India third wave anxiety mounts as Maharashtra reimposes restrictions

India’s prosperous state of Maharashtra, home to the country’s financial capital Mumbai, is reimposing tougher Covid-19 restrictions as public anxiety mounts about a potential third wave of infections. 

The rate of positive tests in parts of Maharashtra, where the catastrophic second wave took off, is climbing weeks after New Delhi warned that a new and potentially even more dangerous “Delta plus” variant was circulating there and in at least two other states.

The rural district of Satara went into “full” lockdown this week, while restrictions on eating out and other activities have been tightened across the state. Pune, an important business hub, has also reimposed night curfews.

Indian authorities have warned about the potential for a third wave after facing intense criticism for failing to avert a huge surge in infections in April and May, with devastating consequences.

“Everybody was caught unawares, had lowered their guard and the second wave really hit the roof,” said Vineeta Bal, at the National Institute of Immunology in Pune. 

She said avoiding the same mistakes was imperative for managing future outbreaks: “I’m not an astrologer [but] it is quite likely that one of these weeks or months, cases will go up.”

Uddhav Thackeray, chief minister of Maharashtra, and officials in his government have repeatedly warned the public that another wave could be imminent if people failed to follow social distancing guidelines.

India on Monday reported about 40,000 new infections and 700 deaths, down from more than 400,000 and 4,000 respectively at the peak in May.

The fall in infections encouraged authorities across the country to relax lockdown measures, but low vaccine coverage and a shortage of jabs remain persistent vulnerabilities. About 21 per cent of Indians have received one dose, and only 5 per cent are fully immunised.

Narendra Modi’s government, which was blasted for prematurely declaring victory over Covid-19 this year before the second wave struck and for ignoring scientists’ warnings about the dangerous Delta variant, has sought to assure the public it is prepared for another wave.

It dubbed the Delta plus strain circulating in parts of the country a “variant of concern” and called on local authorities to impose more stringent containment measures.

Scientists, however, said there was no data suggesting that it posed any greater risk than the Delta variant, which was already more than twice as infectious as the original strain.

Chandrakant Lahariya, a public health policy expert, said: “We also know that it’s [Delta plus] unlikely to cause another wave in very quick succession.”

But Brian Wahl, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, said that the introduction of stronger containment measures in areas where cases were rising was “prudent”, given the high transmissibility of the Delta variant.

“To prevent a third wave, we need to reduce opportunities for transmission,” Wahl said. “If we just get back to business as normal, a third wave is probably inevitable.”

Bhramar Mukherjee, a biostatistician from the University of Michigan, said that avoiding a third wave would depend on India’s ability to respond quickly to early signs of outbreaks, such as in Maharashtra.

“As soon as you see the uptick in cases, you have to hunker down,” she said.

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