International travellers are quarantined in a hotel. Security is tight; there are guards around. The guards smoke; they share a cigarette lighter. And a city and a state in Australia, a country that has done pretty well in managing the coronavirus disease, shut down again as cases spike, catching health officials by surprise.
The city is, of course, Melbourne, and the state, Victoria, and this is a true story that’s playing out right now.
By the third week of April, Australia seemed to have things under control. According to data on worldometers.info, the country saw 13 new Covid-19 cases on April 20. Like its neighbour New Zealand, it seemed to have crushed the pandemic. It stayed that way for almost two months, enough time for people to start believing that it was over. On June 5, Australia registered just five new cases of the disease.
Then the numbers started rising again.
On July 3, the country saw 254 new cases. On July 6, it saw 137. And most of the cases were from Victoria (on July 3, for instance, the state accounted for 191 of the 254 new cases). In contrast to Indian policymakers who remain averse to the term “community transmission” despite the thousands of new cases every day in some states, Victoria has suggested that there could well be community transmission in what can only be termed a second wave — not just in the state, but in the country. Australia had kicked Covid-19, till, one day, it hadn’t. In this case, it is suspected that the cigarette lighter was responsible for the flare-up of infections, but this is what makes the coronavirus disease so dangerous. It is almost as if it were alive (the jury is still out on that one when it comes to viruses, actually) and thinking, lulling people and countries into a false sense of security, and then striking. The fact that it is highly infective means that a strike immediately results in a cluster, like it has in Melbourne. And that’s in a city that saw off the first wave.
India never did.
For those of us in India, the words said by Anthony Fauci, NIAID director and the man shaping the US’s health policy response to the pandemic, in a widely aired interview with National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins on Monday, are apt, although they were in reference to the resurgence of cases in the US: “We are still knee-deep in the first wave.”
Fauci went on to explain how the US almost doubled the number of daily new cases in a week-and-a-half by opening up again too fast. Last week, Fauci told senators that the US could see 100,000 new cases a day if it did not clamp down on flare-ups and fresh outbreaks. The US saw around 47,000 new cases on July 6.
India had 22,310 new Covid-19 cases on July 6. The number of cases has continued to rise — the five-day average has not shown a dip so far — with new infection hot spots emerging to offset improvements shown by older hot spots. If the US is any indication — it is larger than India in geographical area and is therefore a good benchmark on how the disease will travel — this is how the pandemic will play out in India. For instance, Telangana, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka are all states we should be worrying about right now (see page 5).
Here again, India could learn from the US example when it comes to the response. The New York Times reports that there is a “new testing crisis” in states and cities that have seen a spike in cases. “Testing in the United States has not kept pace with other countries….,” NYT said on July 7. This, in a country that has tested 11.5% of its population. India has tested less than 1%. But experts are of the view that India can raise testing manifold (see page 4).
This column suggested a target of 50 million tests by August 15. That’s achievable.
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