO READ: More Covid Questions Than Answers

As Omicron starts to spread, the number of people relative to number of hospital beds and doctors is again going to be highly unfavourable. Even if a mere 0.5% people become seriously ill in India, that is over a 5 million patients. Where is the infrastructure to deal with that?

Consequently, India needs to take precautions urgently. Many European countries who have only just finished second vaccination, have gone into full or partial lockdowns. Some countries require quarantine for visitors. These measures have not started in India. There is a general belief among people that the virus is less virulent and therefore will require less stringent measures. There have been demonstrations against Government lockdowns as a result.

The Coronavirus story is typical. A new strain of virus can be extremely virulent as it is with the original SARS-Cov-19. However after a few mutations, it either becomes extinct or finds a form that causes minimal reaction within the human body but also enables the virus to do what it wants. The virus simply needs a host, replicate and die.

It is the reaction by the human body that causes health problems with Coronavirus. Macrophages (cells of defence and clean up) react, cells die and the toxins produced overwhelm the body’s ability to get rid of them. Consequently the SARS-Cov-19 virus now has found a mutation that can slip by through most human defences, cause less disruption and cell death and therefore less toxin production.

Eventually it might end up being treated as another cold. That is beneficial to both the virus and human beings. It seems surrealistic to paint a picture of nature engaged as a silent mediator between a virulent virus and a determined anti-virus human race and finds a settlement that appears to be in sight. The virus becomes less dangerous and humans start tolerating it. However this is in fact mythology or fiction.

When a new strain of virus comes into human race, sometimes it can cause havoc. This was the case with Bird flu, the Spanish Flu (of 1918), Ebola and Zika virus and now the Coronavirus.

Some viruses in history are thought to have become extinct. While others have become so benign that they don’t pose any problem.

What actually happens is that the genetic code is not static. As it replicates, it continues to develop mistakes, changes, mutations etc. Some times the mutation can be deadly for the host, such as humans or an animal. Sometimes the mutations can be self destructive and the virus goes into extinction. Sometimes mutations can become benign and cause fewer symptoms.

Benign viruses can also suddenly develop a mutation that becomes deadly. The Omicron Coronavirus may be less dangerous now but as its genetic code, the RNA in the case of Coronavirus, continues to develop faults, changes and mutations, a future mutation from the Omicron could be fatal.

It will be best if the Virus disappears altogether. However that is unlikely. Coronavirus has already had hundreds of mutations. Some have caught the headlines because they were virulent. Many have disappeared. Others may be lingering in benign form in animals or even humans without symptoms. Any of these could mutate into dangerous ones.

The spread of viruses depends on several factors but mainly transmissibility. Some, like HIV, can only be got through direct sexual contact or fluid exchange. Others like Covid seem to be airborne too and can jump easily from one person to another. Some viruses transmit when the host is fully infected while others jump when the host is still asymptomatic.

Consequently, it will be silly not to take Omicron Virus seriously. There have been quite few other small epidemics and pandemics in the last 20 years. It will be equally silly not to be vigilant for new variants. The vaccines give us hope. Equally Government need to put in place rapid reaction response strategies in case a dangerous mutation evolves. In the war between viruses and humans, indeed between viruses and all species, there are no winners. It is a perpetual war that will carry on as long as life exists on earth.

‘3rd Wave Is Upon Us; Of All Gatherings, Election Rallies Are Worst’

Dr Mridul Sharma, 24, from Amritsar, says our leaders lecture others on Covid-appropriate behaviour but fall short of following the protocols themselves

No matter where the Covid-19 has come from, it is certain that it will go very far in destroying the health of millions. And we doctors and other frontline healthcare professionals are the first line of defence when the virus attacks. The Delta variant has shown just how devastating the effects of the mutated virus can be and I am pretty sure the Omicron variant is going to cause as much, if not more, damage. The third wave is a certainty and we should brace ourselves for it.

People have no idea how much pressure healthcare workers come under, when the cases surge and peak. Not only are we ill equipped to fight the virus, as it is mutating faster than we can understand it, we are also overwhelmed with the volume of cases.

Conducting a political rally when the third wave is imminent, isn’t a good idea. In fact any gathering is not a good idea, be it a marriage or funeral, but political rallies are the worst. A big rally is scheduled for January 5 in Punjab and in my opinion by January 15, there are chances of the third wave striking in force. I wish people understood the situation.

I myself contracted the virus twice, once in August 2020 and the second time during the second wave. And since I live alone, it gets difficult to manage the infection on one’s own. My oxygen saturation levels went dangerously low while I was infected. On Covid duty during the second wave, I had to take up rented accommodation near the hospital, so that I didn’t have to commute much and there were lesser chances of me infecting someone else.

Sharma lost his grandfather to post-Covid complications but had little time to grieve his death

Most other people can cope with the slow recovery but a healthcare professional, especially a doctor, has to get back on one’s feet immediately. I lost my grandfather aged 86 to post-Covid complications in April. He was full of life and someone with a healthy lifestyle and yet it was difficult for him to fight the long Covid complications. As healthcare professionals we don’t even get time to grieve our loved ones. When people conduct election rallies they must understand that human lives at stake.

ALSO READ: Health Workers Are Anxious About Omicron

My sister is a dentist and during the second wave, healthcare professionals from other streams were also asked to pitch in to enhance resources. My parents get anxious to see both their children stand in the frontline. I wish governments understood that individual families get impacted when prevention isn’t done well and each story ends up differently.

Tamam umr sarkarein yahi bhool karti rahi, dhool chehre pe thi aur aaina saaf karti rahi. (Governments commit this mistake all the time: find fault in others’ behaviour, forget to check their own record). Political leaders should lead by example so that the public knows how to behave and follow Covid protocols. As the virus mutates, the complications are also getting severe: the Guillane-Barre syndrome, body paralysis, long Covid etc. And people with co-morbidities have it tougher.

India has better immunity than most countries because of our food habits, but we also have enormous numbers. We are bracing ourselves to report on Covid duty once again. Even if we report on duty for one day, we have to quarantine ourselves for a fortnight. It isn’t easy to be confined for that long every few days. And when we are called on duty, the workload is beyond overwhelming. We all need to take the right decisions every step of the way to fight the virus.

‘People Forget Covid Waves, Health Workers Worried About Omicron’

Anita Kumari, a 42-year-old auxiliary nurse & midwife in Jharkhand, says masks have come down and social distancing gone for a toss but Covid is not over yet

I have been in the medical profession for nearly 15 years now, but never have I seen anything as devastating as the coronavirus, and the various mutations that it springs upon us from time to time. The Delta variant, the Omicron variant, who knows what other variants are lurking around us. I wish people took more care to wear masks and sanitise hands. The prevention is easy (at least the virus doesn’t have as debilitating an effect) but the cure and treatment is difficult. The public mindset is such that they give up once the peak number of cases come down.

This lackadaisical attitude proved to be so deadly during the second wave. Then we frontline workers are left to pick up the pieces and put ourselves and our own health at greater risk of catching the virus. My Covid duty is to administer vaccines to people. We are a five-member team that administers vaccines to people.

Earlier we would be giving these doses at dedicated centres but now we have to go from home to home. We need to collectively step up on our public duty of wearing masks, getting our tests done if the symptoms arise, otherwise a third wave is imminent.

Off to work: Anita Kumari says public must understand Covid isn’t over yet

The general public should understand that the pandemic has been very challenging for frontline workers. When people are in lockdown at home, we still have to go about our duty. We have to convince people to take vaccines and it’s not an easy thing to do, especially for the elderly population, or even those above 45.

ALSO READ: ‘We Haven’t Learnt Anything From Previous Waves’

I am happy that those from 18-45 age group have shown tremendous enthusiasm as well as a sense of public duty when it comes to vaccines. Seeing them many in the 45+ age group have been inspired to co-operate. We have to travel in public transport and come rain or sun, we cannot relax. Sometimes even Sundays are working and then we have to take care of our household responsibilities as well.

The general public needs to understand that the government and healthcare workers are all trying their best to tackle the virus but without the cooperation of people it cannot be defeated. Immediate isolation and treatment are very important. I myself caught the virus during April this year and suffered. Many others can take more time off to recover, but healthcare workers have to report on duty after the quarantine period.

People’s attitude are at their careless worst in public transport. They feel they don’t need to wear masks while commuting or walking on the roads and you can’t ask them to follow those protocols because many time people pick up fights. We have seen how much healthcare workers have had to suffer during the pandemic. Each person is important in the war against Covid and its many variants. We are all in this together. I commute long distance every day to get to work. It would be nice if the public walked the path of social responsibility too.

As told to Yog Maya Singh

Weekly Update: Could Covid Horrors Return to Haunt India; Hatred Rears Ugly Head, Again

In a late night address to the nation on Saturday, December 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would be administering third shots of vaccination (booster jabs) for those above 60 with co-morbidities as well as for frontline healthcare workers. He also announced that children aged 15-18 would also be eligible for COVID vaccines. These are timely decisions given that COVID’s latest mutant, Omicron, could spread rapidly in India. The challenge of vaccinating a population as large as India’s is daunting but the good news is that, at least according to official reckoning, 75% of adults have received the second dose of the vaccine.

That’s the good news. The not so good news is that if you take the entire population of the country, then just a little over 41% are fully vaccinated.  Also, it may be a fact that the renewed surge of the virus may be inevitable. According to official estimates, at the time of writing, there have been around 422 reported cases of people infected by COVID. The actual figures in a country as large and as divided by inequality, accessibility, and lack of testing facilities could be way higher. The earlier waves of COVID’s spread were marked by a pattern: initial detection rates were slow, leading to complacency; and then, like a sudden horrific storm, the country was gasping for oxygen and hospital beds.

From most reports based on, albeit limited, research into the Omicron virus it seems that the latest mutant of the pernicious pandemic virus is milder, particularly when it affects fully or partially vaccinated people. However, these are not conclusive findings because the Omicron variant was detected very recently. What is known and is of concern is that this variant is more contagious and spreads much faster than earlier variants.

The other area of worry is the experience of other countries where Omicron is spreading. In Europe, UK, and the US, it is seen that the virus is affecting younger people (aged below 30) more than it is the older population. While there is little research yet to establish reasons behind this phenomenon, the fact is that India’s youth (18-20 year olds) account for more than 20% or more than 260 million people (that is more than half of the total population of the EU region of 447. million). Also, a large proportion of the Indian youth is not vaccinated yet. In that context, Prime Minister Modi’s announcement of vaccination for 15-18 year olds is in the right direction.

There is, however, another area of concern. Many countries in Europe have already slammed the emergency brakes in the form of new restrictions on public events, commuting, entertainment venues, and so on. Many states in India have also taken similar action. But when it comes to compliance by the Indian public, it is a different matter. The correct use of masks is nowhere near universal in India’s densely populated cities; and bans on congregations and public events are still flouted routinely. These can have alarming consequences.

When the second wave hit India, the anguish that millions suffered was heart-wrenching. A total of 48,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of COVID in India. Many more have suffered or are still suffering long-term consequences of the virus. Public memory is short but this is a virus that we need to be prepared to grapple with for a long time. And, while the authorities can attempt to do their bit by ensuring vaccination for all and stipulation of restrictions, much of the onus is on us, the ordinary citizens of the country, to be sensible in the face of adversity.

Hatred Rears Its Ugly Head… Again

The perceptible change in Indian society–no matter which socio-economic echelon you look at–is the increasing insecurity, anxiety and existential angst that minority communities in India have been experiencing over the past decade. It is probably not a coincidence that such feelings have intensified after the Hindustva-espousing BJP-led government came to power at the Centre in 2014. This has manifested in several events: a spate of violence involving alleged cow slaughter; pre- and post-election rioting; and targeted discrimination against certain minority communities.

In mid-December, at a three-day convention of Hindu hardliners in the ancient city and religious pilgrimage destination of Haridwar, several speakers made speeches that were inflammatory and could spark or incite violence against minority communities. In some instances, what was said was in innuendoes. But in a few, there were undisguised call for violence and even genocide.

In a country where secularism and equality for all are principles enshrined in the Constitution, instances such as these coming nearly 75 years after Independence are abhorrent. More importantly, it is the response of the authorities that is of concern. Although there were many protests against the speeches and FIRs were filed, no one had been arrested at the time of writing, more than a week after the convention was held.

What is also of concern is the silence of those in power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to comment on or condemn the speeches. His colleague, home minister Amit Shah has also not responded. Hindus make up 79.8% of India’s population and Muslims account for 14.2%; Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains account for most of the remaining 6%. A surge of majoritarianism and hatred of the kind that is demonstrated by the Haridwar gathering is an ugly development in a democracy that prides itself on tolerance and equality. If, in the hour of need, people at the highest level of power choose to remain silent, does it not legitimise the hate?

‘Won’t Send My Child To School Till He Is Fully Vaccinated’

Anita Jha (39) did not send her 15-year-old son, studying is Class 10, to his school in Faridabad when it reopened after a gap of several months. She narrates the reasons behind her decision

On August 1, 2021 we received a communication from my son’s school that they were planning to reopen and asked us to convey if we would be willing to send our ward to the school. The notice also mentioned that the offline and online classes will continue simultaneously, and parent were free to choose any option.

I decided NOT to send my son to school.

The reason is simple: Saket, my son, is not vaccinated. I know virology experts say that even after vaccination, an infection may occur and we need to follow same prescribed precautions as earlier. However, the inoculation does provide the body a better ability to fight and defeat Covid-19 infection. And therefore a jab would have given us some assurance of our child’s safety.

Having stated my reasons, I fully support the government decision to reopen schools. Nothing can compensate a physical classroom when it comes to inclusive learning. But, till the time Saket is fully vaccinated I don’t want to take any risk. Some of my friends have chosen otherwise. In my son’s class of 37 students, about one fourth have chosen to attend the school. To each its own; let this be a personal choice for every parent.

Some people may argue that if parents can take their children to shopping malls, outdoor parks and other public spaces, what is the harm in sending them to a school. My counter to them is: in all such cases, the children are under direct supervision of the parents while at school, the children, either carelessly or under peer pressure, may throw caution to the wind.

Anita Jha says her son Saket improved his grades while attending online classes

This is what happened when the schools reopened last time. Infections soared and the government had to hastily retract their decision. We should have learnt our lessons from that.

I do not doubt the preparedness of the school. Over the last few months, my son went to school for collection of some study material and he told me that proper social distancing was being maintained and in one class they were asked to sit leaving two benches in between. And since only class 9-12 are called, social distancing norms are easily maintained.

ALSO READ: Online Classes Drain The Parents Completely

However, how does one keep a watch on the kids all the time? Even if a few children follow Covid-19 protocol, they cannot enforce similar pandemic-appropriate behavior on others in the absence of the teacher. We all know how teenagers are.

Besides, thanks to our access to high-speed Internet and other gadgets, I didn’t see any challenges in my son’s academic performance during online classes. In fact, there is now some self-discipline and improvement in his grades. If the purpose is taken care of by online class then why rush with offline learning in these uncertain times! Why can’t we wait till the vaccination of children is also complete?

It is not only about maintaining precautions in school premises. Not every family can afford a personal vehicle to pick and drop the child from school and hence they have to end up taking a shared or public transport. This increases the risk manifold.

Already, there have been talks of a looming third wave and new variants of the virus that may infect young children too. That worries me. Of course, if the government makes attending schools mandatory, we would have no choice. But I sincerely hope that we make quick progress on vaccination of adolescents and only after that think of reopening schools.

As Told To Mamta Sharma

Covid Has Deepened India’s Poverty Pit

Stark poverty and hunger is stalking contemporary India but no one wants to see it or talk about it, especially the establishment and its economists. If statistics could tell stories of infinite sorrow, then nothing less than a mass tragedy, devastating, invisible and ghettoized, is currently stalking the inner lanes of an unhappy Indian landscape, and spreading with as much deathly intent as the deadly delta virus. 

First, let us talk of the ‘missing women’. The unorganized sector, with practically no rights for workers, operated by cold-blooded sharks outside official labour laws, with not even job protection for fixed days, or fixed wages, shelter and crèches for children, no maternity and health benefits for women, no provident fund/gratuity/pension, or trade union rights, etc, constitutes more than 90% of the Indian workforce. Barring some states like Kerala, Delhi and West Bengal, workers in the unorganized sector largely don’t have fundamental rights. Half of them are women – and most of them are from the poorest communities – landless Dalits, adivasis, extremely backward castes, Muslims.

The fact is thousands of women seem to have disappeared from the work force since the pandemic. So where have all the women gone?

It’s a fact that majority of domestic helps, working in the gated societies, for instance, lost their meager income since March last year. Many of them were socially ostracized, unceremoniously sacked, not paid their wages, and banned from entering the gated societies. Many were compelled to ‘migrate’ back to their jobless small towns or villages with eternally stagnant economies.

Workers were told by their employers to leave the dingy tenements in urban ghettos, where 5 or more would share a room, because they could not pay the rent. Their children opted out of schools. Many women, and their kids, were seen ‘begging’ outside the posh markets in Noida, even as the rich filled their cars with goodies during the relaxation in curfew hours.

ALSO READ: No Country For Migrant Workers

Many families have been starving, or eating one meal. All of them want to work and earn with dignity; others are afraid to stand in long, crowded food queues because of fear of the virus. For a long period those who did not have Aadhar or ration cards, had no clue how to get food from the public distribution system, even in a city like Delhi.

Consulting firm Dalbert, in a study conducted during March-October last year, reported that women have reduced their food intake because of less income, their rest hours have decreased and ‘unpaid care work hours’ have increased, at least a tenth of the women said that food is in very short supply and they are eating less, 16% had limited or no access to menstrual pads, while 33% of married women had no access to contraceptives as the pandemic disrupted public health outreach programmes. More than 43 per cent women were yet to recover their paid work. While it was terrible last year, the second surge devastated them. The study surveyed 15,000 women and 2,300 men from low-income households in 10 Indian cities.

“If the virus does not kill us, poverty will kill us,” said a balloon seller last winter in Noida. The invisible working class ghetto inhabited by Dalits and extremely backward caste people from Bengal, Bihar and UP, in Noida, surrounded by swanky highways and palatial houses, became jobless overnight on March 24, 2020. The street food vendor found no buyer, rickshaw-pullers no passengers, traffic light sellers no customers, even as thousands of construction workers were rendered jobless as the real estate industry crashed. Workers in the unorganized and small-scale industry, its back broken by demonetisation and GST, found a quagmire beneath their feet – rapidly sinking, and not a straw to hold on.

Stark poverty and hunger has been systematically turned invisible in India in the neo-liberal era, especially in the metros. Therefore, it was disconcerting for the cocooned affluent society when images of thousands of migrant workers suddenly emerged on highways, walking under a scorching sun. Pray, who are these condemned and exiled people?

With their worn out clothes, sacks and plastic bags, mothers holding their children, often barefoot, hungry and thirsty, with absolutely no relief from the central government, they were escaping the stark social/economic uncertainty after a lockdown was suddenly declared by the Centre. Among many enduring images of this Indian reality was the image of a dead mother at the Muzaffarpur Railway Station, her little child tugging at her sari. She was a migrant worker trying to go ‘home’ – from Ahmedabad to Bihar.

ALSO READ: Covid Ruined My Life – Financially

Delhi is classified as the most urban state (98%) in India. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), Delhi reported the lowest labour force participation rate (LFPR) for women during the pandemic. Female LFPR was as low as 5.5% compared to the male LFPR of 57. Unemployment among women was 47%, compared to 21 among men.

As many as 10 crore people reportedly lost their jobs during the nationwide April-May 2020 lockdown. While in the pre-election scenario in 2019, India marked the highest rate of unemployment in 45 years, a reality the Modi-led government tried to fudge, currently, it is estimated, approximately 140 million people are jobless, and this includes the corporate sector. The jobless figures are hazy; unemployment has shot up to 11.7 %, last year it was 8. Job losses have been higher in Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, due to the impact of Covid.

A new Pew Research Center study states that consequent to the ‘deep recession’ in 2020, the middle class has shrunk by 32 million. This substantiates the speculation that millions of middle class households have been pushed into low income groups. The 32 million listed by Pew accounts for “60 per cent of the global retreat” in the number of people in the middle-income tier (defined here as people with incomes of $10-20 a day).

The number of people who are poor in India (with incomes of $2 or less a day) has increased by 75 million because of the COVID-19 recession. This factor also accounts for 60% of the global increase in poverty.

According to the Pew study, only 19% women remained employed and a high 47% suffered a permanent job loss, not returning to work even by the end of 2020. That is, almost half of the women workforce has effectively ‘disappeared’.

The study reported: “Prior to the pandemic, it was anticipated that 99 million people in India would belong in the global middle class in 2020. A year into the pandemic, this number is estimated to be 66 million, cut by a third. Meanwhile, the number of poor in India is projected to have reached 134 million, more than double the 59 million expected prior to the recession…”

Surely, there are millions of micro cases spread like unwritten stories of infinite inequality and economic/social discrimination across the remote rural terrain and in urban ghettos. They need to be documented, filmed, and written. The scale of this human tragedy could be epical.

Indeed, Mamata Banerjee made a cryptic point recently in Delhi: she said that it’s high time we have ‘sachche din’ in India –we already have had an overdose of ‘achche din’.

‘Covid Has Brought Travel Inc To Its Knees, Govt Must Help’

Mohammad Ali, a Delhi-based travel business owner, says 90 per cent of the industry is reeling under severe setback and there is no light at the end of tunnel

Covid-19 has left devastation in its trail and the sectors that have been the worst affected are hospitality and travel. I had only recently started a travel business called Trip Astrologer that handled both domestic and international travel and was doing fairly well until the pandemic struck.

In fact I often handled group travel plans of large number of people to South East Asia, especially Thailand and Malaysia. At the fag end of 2019 while we were handling a group trip, we began hearing news about a virus from China. Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore had begun reporting a few cases of Covid by then. We started alerting our clients to follow protocols like wearing masks, washing hands regularly etc. and braced ourselves as a business for a little setback. But none of us had expected this to go on for so long and at such scale.

In March, 2020, the business went down to an absolute zero, no clients. We had bookings for a large number of domestic travellers to Imagicaa Water Park in Mumbai and it hurt when that trip had to be cancelled because of the pandemic. Plus, we had to refund. Our staff strength dwindled.

From March to September, there was no movement in the travel industry at all. And through it all I was paying the rent for both my office space as well as my rented accommodation, plus EMIs. Unlock brought no respite. Some were scared to step out while many wanted to keep money aside for emergencies. Many a people had lost their jobs or suffered losses in business and travel was perhaps the last thing on their mind.

In October 2020, work picked up but it was the bigger players who reaped the profits. Smaller players like us couldn’t do much about it. It is only my savings that saw me and my family through. But there was uncertainty as to how long the situation would last, for savings can sustain us only up till a point and fresh earnings are needed.

Finally in December a few domestic travellers were ready to travel and in February locations like Dubai and Maldives began opening up; small businesses like mine heaved a sigh of relief. But it was short-lived, for while Dubai was okay the RTPCR tests in Maldives cost a lot (they were charging in dollars, which meant a huge jump in prices for Indian customers, say about 50%) and that left many a traveller discouraged. Earlier we had travellers going to European countries, US and other popular global destinations book with us, but there were not many travellers to those countries as well. We were left with very few domestic travellers and even fewer locales where they could travel to, namely Goa, Kerala, Kashmir, Shimla etc.

ALSO READ: ‘Govt Did Little To Help Business Amid Covid’

Then came the deadlier second wave that left everyone shocked and wearier than before. April-May and November-December used to be peak travel seasons and we had really set our hopes high for the summer months. I also had plans to start my business’ website but that also had to be shelved.

I wound up my office space and left for my maternal grandparents’ home in UP in May because I just needed to find my motivation back again. I came back to Delhi in July beginning and felt a little glimmer of hope (even though one can say that 90% of the travel industry is on its knees).  However, I began declining clients who wanted to travel to Shimla-Manali-Kasauli as that route was getting overcrowded.

As a responsible citizen I felt it was my moral and social responsibility to ensure that no destination posed a health risk to travellers or locals because of overcrowding. We all need to behave responsibly if we want coronavirus to be a thing of the past. That, and the government needs to provide some serious support to the travel and hospitality sector quickly. Recently the biggest travel expo of South Asia that is held year after year in India, saw only 20% attendance. If these are not the sign of the times, I don’t know what is. I still am holding on to my courage and optimism.

‘Covid Fear Made Me See Mall Customers As Live Viruses’

Meera Singh, 36, who worked as a cashier at an upscale shopping mall in Gurgaon, explains why she quit her job in Delhi-NCR and went to her native place in Deoghar

I moved to Delhi-NCR in 2007, and in 2015 I joined Sapphire Mall, Gurugram as a cashier for a boutique with international clientele. Besides managing the clients, I handled their GST and other finance-related bills for the boutique. It was a comfortable job till the pandemic struck in March 2020. In June the same year, I decided to quit, and return to my native place in Deoghar (Jharkhand). In spite of several calls to rejoin work, I have no plans to return to Delhi. Let me explain why.

When the pandemic struck, no one had any idea what was going on or what was the way forward. We wondered what the future held finance-wise or when the lockdown would get over. From March 23 (when the lockdown was announced) until June we were on tenterhooks.

Even when the Unlock began, and I rejoined work, it was stressful. In every shopper who came in I saw a potential virus carrier. And since I was the one at the forefront handling cash (cash would be transferred from one hand to another) I felt I was under a lot of risk. Our international clientele base (mainly NRIs) also left me worried, because it were people who travelled from the West to India were considered the biggest risks.

Even though we followed all Covid protocols to the tee, like regular sanitisation, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, the virus was making its way into people’s lungs and lives. The media reports of crowded hospitals and overflowing crematoriums made it worse. With the constant pressure of staying safe in a public place, the stress soon began to tell.

Finally when talks of a pay-cut began doing the rounds, my husband and I decided it was not worth the risk. The pandemic had taught us about the fragility of life; I didn’t want to be away from my children, who were with their grandparents, or my ageing parents and in-laws anymore.

ALSO READ: ‘Life Is Tough For Migrant Workers’

First my husband, an engineer, left for our hometown and I followed shortly after on June 21. It required some effort to manage a seat on the flight from Delhi to Patna. A fortnight was spent in quarantine and then I started thinking about the future. With my expertise in handling retail business at a big mall in a big city, I decided to start my own retail business.

In September 2020, I opened up a small unit that sell cosmetics, and other knick-knacks. I feel I am more in control here because unlike in Gurugram, people who come to my shop are part of a tight-knit community and listen to us more readily when we suggest they follow Covid measures. Plus, you feel secure that your family is right there and you don’t need to travel (which is a huge fight in itself in these times) anywhere. And most importantly, I get to be with my children every day. There’s no wealth in the world bigger than the health and happiness of your kids and other family members.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

‘Lockdowns, 1st Wave, 2nd Wave… Life Is Tough For Migrants’

Mohammad Manan, 25, a migrant worker who came to Delhi-NCR from Bihar, says he has survived so far but is worried about an impending third Covid wave

I came to Delhi- NCR nearly a decade ago for work. Supporting a family is no easy task but I was managing it fine until the pandemic struck.  Since then, things have gotten very confusing and uncertain. The recurring lockdowns, the first wave, the second wave, it is a difficult time for everyone.

After the first wave last year, we thought we had survived the virus. But then came the second wave and I had to return to my village Sonbarsha in Saharsa district (Bihar) to be with my ageing parents. Most migrant workers from the locality I live in left for their native places as they did during first lockdown. We braved the first wave, but the second wave was worse than the first, so we decided to leave.

Lockdowns have impacted everyone’s earnings, be it migrant workers like me or people who run businesses. Everyone has been worried about their job or business security. I went home in April and came back in June-end, so basically I stayed in Bihar for two months. I strained my savings to travel in Three-Tier AC in the train because I was worried about contracting the virus. After all I was going back to earn a living and couldn’t afford to fall sick as soon as I entered the city of my livelihood for so many years.

ALSO READ: No Country For Migrant Workers

When I reached Ghaziabad (NCR), unlock had begun and someone else had been hired in my place at the optical shop I worked for. I spent two weeks in agony not knowing what I would do for a living and applied at various places. A family of six is dependent on me. My wife works as a domestic help and supports the family, but in these times one needs to have enough savings. Kabhi medical help ki zaroorat ho to hamare pas hath me kuch paise hon (there should be reserve cash for medical situation).

Luckily I got my old job back. I wish there were work opportunities in my village too. Those two months I earned nothing.

Even though I have my old job back, predictions of a third wave has me worried. What will we do if it is even more dangerous than the second and the lockdown stricter and longer? So many business days that have gone waste. Every month I send some money to my parents and God forbid if anyone contracts the virus! I wish the government improves the healthcare facilities in rural areas and also figured out ways to support people who have lost their jobs or whose businesses were impacted.

Right now, we are just about managing somehow but my biggest strength is my wife’s optimism and courage. She says we need to take one day at a time, and be thankful for each day that we have survived. She says even though our position is shaky we can keep figuring out newer ways to earn. I have picked up some tailoring skills and do minor alterations etc and get paid for it.

So we believe God helps those who work hard. My workplace is around 15 minutes away from my home and I use my cycle to commute. Thank God I use a cycle, with the price of petrol shooting up continuously driving a bike is a costly affair.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

Is India Prepared For 3rd Covid Wave?

Indonesia now is in exactly the same terrible and tragic situation as India was during the peak of the second surge. Australia is going for a lockdown, and even New Zealand, hitherto totally safe, is on high alert. With cases rising in thousands every day, Boris Johnson might once again take the UK down the drain if he opens up the lockdown on July 19, even while all is not well in Catalonia/Barcelona in Spain, among other EU nations.

Vice President Kamala Harris led a ‘pride rally’ recently without a mask. Americans in many parts are allowed to come out in the open without masks. However, with 50 per cent fully vaccinated, is the virus really “on the run”, as President Joe Biden so proudly claimed on Independence Day, 4th of July?

There is reportedly a ‘silent surge’ in many parts of America and it is worrisome. It is being largely attributed to clusters of unvaccinated people, including Trump-supporters ‘in denial’. A Georgetown University study reportedly found 30 clusters of counties, of which five are across the Southeast and Midwest, from Georgia to Texas, across Missouri, and parts of Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas, where the threat is real and looming large.

So how well is the Indian State with a new health minister at the helm prepared for the ‘third surge’, even as the second wave lingers on, and thousands care a damn in tourist spots, without masks or physical distancing?

Listen to the Covid Task Force head, Dr VK Paul, as reported by the Indian Express: “It is right that the graph (of the decline in the number of cases) has slowed down. It was earlier declining at a faster pace. It only shows that we cannot take the situation for granted. If it is around 35,000-37,000 cases per day, this is almost one-third the number of cases we saw during the first wave peak. The war is not over; the second wave is not over. It is perhaps more visible in some districts and two particular states and the Northeast, but it is still there. As long as this is still rising there, the nation is not safe…With a lot of effort and difficulty, we have reached a situation where cases are on the decline. The situation is bad only in a few districts. But all this can be snatched away from us because we have not contained the virus completely. If we give the virus an opportunity, and chains of transmission are launched…this is something we cannot afford…”

Indians banged thalis, frying pans, pressure cookers at 5 pm on March 22, 2021, following the call of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even when the virus was just about spreading its wings. Indians followed dutifully with no questions asked, the sudden, draconian and unplanned lockdown last March, which led to the exodus of lakhs of migrant workers. Indians even believed the PM when he said that all will be well in 21 days.

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Meanwhile, the states fought their own battles without any tangible help from the Center. Millions were rendered jobless, the poor were left to their helpless fate, the economy tanked and continues to tank, hunger, starvation, anxiety and depression stalked the unhappy landscape, there was ‘no vaccine policy’ worth its name, and people hoped against hope that 2021 will start with a flicker of hope. Remember the PM’s cathartic speech at the World Economic Forum’s Davos Dialogue in January 2021?

“Today, Covid cases are declining rapidly in India… India’s stats cannot be compared with one country as 18 per cent of the world’s population lives here and yet we not only solved our problems but also helped the world fight the pandemic… In these tough times, India has been undertaking its global responsibility from the beginning. When airspace was closed in many countries, India took more than 1 lakh citizens to their countries and delivered essential medicines to more than 150 countries…” 

Significantly, the PM said India’s role will increase with the rollout of more ‘Made in India’ Covid-19 vaccines. Clearly, this was chest-thumping in its most glorious form at the world stage.

Then arrived the deadly second surge, even as the PM and his Union home minster were obsessed with capturing Bengal at any cost, while welcoming millions at the super-spreader Kumbh. The PM was delighted to see huge crowds in one of his last rallies in Bengal. While sections of the stooge media played along, the international media published front page pictures of mass cremations, accompanied with highly critical text putting the entire blame on Modi. And they were on the spot, on the dot. Surely, the mass tragedy was a public spectacle for the world to see!

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Lest we forget, there were tens of thousands dying due to the acute scarcity of hospital beds, oxygen, life-saving drugs, with cremation and burial grounds unable to find space for the dead bodies, while parking lots, pavements, open spaces and public parks in some places were converted into cremation grounds. Some electric crematoriums refused to work because their ‘internal organs’ had melted due to the relentless heat, huge make-shift walls were created to block journalists to report on the relentless mass cremations (in Lucknow), and the data of deaths were allegedly fudged or censored, even while the obituary pages were full of tributes to the dead (as in Gujarat). 

So, is India prepared for the third wave?

On June 19, said Dr Randeep Guleria, Director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi:  “We don’t seem to have learnt from what happened between the first and the second wave. Again crowds are building up… people are gathering. It will take some time for the number of cases to start rising at the national level. But it could happen within the next six to eight weeks… maybe a little longer.” He said that unless the population is vaccinated, the country will remain vulnerable in the coming months.

The Hindu reported in early May that that the principal scientific adviser to the government of India has warned that the third wave of Covid-19 is inevitable. “There is, however, no clear time-line on when this third phase will occur. We should be prepared for new waves, and Covid-appropriate behaviour and vaccine upgrades is the way forward,” he said.

Modi has made the promise on live television of total and free vaccination in India after June 21. Hoardings have come up with the PM’s mug shot profusely thanking him for free vaccines. If Rahul Gandhi as much as tweets: ‘July has come. Where are the vaccines?’ some central ministers suddenly emerge from the shadows and Rahul gets a good tongue-lashing.

The situation is as fuzzy as it gets. Noida apparently stopped vaccination from June 30 for a week – reasons not known. Gujarat suspended vaccination recently for unknown reasons – there were no vaccines, according to sources, it was reported. Vaccination was stopped in Mumbai due to lack of vaccines, but restarted again. Almost all the big states reportedly have vaccination shortfalls; Bihar has a shortfall of 71 per cent, while West Bengal, Jharkhand and UP are not far away. Even Kerala and Delhi, who have done the best, will not be able to achieve a 60 per cent target by December.

Is the current scenario optimistic? Not really.

Apparently, about 20 per cent plus have got their first dose, and 5 per cent plus have been fully vaccinated. Surely, at this rate, no one knows when a country of India’s size will ever get ‘fully vaccinated’. And the bitter truth is that less the level of vaccination in the population, the more there are fears of multiple mutations of this killer virus. India, therefore, is as vulnerable as ever.