As Covid infections surge in various parts of the world, India too is on the edge. Images of past Covid waves are a horrible memory and one shudders to think of the last three years. If in the first wave, it was the migrants who in their desperation walked miles and miles to get back to their homes. The second wave was more tragic. Packed hospitals, people searching for oxygen cylinders, and a general pall of gloom that hung over the nation defined those horrifying months.

So now even as most health experts warn that chances of a fourth wave hitting India is low, the government seems to be taking no chances. It has already put in action a series of measures, like passengers arriving from China and five other countries will need to submit a negative Covid report before arrival. This took effect from January 1. Random Covid testing has already been made mandatory for two per cent of passengers arriving from outside the country. Some experts have pointed out that given the previous experience, the next 40 days are crucial for India.

The Indian government and international bodies disagree about the exact number of people who have died in India due to Covid. A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 4.7 million (nearly ten times higher than official data) people died in India because of the Covid pandemic. The government has dismissed the report and pointed out that the methodology is flawed. India, on the other hand, has been accused of data opacity. And the war of words continues. But one thing is clear given the deaths in the second wave: the government this time is being extra cautious.

Many health experts believe that it is time to mask up once again, and not panic. Many in the health community say that a fourth wave seems unlikely given the fact that Indians today seem to have developed hybrid immunity (from a mix of natural infections and vaccines). Mock drills have been conducted in various hospitals across the country and pharma companies have been asked to keep a close watch on global supply chains to ensure adequate stocks and availability of all drugs, including Covid drugs.

There is a renewed emphasis on booster doses. People who got both their two doses are now being advised to get a third (precautionary) dose. The elderly and those at higher risk have been advised to get a fourth booster dose. Opinion again remains divided on how much protection the additional doses will provide. Most health experts agree that the boosters will provide the elderly and sick another level of protection while for the younger population the benefits are marginal.

Another harsh reality is the inequality when it comes to access to vaccines and healthcare. Richer nations were keen on protecting Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) than sharing vaccines with regions like Africa, for instance. Within India, the pandemic has hurt the poor the hardest - in terms of employment or access to medical care. As we prepare to confront the virus again, let’s remember the important lessons here. First and foremost, governments need to be ready and healthcare has to be a top priority. Secondly, every social section of society deserves equal access to medical care. It’s a tall order but is achievable if society, businesses and governments work together.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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