Up till September 2020, when Covid-19 cases were at their peak in Maharashtra, Prakash Khambe was particular about staying indoors and following all safety precautions to protect himself from the virus when he stepped out. As the numbers shrunk over the next few months, Khambe began to relax.
Now, with Mumbai and Maharashtra clearly in the throes of a fresh Covid-19 wave, the 53-year-old chartered accountant feels unperturbed. He has been using available public transport for over four months, going to his office, visiting clients and restaurants, and does not plan to stop doing any of it despite the rise in Covid cases across the city.
“I am less afraid of Covid now,” said Khambe, who lives and works in suburban Mumbai. “People are saying it’s a second wave, but I don’t think it is so serious this time. So many people are going out regularly to work and they are surviving, right?”
Khambe’s comments reflect the attitude of several Maharashtra residents who are neither worried nor scared of the surge in coronavirus cases reported in the state in the past few weeks.
On Feb. 22, Maharashtra had reported 5,200 cases, with most of them located in Amravati, Yavatmal, and Akola districts. Now, the daily cases have more than tripled, with 15,051 new cases reported on March 16.
To combat the spread of the virus, the state government has imposed a complete lockdown in Nagpur for a week and a slew of restrictions in Thane, Pune, Jalgaon, Amravati, and Yavatmal. In Mumbai—among the worst-hit cities with 1,922 new cases on Tuesday (March 16)—the state is likely to announce fresh restrictions this week.
But like Khambe, many are unfazed by these rapid developments. Despite warnings by doctors and the state leadership against lowering one’s guard, a section of the population no longer minds risking Covid-19 as long as they can go out, work, and meet people.
For some, this is because of a misleading sense of security brought on by the arrival of Covid vaccines. For others, it is about pandemic fatigue or denial about the resurgence of the virus. But the most common reason that many cited was the feeling of confidence that Covid-19 has been mastered: the disease, they said, is just not as scary as it was last year.
Khambe, for instance, points to the widely-reported drop in case fatality rates in Maharashtra during the past month.
Even as Covid-19 cases have risen more than 40% since March 1, the case fatality rate has been below 0.55% – significantly lower than the 2.3% reported in March 2020. Dr Pradeep Awate, the head of Maharashtra state’s epidemiology cell, has described this as a “low virulence strain at work”—the virus’ ability to cause disease in an infected person is low even when its transmissibility remains high.
“You hardly see news about people dying because of Covid these days—even people who get Covid don’t have severe symptoms,” said Khambe, citing the example of a neighbour who had asymptomatic Covid-19 last month and was “healed” in a week. This, according to him, is not worth risking his business over. “My company lost Rs1.5 crore during the lockdown, so now I am going to keep working.”
Bhavya Nisar, a 19-year-old commerce student from Mumbai, is also undaunted by the rise in Covid cases. While his college classes take place virtually, Nisar regularly goes to his family’s grocery store in Andheri to help man the counter.
“Many of our customers have had Covid in the past few months, but none have been severe cases,” said Nisar. “Last year it was a new disease, but now we are used to it, and the vaccine is here, so it really feels like the pandemic is over.”
In Nagpur, where 2,587 cases were reported on Tuesday, senior civic corporator Praful Gudadhe acknowledged that the fear of Covid is at an all-time low in the city.
“Last year people were afraid they could die because of Covid, but they had to go out and work for the sake of survival, so the infections increased,” said Gudadhe. “But now the death rate and the severity of Covid is much lower, so people feel that even if they are infected, at least they won’t die.”
Gudadhe claimed that many people no longer view Covid-19 as a “mahamari” or epidemic. “It’s an illness just like cold, cough, or fever—it’s curable and everyone does not need to be hospitalised,” he said. “Personally, I too don’t feel scared anymore.”
Such views, of course, have been exasperating for doctors and public health experts across the globe.
In October 2020, when countries across Europe saw a resurgence of the virus, health officials blamed it on the lifting of lockdown restrictions and the complacency among people that they could return to their normal lives. On Sunday (March 14), the United States’ chief medical advisor Dr Anthony Fauci warned about a similar resurgence after some American states officially allowed citizens to reopen all businesses give up on mask-wearing.
In late February, as cases began to rise in eastern Maharashtra where new mutations of the virus were reported, senior Indian virologist Dr Jacob John also warned people not to let their guard down.
In Mumbai, senior physician Dr Tushar Shah, emphasised that the city is now almost “back to square one”, with the number of daily cases as high as they were in September and October 2020. While he acknowledged the Covid fatigue that many are feeling, he pointed out the intense fatigue in the medical community that has been fighting Covid-19 for a year. “As doctors, we just can’t cope with the rise in cases,” he said.
Shah dismissed two misconceptions popular among people today. “People think Covid is on its way out, and that it is milder. Both are wrong,” he said. “People think vaccines are a hope, but vaccinating a population of this size will take a long time, during which mutations might get stronger. So we have to keep our guard up.”
Dr Daksha Shah, the deputy executive health officer of Mumbai’s municipal corporation, appealed to people to “change their casual attitude” towards the new surge of Covid-19. “The number of hospital admissions have risen in the last week, and it is a relief that deaths have not gone up, but we still do have many critical cases,” she said. “A lot of people are in a hurry to travel around, but there are still vulnerable populations in the city and for their protection we have to take this seriously.”
Vaccines, said Dr Daksha Shah, are just for individual protection and cannot guarantee that the spread of Covid-19 will be contained. “Cases are likely to rise further over the next two weeks,” she said. “This is not the time to be over-confident.”