Is the number of covid-19 cases truly low in India?

Spotting the wave.
Spotting the wave.
Image: REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
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India’s covid-19 numbers are currently at the lowest they have ever been. But is it the low level of testing that is hiding the extent of infections?

In Delhi, for instance, test positivity has risen to 5.3% in the past couple of weeks. This is usually the point at which circuit-breaker measures are introduced. Yet, alarmingly, testing in Delhi—and across India—has been drastically reduced in recent weeks.

The Delhi government is yet to announce any new measures, including the reimposition of fines for not masking up in public places. It, however, plans to resume random covid-19 testing at public places such as Metro stations and markets.

In other large cities of India, including financial capital Mumbai, too, fines related to masks have been withdrawn. This effectively lifts the mandate and makes the measure only a “recommended” one.

However, a rise in the number of cases in cities, along with that in states like Kerala, has been indicative of an imminent wave across the country.

This is largely so because the population density of these regions enables a quicker spread of covid-19. At the moment, though, Delhi seems to be an outlier. The city may need further genomic investigation to determine whether a new variant or the recombinant XE variant is at play.

With a variant like omicron, which does not necessitate large-scale hospitalisation, drastic public health measures may not be put into effect.

For now, vaccination seems to be working.

Vaccines to the rescue

The situation this year, though, is different from the summer of 2021, when the deadly delta variant raged through the country. This is due to the vaccine coverage—so far, 836 million Indians, including children above the age of 12, have been fully vaccinated.

It is also why omicron has proven less fatal. Large cities that were completely overwhelmed by the delta variant in 2021 haven’t yet reported any spike in hospitalisations.

In most Indian states, officially reported covid-19 deaths are at an all-time low since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. The government recently opened up third “precaution” doses for all adults over the age of 18, though it does not allow the mixing of vaccines yet.

Given this scenario, a fourth wave may not cause the devastation of previous waves in India. But that situation can quickly change as new variants emerge.