As the new variant of the Coronavirus has sparked fears around the world, India gears up to deal with its third wave of the pandemic. In the wake of this, there are many aspects of healthcare, education, lockdown measures, and leisure activities that have undergone strict curbs. In this article, we delve deep into the latest on these. As Omicron spreads in the populous South Asian country, India, here is everything you need to know about what is happening and how you can stay safe.
What is Omicron and how is India at risk?
A variant of the SARS-CoV‐2, Omicron was first discovered in South Africa by the scientists there, on November 24. The virus spread fast across borders and affected over a hundred countries due to its high rate of transmissibility, which even surpassed the Delta variant. While the number of infections that can be caused by the variant is higher than Delta, the symptoms are different.
When Covid struck, loss of taste and smell were among the most common symptoms that were seen and reported among those who were affected by the virus. The Delta variant caused more cold-like respiratory tract infections, and scientists say that in the case of Omicron, these are milder. Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who was responsible for alerting the authorities about the presence of Omicron pointed to muscle aches, fatigue, a scratchy throat and night sweats being the common symptoms.
When it comes to the question of how serious the symptoms are, Coetzee described them to be “very, very mild”. This was in contrast to the Delta variant. In spite of this claim, researchers studying the variant and its patterns have said that “We find no evidence (for both risks of hospitalisation attendance and symptom status) of Omicron having different severity from Delta.” This remains a cause for concern especially for people in India, due to its vast population size.
What is the situation of Omicron in India?
India recorded its first case of the Omicron variant on December 3, 2021. Two men in Karnataka tested positive for the variant, one of them a 66-year-old with a travel history to South Africa, and the other a 46-year-old doctor who had no history of travel. This came in the wake of the country breathing a sigh of relief after a second wave that had the healthcare infrastructure on its toes. Following the two positive cases, travel curbs were announced by different states in India.
According to a report by NDTV, the official numbers of Omicron could be much higher than what is being reported. The daily tally of Omicron is said to be around 1,500 but the figure could go as high as 18,000 says the news agency according to their research on the ground. The reason for the discrepancy in numbers is that genome testing which is essential for the detection of Omicron, is only done by a few laboratories.
If this third wave accelerates in India like it has across the rest of the world, India could see between 16 lakhs to 20 lakh cases every day at its peak compared with the compared with the 4 lakh Delta cases that India had at the peak of our second wave - a report by NDTV
What are the latest updates?
Latest figures of Covid cases
As on January 3, 2022, India recorded 33,750 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours. 123 deaths due to the virus in a day. The number of cases of the Omicron variant has risen to 1,700, with Maharashtra reporting the most number of infections.
Latest on schools reopening
The situation as far as school reopening is concerned, is still confusing as there is no official statement yet on the matter. Schools that had begun offline classes after having sought parents consent before the winter break had to retract this decision as many parents declined to send their wards to school due to the rising number of cases.
“Almost all the private ICSE schools in Mumbai have decided to defer opening the school for in-person classes by a week. We will continue online schooling, take stock of the situation after a week and then decide whether to open or not,” said Fr Francis Swamy, principal of Campion School to TOI.
Zeenat Bhojabhoy, principal of Jamnabai Narsee School, said to TOI, “We are opening on Monday for parents who may wish to send their children to school. We will be opting for the hybrid model of school.” There however was no official directive received by schools about the same.
Latest on lockdown measures
Curbs have been announced in many states following the rise of Omicron and other infections. Maharashtra Additional Chief Health Secretary predicted that the state may report a total of two lakh active infections by the third week of January.
"Based on the current trend of rising COVID cases in the state, it is expected that we will have about two lakh active cases by the third week of January 2022," Dr Pradeep Vyas said. "Don`t be lulled by the narrative that third wave or Omicron wave is mild and not fatal. It`s equally fatal for those who are not vaccinated and have comorbidities. So please improve vaccination coverage and save lives," he added.
Meanwhile, regarding a lockdown, Health Minister Rajesh Tope said “If the daily (medical) oxygen requirement crosses 700 metric tons, then the state will go into lockdown automatically.”
Why is India at risk and is there reason to panic?
“In India, we may not see a surge in intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, unlike the second wave. But there could be an increase in people who need to be hospitalised, even if it is just for monitoring," says Dr A Fathahudeen, Head of the pulmonary and critical care department at Ernakulam Medical College in southern India.
He points to three factors that are cause for concern. The number of unvaccinated people, those with comorbidities and old age.
While India has managed to vaccinate a major part of its population, there are still over 100 million-odd people who are yet to receive their first dose. In the wake of the surge of the number of Omicron cases by the day, India announced opening up vaccination for those in the age group of 15 to 18 years from January 3, 2022. In addition to this, a third dose of the vaccine will be administered to the vulnerable elderly, frontline workers and healthcare workers from January 10, 2022.
Covid affects those with comorbidities to a higher extent than other healthy people. Those with diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure etc. are more at risk of being affected by the Omicron symptoms. During the second wave, India had a crumbling of the health infrastructure with a shortage of beds, oxygen and other facilities.
However, you can heave a sigh of relief as Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, a public policy and health systems expert says “The country is unlikely to see that scale of damage this time. There is a limited probability that we will see the same pattern of transmission. But it's essential that people follow Covid-appropriate behaviour so that the healthcare system is not stretched.”
How can you stay safe through the wave?
In order for you and your loved ones to stay safe through the third wave of the pandemic, here are a few precautionary measures suggested by the WHO.
Wear a mask
Mask up especially when in public spaces, as the virus travels through the respiratory tract. Double masking can also be an effective measure.
In the wake of the festive season, the country saw numerous gatherings at famous locations such as temples, beaches, shopping areas etc. Avoid stepping outside when possible.
Should you or a loved one experience the symptoms of Omicron, isolate yourself or the loved one in order to minimise the spread of the virus.
Maintain hygienic conditions in the home and office spaces, such as sanitation, in order to stay safe.