Even as Indians were heaving a sigh of relief after the horrifying experience of the second wave of the Covid19 pandemic, Omicron, the new variant, threatens to rob everyone of the green shoots of hope and optimism. The Union health ministry has advised states to treat fever and sore throat as Omicron symptoms.
A sudden spike in Covid cases has taken the total tally to over three-and-a-half crore, adding a new specter–of the pandemic returning with all its attendant restrictions such as lockdowns and other limitations to normal activities. According to reports, the number of active cases increased to 2,85,401 as of Thursday. Omicron seems to have crossed the threshold of epidemic, which is generally a stage when a virus in an endemic stage mutates and spreads rapidly to a larger population within a particular area or region. The chances of Omicron spreading to a much larger section of population and turning into a pandemic cannot be ruled out now.
Meanwhile, a French government report has said that a new variant of Covid, IHU, has been detected. It is believed to be much more infectious than Omicron. When a new variant was detected in South Africa, there was global warning to ban all links and travel from and to the country. It is doubtful if the developed world will do the same to France. Whatever it may be, the urgency is to restrict foreign travel and take sufficient and strict precautions to isolate passengers from foreign origin till they are declared safe and non-carriers of infections.
The fate of economy
Omicron has come at a time when the economy is finding its way back to growth. Manufacturing activity seems to have resumed in many states and production centers, although at a slower pace, shows data from the Index of Industrial Production (IIP). Fifteen out of 23 sectors are at levels above pre-pandemic. The festive season also helped in consumption pick up. The real test of the economy will be the ability to resume full-fledged production and the attainment of pre-pandemic level consumption. This sounds possible because the market, the manufacturing sector and the consumers are ready to coordinate their respective operations within the prescribed restrictions.
It is now for the Union and state governments to rise to the occasion and introduce a series of reforms aimed at fuelling the economy and avoid waiting till the Budget to make dramatic announcements. Unfortunately, this is where the response of the governments seems to be lacking. And even more worrying than this dithering is the alarming haste to organise political meetings, rallies and campaign gatherings. As there are restrictions on spending after the elections are declared, every political party seems to be vying to hold mass gatherings close to the announcement of polling schedule for assembly elections in Goa, Punjab, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Stop political rallies
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) too has been holding rallies and events involving huge crowds, unconcerned about the prime minister’s warnings. The Election Commission and the health ministry should look into such gatherings of political parties and restrict them. In fact, on earlier occasions, the Calcutta High Court and the Madras High Court have pulled up the state Election Commissions for not taking adequate steps to prevent rallies. The Allahabad High Court has suggested the postponement of elections by a month or so in view of Omicron, though it may not be a viable and welcome solution. Omicron does not respect political sentiments, nor will it keep out of the way out of reverence for democracy.
As long as the virus is able to transmit, replicate and infect, there will be evolution of more variants. The effective way to stop evolution of a virus into a new variant is to restrict its capability to spread and infect. This can best be done by avoiding crowding, whatever be the reason–social, religious or political.
The Congress party has reportedly decided not to conduct rallies for the next fifteen days. Considering the negligible attendance in the Congress rallies, the decision seems to be a face-saving exercise rather than a genuine anti-pandemic measure. Yet, the party’s initiative deserves to be appreciated. It is doubtful if other political parties would follow suit. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal recently held a mega rally in Punjab, which was attended by quite a few thousand people. There is a video of his rally that has gone viral where the CM is seen coughing, and not wearing a mask. His recent tweet declaring him to be affected by Covid and asking people who came in contact with him to isolate is nothing short of being reckless and irresponsible.
The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. He tweets @seshadrichari. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)