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.

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?

‘We Haven’t Learnt Our Lessons From Covid Waves’

Yogendra Chaudhary, 30, a chemist shop owner in Moradabad (Uttar Pradesh), is scared of the looming third wave and urges people for Covid-appropriate behaviour in public places

I am a pharmacist and opened a medicine shop about the same time when the dread of Covid-19 was setting in. In a matter of a few months, the number of people visiting our pharmacy increased by nearly 50% which meant coming in contact with more and more strangers with every passing hour and day. Moreover, we had no idea about the immunity levels of these individuals that we were coming in contact with.

Needless to say, I caught the dreaded virus around April 2020, when everyone was just flailing around for solutions. Even though mine was a mild case and I escaped with only a mild fever, the uncertainty about when the infection might flare up, can leave people agonised. I resumed work after the required quarantine period and only after I ensured I had tested negative. One may recover from Covid, but the immunity isn’t as robust as before.

Back then, there was not even a murmur of vaccines being developed. Apart from the usual masks, gloves and sanitizers we had no protection at all. Even when all other services were halted amid strict lockdown, ours was the most essential service of it all, which meant we have been open throughout the pandemic. Day in and day out. There might have been days where hospitals and chemists must have been the only ones functioning. It’s an eerie feeling to be the only businesses open when everything else is shut down.

While people were scared when the first wave struck, the fear vanished as the cases began to subside. The Covid-appropriate behaviour went for a toss and quite a few of them would come to our pharmacy without masks. Then there were people who were following the protocols for the sake of it. If you ask me, what I feared the most was every time people would take out their phones (to make or receive calls) in between the purchases and after that directly take out cash to pay us. Phones are anyway considered dirty as few take the time to clean them properly.

Online transactions were cool though, but in small towns not everyone does online transactions. If you remember, Moradabad was declared a hotspot during the first wave, with so many people even refusing to get tested.

ALSO READ: ‘People Have Thrown Caution Out Of The Window’

Indeed, it did not take long for the second wave to knock in. And what a wave it turned out to be. No hospital beds, no oxygen, dead bodies flowing in the Ganga. But yet, we haven’t learnt our lessons. The tragedies are all but forgotten, and we are back to our Covid-inappropriate selves. Experts say the third wave is upon us, sooner or later. And being in the middle of it all being a chemist, I am scared. But if you look around, the public behaviour seems as if we care a hoot.

Prevention is definitely better than cure when it comes to the coronavirus. When people don’t take precautions, it is frontline workers like us chemists and our families who are at a major risk of infection and reinfection. I had never expected the pandemic to go on for so long and I wish I seen the end of it for good. The spectre of ill-health looming over people day in and day out is too much. The second wave was so heart-breaking as well as scary. The mutated virus was even more deadly, and to think it can be kept at bay (mostly) using the simple measures of masks, sanitisers and social distancing.

Vaccines have come as a much-needed relief but people still need to be careful. We should do everything in our might to keep the third wave at bay and we can’t fully be at rest until the virus is defeated altogether. After all our own lives and that of our loved ones are at stake.

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.

ALSO READ: Virus Is There, Fear Is Gone 

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!

ALSO READ: Healthcare Cries For An Overhaul

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.