On the threshold of a new year, the COVID-19 pandemic no longer seems terrifying to many, as overall cases maintain a downward trajectory and a massive vaccination programme is set to roll out.
Normal life has resumed in substantial measure: there is a scaling up of long distance travel, elections have been held and mass protests are being organised.
At the same time, critical activities such as on-campus education remain mostly suspended and many senior citizens are unable to access periodic health checks.
Anecdotal evidence points to infections spreading in commercial centres and at workplaces. Therefore, there is a long way to go before people can really put the pandemic behind them. A large section of the population has been able to shelter from the coronavirus, particularly the elderly and people with morbidities.
Relaxing the vigil now is bound to prove costly for them. It is essential, therefore, for States and all citizens to accord the Home Ministry’s guidelines on “Surveillance, Containment and Caution” for January the highest importance.
That the U.K. variant of the virus has now been found in India underscores the point that easing off on testing, tracing and containment could prove dangerous.
This mutant is likely to have initially travelled to several locations before it was detected, and there is a likelihood that its footprint may cover third countries from which India continues to operate bubble flights.
The Home Ministry has recalled the orders of the Supreme Court in a suo motu writ petition on December 18, calling for strict adherence to COVID-19-appropriate behaviour, especially during the New Year celebrations.
The Court wanted deployment of more police personnel at places where people are likely to gather, such as food courts, eateries, vegetable markets, and bus and train stations.
It made the valid observation that careless people infringed other citizens’ right to life by ignoring the use of masks and social distancing, while various protocols had failed to stop the virus spreading “like wildfire” due to lack of implementation.
The government was also mandated by the Court, under Article 21, to ensure that it invests sufficiently in its hospitals and those of the local administration, acknowledging the right to health and affordable treatment for all. Now that the Court is seized of the issue, States can be asked to individually report their compliance when the Bench takes it up again in a month.
Even with a steadily expanding base of vaccinated individuals, surveillance and caution are essential. Governments should seize the opportunity presented by the pandemic and set up a public health backbone in all States, in cities and rural areas, to do the monitoring. This will have the twin advantage of rapidly advancing universal health coverage through health and wellness centres.