When on March 24, 2020 PM Modi used the analogy of Mahabharata war to say COVID19 would be won in 21 days, he was both right and wrong. Right because that lockdown did help reduce spread. Wrong because pandemics are not one night stands, but a series of waves that require constant vigil.
Over a year after that pronouncement, India has had two waves. This has given us sufficient pointers to predict future waves: the most important being that there is no question of ‘if’ a third wave is coming, the question is only of ‘when’ and ‘how big’ and that with effort we can make the third wave a barely noticeable blip in the graph instead of one hill and the other mountain right now.
If one looks at what’s known about how the virus spreads and kills and analyse the two waves, one’ll find that the third wave is likely to hit India anytime between November 2021 to January 2022.
The trouble with COVID19 in India is data discrepancy. Official figures of both infection and deaths from SARS-CoV-2 are nowhere near accurate. How many infections are found is subject to the number of tests which has been woefully lacking. Some states have counted their dead better, yet none have counted them all. Different calculations put the actual number anywhere between two to 14 times the officially reported ones.
However, we do know that humans and the systems they create – either to report or fudge data – work in predictable patterns. Thus, the manner of misreporting data so far, is unlikely to change in the near future, giving us a decent chance at prediction despite their inaccuracy.
Waves for a pandemic like COVID19 can be explained with the Wheat and chessboard problem. Start with one grain on square one, two in the next, four on square three i.e. keep doubling all the way to the end. If you plot the numbers on a graph you’ll see that while initially, the line is flat, soon it grows too large for normal calculators e.g. on square 34 it surpasses the population of humans on the planet.
Highly infectious diseases often follow this exponential growth pattern. In the beginning, infections are few but as we know 80% infected with SARS-CoV-2 don’t even show symptoms and only a small minority need hospitalization. Thus, the low phase of a wave i.e. between January to September 2020 in wave one and October 2020 to March 2021 in wave two, the numbers stayed low because the disease was spreading quietly. The hospitalised and dying weren’t enough to overwhelm the system.
September 2020 and April-May 2021 was when we reached the higher squares of the chessboard where the numbers are so big they overwhelm the system. The first peak – helped by a lockdown – took 8 months while the second – buoyed by reckless elections, religious gathering and public stupidity – only six.
However, the equation changes when you consider vaccines. It has been shown that most vaccinated people not only get a moderate form of COVID19 but are also less likely to spread it. Before a cure is found, rapid vaccination is the best weapon we have against the disease.
Sadly, India does not have enough vaccines to put in the arms of the majority of its population. Vaccines in large enough numbers to matter are expected to begin trickling in from August.
Thus, even though we have controlled this wave, the virus will continue to spread, mostly in unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people and will again reach its peak in six to eight months. However, the most important factor that can delay/reduce the height of the peak is an awake government.
After the successful control of the first wave, the center led by the Prime Minister himself got busy praising the PM for exemplary work. They bitterly contested elections with huge rallies and preponed Kumbh Mela against the advice of the Uttarakhand CM who they instead fired for his suggestion. All these helped take the virus to the smallest corners of the nation, something we did not see in the first wave.
Part of the reason Delhi was hit so bad was the Farmer’s protest. No social distancing was followed or masks worn even as thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, mingled. Many died but the government having abandoned them as ‘anti-nationals’ / ‘terrorists’, did not check what killed them.
The ideal thing for the centre to do – considering the pandemic – would have been to take back the laws and begin backchannel negotiations with farmer’s unions to convince them of their point of view. But the abandonment by the centre fuelled the second wave in Delhi.
Incorrect data is the biggest impediment to effective planning. Whether it is unintentional or deliberate fudging, the fact that COVID19 numbers don’t show ground reality accurately means when you see a plateau at the bottom of the graph, the actual numbers are actually much higher.
Every government fudges or suppresses numbers that show them in a bad light. But not every government believes its own falsified numbers. At the beginning of the pandemic, China lied about COVID19 deaths and infections to save face. But they did not believe their own initial lies (should be obvious, isn’t it?), stopped lying about death numbers once they were in control and kept a tight leash to ensure a second wave never came.
India too lied about its numbers in the first wave. The massive second wave happened because the government not only continued lying but believed its own lies and made policies based on that.
The PM and the BJP have made concerted efforts to undermine statistics. But they must understand that the larger a nation, the more reliant it is on numbers to govern properly. Policies made on fudged statistics not only harm citizens, but also the party in power. The only way to make policies is by commissioning and studying real numbers.
Hence even when the government hides or lies to the public with fudged statistics, it should at least make decisions based upon real numbers and not Kafkaesquely fall for their own propaganda themselves.
The third wave is thus inevitable. What isn’t is the height of the third peak which the government and citizens can together ensure is lesser then the first and the second waves, more a small bump than a noticeable peak. We can do this by strict adherence to COVID protocols like physical distancing and masks, and massive vaccination drives.
Yet the thing that would perhaps help most, is a government not getting fooled by its own lies.
Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.
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