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View: This is not the time to sugar-coat any COVID-19 messaging

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‘Is it not an open invitation for the virus to infect us?’ The health ministry posed this question last week while showcasing a 20-second video of maskless vacationers at Kempty Falls in Mussoorie. ‘Zara sochiye’ – pause and think – joint secretary, health, Lav Agarwal said as he showed how Britain, Indonesia and neighbouring Bangladesh were already facing a third wave.

This July 9 warning bore an uncanny resemblance to a similar one given by GoI on February 4. The situation is still worrisome across the world as the US, Brazil, Germany and Britain – even as looking at the maskless, social distancing-crushed crowds at Wembley Stadium in London and at Wimbledon on Sunday, it would seem otherwise – are facing a rise in Covid numbers. India’s Covid-19 case trend is exactly at the same place as it was in February – right at the beginning of the second wave.

On February 4, the contribution of active cases to the total Covid-19 caseload was 1.4%. Today, the active cases form 1.46% of the total caseload. The case fatality rate was 1.43% in February. Now it’s 1.32%. Maharashtra and Kerala were two states that were contributing the most number of active cases in India. Last week, the health ministry once again said that half of India’s active Covid cases were from these two states.

Along with this is India’s response remaining the same as it was in February – treating cases as localised outbreaks restricted to specific states, and portraying a positive picture of overall pandemic control. As in February, the health ministry has consistently said over the last one week that overall cases are declining, and only a few states have been reporting a slight increase.

Despite a fierce second wave, which has left India’s healthcare system overwhelmed and people emotionally scarred, state governments and GoI are debating whether kanwar yatra – the annual pilgrimage undertaken by Shiv devotees across Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh who trek and bike across miles carrying Ganga water in pots back to temples in their villages and hometowns – should be allowed to proceed or not. This is just three months after Uttarakhand hosted the Mahakumbh in Haridwar, and the country held elections in five states with telling consequences.

While the health ministry is scowling at Covid-fatigued vacationers undertaking what it calls ‘revenge travel’, it has kept a safe distance from a decision on kanwar yatra. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami on Sunday, however, wasn’t silent, stating that the yatra is a matter of ‘shraddha’ (reverence) and ‘aastha’ (faith), and that ‘god would not like anyone to die’. Last week, the Uttar Pradesh government also announced that the yatra would be allowed from July 25.

It is time GoI intervenes, and insist that any congregation – be it religious yatras or administrative and political events – follow strict protocols of masking and social distancing. With a majority of India’s population yet to be double-vaccinated, following other countries like Britain (which has its majority double-vaccinated) into allowing mass gatherings is still a dangerous luxury for India.

How do you ensure – even if one is conservative in one’s estimates – a million people follow social distancing norms? Or take a dip in the river without getting their masks wet? Can any law enforcement agency deliver when it comes to controlling mass Covid protocol violations? Then how can governments of a Covid-battered country be ‘debating’ on this matter at all?

The monsoon session of Parliament starts next week. GoI has now done away with the need of a Covid test for even partially vaccinated MPs. Apart from the larger data-driven debate of breakthrough infections in partially vaccinated individuals, do we really need physical sittings in Parliament? When many other countries are holding virtual parliaments, the presiding officers of a global IT power could certainly look for a similar solution to protect our elected representatives.

This is not the time to sugar-coat any message. India is witnessing an increase in Covid-19 cases in Maharashtra, Kerala and northeastern states. Let us call it that – an increase.

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