The Political Fix: After talk of herd immunity, what explains India’s severe Covid-19 second wave?

Could it be a variant?

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The Big Story: Comeback

Little over a year ago, with around 500 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country and 10 deaths, Prime Minister Narendra Modi put India into a three-week nationwide lockdown, one of the harshest in the world. Those three-weeks would end up being extended to a little over two months, sparking off a migrant crisis, a historic economic collapse – and a Covid graph that continued to point straight up.

It would continue to do so until September, with the economy continuing to open, before suddenly beginning to fall, for no discernible reason. As numbers steadily began to drop towards the end of 2020, the country began to be praised for breaking the link between Covid-19 spread and increased mobility.

While many countries in the West were still relying on lockdowns to control Covid-19 numbers, India somehow seemed to be emerging from the crisis without imposing restrictions.

Some of this was attributed to the massive initial spread and sero-surveys that suggested India might be approaching herd immunity, a situation where sufficient people have been infected and developed antibodies to lower the chances of the disease spreading rampantly again. And all of this was before India’s vaccination effort had begun in earnest, and even as new variants of the disease appeared to be rampaging through Europe.

Conditions seemed sufficient for some to confidently declare that there will be no second wave in India.

Here is how that prediction has fared:

India is now firmly in the grip of a second wave, which is moving much quicker than even the worst weeks of 2020 and has already seen three states – Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab – surpass their peaks in new daily cases from the first wave.

Around two weeks ago, the daily number of new Covid-19 cases was around 20,000 cases per day. The past two days have seen more than 62,000 confirmed cases each, giving a sense of how quickly the figures have spiked.

As Hindustan Times’ Jamie Mullick and Abhishek Jha wrote on March 26:

“In just a week, the rate of new infections have increased by 66%. This is the largest week-on-week case growth witnessed in the country since May 10 [2020].

To be sure, an important distinction between the case trajectory in May and today is the sheer volume of cases — in May, there were only around 3,500 new cases across India every day, against the current new infection rate of over 47,000 new cases every day.

This means that the case rate in the second wave is growing much faster than what was seen even when the peak of the first wave was ravaging through August and September. If such a week-on-week growth rate persists, then the second wave may surpass the peak of the first wave in April, shows data.”

As in the early months of the pandemic, the numbers are once again concentrated in the South and the West – with Maharashtra alone contributing more than 60% of all of India’s cases – while the North and East showing a smaller increase, so far.

Deaths due to Covid-19 have begun climbing as well. Although some have insisted that this second wave has been less deadly, in terms of casualties, than the first one, most experts remind us that deaths are a lagging indicator – meaning they tend to show up in the data a little while after case numbers climb.

In response, states are beginning to re-impose restrictions that had been done away with earlier.

Maharashtra, the worst-hit state, has imposed a ban on all social, political or religious gatherings, as well as requiring cinemas, malls, restaurants and public spaces like gardens and beaches to be shut from between 8 pm and 7 am. This approach – the ‘night curfew’ appears to be in force in affected districts in a number of states, despite the Centre saying these do not have much of an impact.

The sudden spike in cases has also added extra scrutiny to India’s massive vaccination drive. In sheer numbers, India is vaccinating a huge number – more than 2 million – a day. But relative to the country’s massive population, that pace is extremely slow, and would mean many months before coming close to the perceived herd immunity threshold, and that is assuming the vaccines work against new variants.

Possibly in response to those concerns, news emerged that India was temporarily halting vaccine exports to other countries – earning some headlines about this being a ‘blow to dozens of nations’.

This coverage has received pushback, in part because the headlines seemed to lack vital context: India has exported more vaccines than it has used on its own population so far, quite unlike the US and UK which have so far stockpiled their doses instead.

Still, the coverage prompted India – home to the world’s largest vaccine manufacturing companies – to clarify that it has not banned vaccine exports, and will continue to supply them in a phased manner. Domestically, however, questions have been raised about why India has exported much more than it has used at home, particularly in light of the second wave.

Meanwhile, attention has turned to understand why after December and January made it seem as if the worst was over, the numbers have shot up so suddenly.

The flip side of India breaking the link between increased mobility and wider Covid-19 spread means that it is harder now to understand what changed between 2020 and this year. Mobility figures, for example, have not changed massively over the last month or so, making it hard to blame the huge spike on just people moving around more.

Were we reading the data from sero-surveys wrong?

That is the question that data journalist Rukmini S asked on her podcast, The Moving Curve, concluding that policymakers and experts read too much into the numbers without fully understanding how immunity would actually work with Covid-19. Many assumed, for example, that herd immunity was imminent, even though it is unclear what a certain level of antibodies in the system actually means and how long they are likely to last.

Could the explanation be a Covid-19 variant?

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, whose state is seeing higher daily numbers now than it did in 2020, has said that 81% of 401 samples sent for genomic sequencing showed that they came from the ‘lineage’ of the more virulent UK variant, B.1.1.7.

The Union Health Ministry has also said that a new “double mutant variant” as well as “variants of concern” had been detected in 18 states, though it said not enough is known yet to blame India’s second wave on these developments.

The simple answer then is that we just don’t know what is powering this second wave.

Unlike in 2020, when Covid-19 was still new – and seemed capable of swallowing everything before it – for many Indians, including policymakers, it now seems like a much more known commodity, one that is not as scary as it was made out to be.

Last year, for example, much effort was devoted to trying to figure out when cases would peak and start to go down. When it did happen, in September 2020, nobody was quite sure why. Despite a year’s worth of understanding the virus, gathering data and building models, we still seem to have very little sense of how the pandemic will proceed.

As Indian Express’ Amitabh Sinha writes:

“As of now, there is no indication that this second wave is coming to an end anytime soon. It could again happen all of a sudden, like last time, when the numbers, rather inexplicably, had begun to come down after reaching 98,000 cases a day…

What is also possible is that different states might peak at different times…

It is possible that Maharashtra begins to show a decline in a few weeks’ time but by then the action might shift to Andhra Pradesh, or Karnataka or Tamil Nadu. Still later, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh or West Bengal might begin their second wave when other states go in a decline.”

Amid all this uncertainty, the Reserve Bank of India Governor Shaktikanta Das is confident that the second wave will not have a major effect on the Indian economy. Given the general success of Covid-19 predictions, though, we may have to return to those words sooner rather than later.

Election Watch

Despite the rise in Covid-19 cses, campaigning for the upcoming elections in four states and one union territory has continued apace, with politicians of all stripes continuing to hold rallies and road shows. Last week saw the first phase of assembly elections in Assam and West Bengal, with Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry around the corner.

In case you missed these links on Saturday, here are our election reports from the ground:

Arunabh Saikia in Assam:

Shoaib Daniyal in West Bengal:

Sruthisagar in Tamil Nadu:

Thanks for reading the Political Fix. We’ll be back over the weekend with a Q&A and links to pieces from around the web. Send feedback to rohan@scroll.in.