This looks like the last gasp of the pandemic Apextalk

Pandemics have no expiry date. Covid has taken over 6.8 million lives globally since its outbreak and is still around three years after it brought the world to a halt. But they do exhaust their menace, eventually, if the bug that’s sickening people evolves in line with theory to get both catchier and milder for better odds of its own survival. Genes get far by getting around fast, after all, not by killing those who enable their spread. Barring the Delta shock of 2021, the covid virus has by and large stuck to that script with its genetic variants. India’s Delta wave of infections was followed by a far less grim Omicron surge, and by the time last summer’s swell began to ebb, it was clear that covid was set to finally go endemic: settle down, that is, at a benign rate that’s low and stable. What we have struggled to do with inflation, nature has been doing to covid, by and by, helped along by mass vaccination and acquired immunity. A recent upturn in cases, however, suggests it could be a longer haul than we’d expected.

While the Centre has prudently put our healthcare set-up through a covid drill, even as booster vaccines and Pfizer’s Paxlovid pills have seen demand spurt over the past fortnight or so, we have no reason so far to revise our broad reading of a health crisis on its way out. Let’s look at data. India’s seven-day rolling average of daily cases went above 6,000 on 11 April, up from 1,650 a fortnight earlier, but since last July’s upswing had peaked at around 20,000 cases, only if this level is exceeded again would our post-Omicron pattern be broken. Although testing intensity has varied across time to complicate such wave-to-ripple analyses, the going-endemic thesis still holds, even if we are not there yet. While covid’s spread is within a range that doesn’t threaten a hospital jam, case-count stability remains elusive. This should remind us that we cannot predict the exact path taken by the evolving covid bug, given its random genetic shifts. Oversight of this is the job of the Indian Sars-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (Insacog), under which our gene trackers operate. Going by Insacog’s latest slice-up of a viral sample taken “till the third week of March”, a new recombinant strain called XBB.1.16 that has descended from Omicron was about to become dominant in much of India. Its bulletin also flagged a jump in infections across all regions, except the east. If the current spread is led by this variant, we need to know the severity of the illness it could cause. Again, while we await closer studies, the fact that hospitals are far from swarmed is a good sign. As reported, bed occupancy levels in our big cities are reassuringly low. So long as the country can handle an upswell of cases, drastic curbs would not be needed even if it’s scary, though masks and other protocols would help in hotspots. Among the odd things about covid has been how widely the ailment varies from one patient to the next. While it’s unclear at this stage how badly XBB.1.16 can infect people, with varied reports in recent days, we do know that the elderly and middle-agers with health conditions are more vulnerable than others. Hence, our social response should be one that signals we care. If the new bug turns out to be mild, of course, we could ease up again.

Unless we have a nasty surprise in store, India may well be watching the last gasp of this pandemic. We’ve had a harsh run. Let’s keep watch and see covid through till endemicity.

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