India’s dangerous gamble revealed

Indian capital New Delhi is planning to relax COVID-19 restrictions from next Monday, May 31, despite the raging pandemic causing record deaths across the nation and a shortage of vaccines.

A devastating second surge of the virus throughout India appeared finally to be easing in the most populous cities of Delhi and Mumbai.

However, the paucity of vaccine supplies has opened fears in Delhi’s 20 million population, 15 million of whom are adults, about the onslaught of another wave.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said the number of new cases recorded in the 24 hours until Sunday night had dropped to around 1600, down from 8500 in mid-May, and nearly 30,000 in mid-April.

While he extended Delhi’s ongoing lockdown by another week, Mr Kejriwal said a phased relaxation will begin in June if the case trajectory and positivity rate continued to decline.

Despite a pledge to ramp up immunisation, the capital has just endured a weekend on which vaccination centres were closed for lack of supply.

As the coronavirus pandemic romps through the nation – the death toll topping 300,000 and the infection rate 26.8 million – just 3.8 per cent of the 1.4 billion population are vaccinated.

The decision to lift coronavirus restrictions from next week for a largely unprotected community and possibly mass, maskless gatherings is seen as potentially disastrous.

However, in a livestreamed press briefing, Mr Kejriwal said the relaxations would “be implemented in a phased way”.

“We cannot open everything at one go. There is an immense risk in it,” he said.

“However, if the curve continues to decline like this for a week, we will start a phased un-lockdown process from May 31.”

In reality, Delhi has endured not two but four waves of the pandemic, the most recent leaving the healthcare system buckling, and oxygen and medical supplies depleted.

A weekend curfew rolled into a full lockdown in Delhi on April 20, but authorities say activities vital to the city’s economy needed to resume.

This could go ahead provided mass gatherings remained forbidden, mask wearing was mandatory and the vaccination program expanded, experts said.

“People must remember that they cannot let their guards down like they did before the second wave of the pandemic hit India,” said Dr Puneet Misra, Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) professor of community medicine.

“For governments, this is also the time to scale up vaccination.”

Dr Misra’s colleague, AIIMS community medicine professor Anand Krishnan said: “The risk will be there.

“We need to continue to follow all precautions, including double-masking, avoiding crowds and gatherings of any kind, be it social, religious or political.

“The only answer is vaccination.”

Mr Kejriwal said getting everyone vaccinated was his “top priority”.

“If everyone gets vaccinated, maybe we will be spared of the third wave.

“We are concerned about vaccine shortage. But I am sure that too will be resolved soon.”

He did not outline what restriction would be eased from the current situation in which all businesses, except food deliveries, pharmacies and other essentials, were closed.

Nationwide, India registered 222,315 new infections on Monday, however the number was likely to be underreported, partly due to lack of testing, particularly in rural areas.

Three weeks ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced all adults would be vaccinated, but the plan ground to a halt in Delhi when it ran out of doses.

Mr Kejriwal said he was ready to ramp up supplies direct from manufacturers of up to 24 million doses over the next three months to vaccinate all the city’s adults.

However, as worldwide demand puts pressure on supplies, states throughout India are competing for doses from companies like Moderna, which will only sell to national governments.

Around 26 per cent of Delhi’s adults have so far received at least one dose of vaccine, with Mr Kejriwal vowing “to buy vaccines for our entire population no matter how much it costs”.

“High vaccine coverage can totally reduce the possibility of a third wave,” he said.



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