After a debilitating second wave of COVID-19, cash-strapped State governments have responded to falling cases with a swift unlock programme in most districts. Some States have opted to open the floodgates, allowing dine-in restaurants, gymnasia, most shops and religious centres in areas with low test positivity rates for the coronavirus. Lockdown-weary citizens, on their part, have greeted the reopening with road trips to tourist centres, even travelling across inter-State borders. This is not surprising, considering that the country has gone through weeks of anguish, when death and misery touched the lives of millions. The déjà vu moment, worryingly similar to the misplaced optimism following the first wave, is a time for caution and to avoid the missteps that produced the deadly second wave. Already, Maharashtra has expressed worry that there is a noticeable rise in cases in just a week; the experience of other States will soon be known. There is a lot to be concerned about, since the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus that overran cities and rural areas in April-May continues to threaten unvaccinated populations, senior citizens and people with weak immunity in particular. The likely risk for children also causes apprehension. That it has morphed into a delta plus variant through a fresh mutation underscores the need for greater vigilance.
With the unprecedented knowledge base created in just over a year on COVID-19, governments have the resources to plan finely tuned reopening strategies. The current consensus on preventing spread, as WHO points out, is to avoid the three Cs — crowded places, close-contact settings and confined and enclosed spaces. The intersection of these is the most dangerous, and relaxations given by some States fall within this red zone: dine-in restaurants, cultural performances, shops, and social events in enclosed spaces. A significant number of people are unwilling to wear masks and adhere to distancing, making it difficult to stop transmission, including on trains and buses. Neither have State governments moved to provide certified masks to the public liberally, to be able to insist that they be worn. The insurance and banking sectors have made slow progress in enabling employees to work from home using real time platforms that can reduce crowding in offices. It is clear that until vaccines are freely available and cover every individual, the economy can reopen with a modicum of safety only with strong leadership. A record vaccination rate on a given day may encourage more people to come forward to be immunised, but there are not enough doses available, and data show rural areas are doing badly compared to cities even for the first dose. The Centre is cautious this time, warning of a third wave, but the imperative is to open windows of activity gradually without dropping the ball on safety.