JUST AS THE YEAR TURNED, ON JANUARY 5, THERE came news that India had its first official death from Omicron. Technically, it was a week earlier that the elderly man from Rajasthan who also had comorbidities passed away. But the news greeting 2022 seemed to presage ominous portents of a new wave. States got ready to pull out their usual arsenal—emphasis on masking, the reimposition of travel restrictions, targeted lockdowns, heightening of public messaging, and so on—and people got ready to once again be hostage to the virus. The previous year, the Delta variant had sprung out of nowhere in a country that had become complacent and it had been a killer, laying bare the inadequacies of the Indian healthcare system and the absence of something as simple as oxygen cylinders. This wasn’t going to get repaired in a year, but when Omicron came, the system was at least not going to be shocked into paralysis. As it turned out, it didn’t need to be either.
Omicron ripped through the Indian population with greater speed than Delta and that was in keeping with how pandemics usually unfold. The waves become faster and, precisely for that reason, milder because the virus has figured out it is in its own best interest to be less lethal. If it can only lead to mild symptoms, then the probability of infected people moving around and transmitting is much greater, which is what the virus wants; to spread and increase its own numbers. And therefore, even as Indians waited for the collapse of hospitals and the scramble for oxygen cylinders and medication like Remdesivir, what they got was an antithesis. People were getting scratchy throats, coughs, and mild fevers, but for most of them, it was over before they could even process having got Covid. There were deaths and complications but the experience of most of the infected was a day or two of low-grade temperature, if at all one was symptomatic. By the second half of January, Omicron was clocking over 3 lakh daily cases in India. On January 22, at the high point, NDTV would report: “India added nearly 3.50 lakh new Covid cases today, a nine per cent jump from yesterday’s 3.17 lakh cases, which was also the highest in eight months. With a tally of 3.91 crore cases, India is the second worst-hit country after the US.”
By March, however, the government was patting itself on the back and claiming victory. The daily number of cases was under 4,000, and this was despite other parts of the world still seeing exploding numbers. The government said it was the result of policies. Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya would tweet on March 14: “Together, we will emerge stronger! India’s current COVID-19 active caseload (36,168) is the lowest in 675 days. 2,503 new cases in the last 24 hours are lowest in 680 days. The fight is NOT over yet!” Three days later, a Press Information Bureau release on a NITI Aayog webinar he attended said this: “At the outset, the Union Minister stated that ‘India’s strategies of public health response have resulted in better management of Omicron surge compared to many other countries.’ In a presentation, steps taken by the country demonstrating various timely public health measures were highlighted. At a time when many countries are reporting an increase in the number of daily COVID cases, India’s daily cases have reported a substantial decrease, combined with increased recovery rate, and high levels of vaccination.”
That was one way of looking at it. The other was that because highly populated and poor countries like India don’t have the wherewithal to follow the pandemic rulebook like developed nations, people here just got infected faster and developed immunity. If Omicron would have been as lethal as Delta, the story might have sounded different. The quick coming and passing of the wave, however, had one decisive impact—Indians stopped being afraid of Covid and that is how pandemics end. Not with the extinction of the virus, like smallpox, but in the cessation of its psychological terror over citizens and governments. The virus that caused the Spanish Flu, the most lethal pandemic ever, never died. It just kept mutating to become another harmless strain of the seasonal flu. It is what Covid’s end will be, too, and, short of something unprecedented happening, that moment had arrived. When the fear of the pandemic is over, the pandemic is over, and Omicron sounded the knell in India.
Indians stopped being afraid of Covid and that is how pandemics end. Not with the extinction of the virus, like smallpox, but in the cessation of its psychological terror over citizens and governments
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IT IS EVIDENT EVERYWHERE now. News about mutations that would immediately become a national talking point now doesn’t get a second look. Does anyone recollect that earlier this month scientists said they detected a new strain of Omicron with Delta characteristics? The Times of India report of December 10 had said: “A freshly emerged Omicron offshoot CH.1.1—a worry for international scientists—has emerged in India, specifically Maharashtra. The latest INSACOG data shows that 17 samples with this subvariant were detected in India. Of them, a total of 16 were from Maharashtra and one was from Gujarat. What is worrying the scientists globally is that CH.1.1 has now acquired a Delta mutation, which could make it more pathogenic.” But, like other alarmist news items, a hangover from the peak Covid era, it bounced off without a ripple.
The big marker of the end of the pandemic was the reignited enthusiasm for travel. By June this year, domestic tourism was inching up to pre-pandemic levels and a Hindustan Times article would say: “According to a report by the rating agency, ICRA, domestic air travel in May was only 7% lower than pre-Covid levels. ‘In fact, we are operating more flights now vis-à-vis pre-pandemic,’ a Vistara spokesperson said.” This week, a Times of India article revealed that domestic passenger traffic was now more than pre-Covid levels. It said: “Domestic air travel—and congestion at choked airports—hit a new high on Sunday (Dec 11) when just under 4.3 lakh people flew within the country. The pre-Covid daily domestic average was 4.2 lakh and Sunday’s figure is not just the highest since March 2020 but could perhaps be an all-time high, say industry insiders.”
Malls are thriving with footfalls, movie theatres are seeing blockbusters, restaurants are on the black again, the stock market is touching historic highs and just about every aspect of the economy that had been flattened by the pandemic is now racing. Most people don’t wear masks anymore and the idea of maintaining a distance from others is extinct. Buses and trains are as crowded as they used to be. Flight tickets and hotel room rates have shot up because of demand. What is not there is an official announcement that the pandemic is over. Instead, there are read-between-the-lines statements. As when the World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press meet in September: “Last week, the number of weekly reported deaths from Covid-19 was the lowest since March 2020. We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic. We are not there yet, but the end is in sight. A marathon runner does not stop when the finish line comes into view. She runs harder, with all the energy she has left. So must we.” US President Joe Biden went a step further that same month when he said that the pandemic was over, and commentators in the media immediately pointed out that 400 to 500 Americans were still dying daily from Covid. Now, that number is a little over 100. There are outliers still, like China, which is seeing a huge surge in cases but that is also because they have managed to successfully battle Covid through all the earlier waves. Even China, however, was forced to relent on its total lockdown policy after people, unprecedently for that country, started agitating because they had had enough of a virus dictating their lives.
On January 1, even before the Omicron surge, India was seeing more than 25,000 cases and that went up 10 times by the end of the month. Now, most days, new Covid cases are between 100 and 200 and deaths are zero or in single digits. These latest numbers are still not the real picture because people don’t test anymore for a disease that is now akin to a regular fever. The future might see a new wave and a slurry of panic with a brief increase in cases and deaths, but the mean that exists now is probably here to stay. Even though no one will say it now without caveats, the odds are that history will underline 2022 as the year when the pandemic ended.