Modi, Kejriwal Don't Think Omicron Is Spreading Locally. So Why Are They Prepping for a Crisis?

Our situation would be laughable if there weren’t lives at stake: two major political leaders, one heading the country and the other the capital, have played down the extent of the problem yet are openly preparing for a crisis.

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There’s an underrated Tamil film, released in 2014, called Vaayai Moodi Pesavum – Tamil for ‘Shut your mouth and talk’. It’s about the outbreak of a fictitious virus that spreads when people talk, in a fictitious hilltop town where the state’s incompetent health minister (in the story) happens to be vacationing.

As the first cases are being reported, the minister is invited to a TV talk show along with a member of a rival party. When the host asks how the minister’s government plans to respond, the minister says it plans to purchase and distribute face masks and medicines en masse to prevent an outbreak. This is a time when little is known about the virus – much less that it spreads when people talk – so the minister is lampooned for his ignorant answer.

The member of the rival party also alleges that the government is simply preparing for a scam, in mask procurement, even as it fans the flames of panic by suggesting with the widespread distribution of masks and medicines that the virus is contagious. This is an important tidbit: that the government communicates just as much when it communicates per se as it does in the manner in which it prepares for something.

Also read: Global COVID Deaths This Year Exceed Combined Death Toll of HIV, TB, Malaria in 2020

This morning, The Wire Science published a report on three COVID-19 preparedness review meetings that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and Union health ministry secretary Rajesh Bhushan had each chaired vis-à-vis their plans to ensure India’s and the national capital’s healthcare systems don’t crumble in the coming weeks, as the country and the city both rack up more cases of the omicron variant. (The tally today stands at 358.)

This was a Vaayai Moodi Paesavum moment.

The Indian government has been prevaricating on the need for booster doses and vaccines for children – even to the extent of tacking these groups on to the bottom of the priority hierarchy. (It’s possible that the government is wary of the better-informed but less common-sense-bearing elite rushing to hog all the available vaccines once more, but there has been neither communication nor evidence in the public domain to support this view.)

There may be too few cases of the omicron variant in the country to support national studies about disease severity and effect on vaccine-induced immunity. But at the same time, the government has also been far from willing to consider that the omicron variant is spreading locally: its press releases have all insisted that new people infected by the variant travelled recently (and that if any died, they did because of their comorbidities).

On Thursday, Modi asked the top government officials present in his meeting to improve contact-tracing efforts. We remember the time when the government denied community transmission of the novel coronavirus well into the country’s first major outbreak in early- to mid-2020; former ICMR epidemiology chief Raman Gangakhedkar was the first government official in fact to admit the possibility, in a July 2020 interview to The Wire, albeit only after he had retired.

But by conducting review meetings chaired by the prime minister, the government is now signalling more than caution: that there is an outbreak in the offing. Mind you, neither the Union health ministry nor other ministries and departments have said anything explicitly about the possibility of an omicron- or a delta-fuelled ‘third wave’. But at the same time, its meetings – and the focus therein on speeding up vaccination, conducting more tests, readying hospital beds, antiviral drug and liquid medical oxygen supplies, keeping the TPR below 10%, and imposing night and/or weekend curfews – point almost unequivocally in the direction of an imminent outbreak.

Watch: ‘Delaying COVID Boosters Could Result in 5% More Deaths Than Otherwise’: Top Virologist

This discordance is further accentuated on Delhi chief minister Kejriwal’s part. In his review meeting, Kejriwal reportedly said that the national capital is preparing to confront a worst-case scenario of 1 lakh new cases per day. As The Wire Science report notes, Delhi reported 26,000 new COVID-19 cases at the height of the devastating second wave. If the chief minister believes that preparing for four-times as many cases should reassure his people, he would be wrong.

As with Prime Minister Modi and health secretary Bhushan, this is Kejriwal’s tacit admission that the city could in fact have that many new cases in an impending outbreak, likely of the omicron variant, and that that is what the city is preparing for. And like Modi and Bhushan and others, the Kejriwal government is yet to admit the possibility that the omicron variant could be spreading locally – instead of continuing to be ‘imported’ by international travellers.

(Even if the omicron variant really causes milder disease than the delta, it spreads more, and as Shahid Jameel put it, a fraction of a large number is still a large number.)

Our situation would be laughable if there weren’t lives at stake: two major political leaders, one heading the country and the other the capital, have played down the extent of the problem yet are openly preparing for a crisis. To make things worse, the basis of Keriwal’s assurances is also questionable – for things to get worse to the point of there being one lakh new cases a day, and the demand for medical oxygen soaring to require the city to deploy its growing fleet of tankers.

Instead, and given that it continues to believe that the omicron variant isn’t moving around locally, the Delhi government should earmark tests to identify and mitigate transmission ‘hotspots’, and its resources for contact-tracing, isolation and vaccination.

Vaayai Moodi Paesavum concludes by suggesting that a big chunk of our problems would go away if we started to think before talking. Its story presumes the existence of ministers who don’t know what they’re talking about. Our ministers, however, aren’t plagued by a lack of knowledge. They just think the people should be.