Even as we struggle to come out of the catastrophic second wave of the Covid -19, the threat of a "third wave" is slowly building up triggering anxiety and panic among individuals and health care professionals. Once again, we find ourselves stuck in the Covid limbo, caught unprepared for the resurgence of the pandemic and the unnerving isolation that might come.
A day before K Vijay Raghavan, the principal scientific adviser to the Indian government cautioned about the high likelihood of an 'inevitable third wave' in the country, Kerala's Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had written to PM Narendra Modi, urging him to ensure seamless supply of Covid -19 vaccines to fully inoculate its people.
By then, the Indian government who was internationally the most sought-after for its vaccine diplomacy was blamed domestically for the sheer mishandling of its vaccine rollout to states.
On May 31, the Supreme Court has come down heavily on the Centre questioning its vaccine policy and differential pricing of jabs. The apex court also asked the policymakers to wake up and "smell the coffee" on the digital divide as they made the rural population do mandatory CoWIN registration for availing their doses.
Kerala has been doing fairly well in this regard by aiming for door to door vaccination services to the Adivasi villagers and bedridden patients through Asha workers- who are the foot soldiers of Kerala's Covid battle. The state was also able to ensure maximum vaccine efficiency as it reported negative wastage of covid jabs by using even the extra dose available as a "wastage factor."
The highly-touted 'Kerala Model'
Though Kerala reported the first case of Covid-19 in India on January 30, 2020, the southern state was quick in action to contain the virus, thanks to the much-advanced health care delivery system in the state. What we then witnessed later was a series of organized measures at the grassroots level to test, trace and isolate the Covid patients to derail the virus transmission in the state. A dedicated team of medical professionals and health care workers in the frontline aided by a strong second line of workers including Kudumbashree and Asha workers were the pillars of what we call the 'Kerala Model'.
By early May, Kerala had successfully brought down its case count to zero, while the cases spiked in almost all other states. The 'Kerala Model' of virus containment centred on community participation soon emerged as a global standard on pandemic preparedness and response interventions, especially under resource constraints.
Fast forward to October, the state reported an average of 5000 cases with a test positivity rate (TPR) of 7.2 per cent while at the national level the TPR was 8.33 per cent. However, as the second wave of infections began in the middle of March 2021, even Kerala came under severe pressure as the state reported the third-highest number of active cases in the country after Maharashtra and Karnataka.
Things went out of control as the state went on to vote for assembly elections on April 6. The aggressive election campaigns and rallies aggravated the Covid situation which got reflected in the state's Covid counts. The active Covid cases rose from 31,493 on 7 April to 3,75,658 on 6 May which pushed the state into a series of lockdown from May 8, 2021.
Is Kerala equipped to face the Third Wave threat?
The Pinarayi Government 2.0 which took the oath of office on May 20, had twin challenges to deal with - one is tackling the prevailing humanitarian crisis and the other is about bringing in appropriate policy responses to address the post-pandemic economic situation.
As there are ample indications from the epidemiologists about an "inevitable" third wave of the Covid-19 virus, we have no option but to brace up for the next wave of the pandemic.
While briefing the media a couple of days ago the chief minister has stressed the need to firmly enforce the covid protocol to delay the time gap between the second and the possible third covid wave in the state. Though there is very little information on how worse the third wave is going to be, we ought to get well equipped to fight the virus.
Accelerating the inoculation drive seems to be the safe and logical solution to deal with the pandemic now. Or rather, we may call it an emergency since the studies suggests that a slow vaccination pace may give the virus the extra time to mutate and find ways to evade our immune system.
In a Covid review meeting held last day, Kerala's new health minister Veena George has informed that 26.2% of the total population in the state have been vaccinated with the first dose while 6.61% of the people have received the second dose.
The revised Kerala budget presented by the finance minister KN Balagopal on June 4 also prioritized "health above all". The minimal budget had announced a Covid stimulus package of Rs 20,000 crore (similar to one announced last year) and had allocated another Rs 1,000 crore for free distribution of vaccines for all above 18 years.
In addition, the budget has several initiatives for the health sector like opening isolation wards for in all government hospitals and healthcare centres, increasing the bed strength of paediatric ICUs and establishing a liquid medical oxygen plant with a capacity of 150 metric tonnes.
The post-pandemic "New Normal"
As the experts warn of an imminent third wave by September- October, it's imperative that we devote the coming months to the strengthening of the medical infrastructure while ensuring maximum vaccination coverage. But what is equally important is to train our society to cope with the post-pandemic new normal by skilling them to meet the demands of the changing landscape.
Addressing the inequalities uncovered by the pandemic, from health care to digital technology, ought to be one of the prime agendas of any government today. An upcoming third wave is certainly going to be an absolute nightmare for the middle-class and lower-middle-class population who has already hit the rock bottom by the ongoing lockdowns. Reports say that at least 7 lakh people had lost their jobs during the initial lockdown in Kerala, with unorganized sectors, shopping malls, construction and daily wagers being hard hit.
Tourism is another sector that got most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Data from the Kerala tourism department projects a decline of 61% in foreign tourists arrival while a fall of 75% was seen in the domestic tourists in the state in 2020.
The exodus of Keralites from gulf countries has also hit the state hard. As per the World Bank statement, an estimated 1.2 million Malayalais, out of 4 million migrant workers who worked in GCC countries had returned in 2020 after the pandemic. Though the budget of 2021 has acknowledged the non-resident Keralites (NRKs) under a separate headline in its introductory paragraph, it does very little to ease the distress of these returned expatriates.
On the educational front too, the state has done very little to bridge the digital divide. As per the recent data collected by Samagra Shiksha, around 50,000 students, mostly from marginalized communities had no access to digital learning in the state. As the new academic year has started in June, it's high time for the government to come with a clear action plan, rather than 'vaguely' allot another 10 crores for online education.
Though the pandemic has left us confronted with some painful insights, it has possibly put an "endgame" to the one-sided narratives of some terrible leaders and nations claiming to usher growth when ground realities were much different. To them, the pandemic demonstrates that no development is possible through political enslavement.The Kerala model too emphasizes on how the state's solid social and administrative fabric came in handy to curtail the community spread of a 'deadly' virus. With this awareness, I hope we can help our nation overcome this pandemic. We shall pass this too.