Maharashtra alert to possibility of a third wave in July, COVID-19 task force recommends slow easing of restrictions

Published : June 18, 2021 17:01 IST

Passengers arriving from Gujarat wait in a queue for the Rapid Antigen COVID-19 test at Dadar Station in Mumbai on June 17. Photo: PTI

 

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has been erring on the side of caution in his handling of the pandemic in the State. The one mistake he made of opening up local train services to the general public is not likely to be repeated again since it has been acknowledged that it resulted in a sudden spurt in cases.

Even now, as the number of fresh cases in Mumbai and the rest of the State are dropping, the Chief Minister is still cautious. The government is on the alert for a third wave, which is expected in July on the basis of a mathematical model developed by epidemiologists, the lowering of restrictions and the possibility of the monsoon weather aiding the spread of the virus.

At a COVID task force meeting chaired by Uddhav Thackeray and attended by Rajesh Tope, State Health Minister, the strong possibility of a third wave was discussed. Fearsome numbers are being projected. In the first wave in 2020, the State registered four lakh cases. This rose to six lakh in the second wave in April 2021. In the third wave, the number of cases is expected to touch eight lakhs.

It is for this reason that the task force is against any further unlock of restrictions. Its advice is that restrictions should be maintained in Mumbai until 70 per cent of the population has been vaccinated and even after that it feels that wearing masks in public should be mandatory. The task force has also said that there should be zero tolerance for those that do not follow COVID protocols. This, however, is easier demanded than implemented. As Dr Shashank Joshi, task force member, said in an earlier interview to Frontline: “There needs to be some common sense among the people. The government and doctors can advise, but the actual carrying out of safe behaviour patterns can only be done by individuals.”

A mathematical model being developed by epidemiologists suggests that the virus seems to be behaving in some sort of a pattern. It seems to take about 56 weeks from the decline of one wave till it peaks again. The virus’ potential targets may be those from the younger population and those from the lower economic income, who need to be out and about for jobs. Although what is called the paediatric wave, in which children are affected, may not come about, the task force estimates that 10 per cent of the affected will be under the age of 18.

Citing the example of the United Kingdom where the government opened up only to see cases rising, the Maharashtra government prefers to go about the unlock process slowly. The State government has been gradually lifting restrictions based on a 5-level unlock plan, with Level 1 being a return to restriction-free living. Fears of the third wave have kept Mumbai at Level 3 even though the city qualifies for Level 2. The calculation of the levels are based on parameters such as weekly positivity rates and occupancy of oxygen beds.

The government is holding back on easing restrictions because poor compliance of the basic COVID protocols of wearing a mask and observing reasonable physical distance. A Health Department officer said in an informal conversation with Frontline that the government understood the “fatigue people were going though” as well as the frustration, especially of not being able to earn. However, he said that despite the government’s best efforts at education and persuasion and even intimidation (via fines) “people were just not responding in the right way…. The crisis is far from over. There may be a dip in the graph, but we are dealing with an unknown entity and the only protection we can safely promote is the mask. Still there are people who refuse to wear it.”

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