Experts bat for restrictions instead of lockdown

‘Curbs should be tailored to local situations’

For a little over a month, Tamil Nadu has been registering a surge in fresh coronavirus infections. While a combination of factors are at play, experts strongly believe that a blanket lockdown is nowhere near a solution; rather strict regulations and restrictions tailored to local situations are the way ahead.

Since March 5, when the State’s daily count first exceeded 500, Tamil Nadu has added nearly 57,000 more COVID-19 cases to its tally. While poor compliance with pandemic-appropriate behaviour is cited as one of the main reasons for the surge, the role of new variants could not be ruled out, experts said.

“I never expected a second wave,” T. Jacob John, retired professor of virology, Christian Medical College, Vellore, said. “Looking at graphs and statistics, about 60% of the country’s population was already infected in the first wave. The remaining 40% was not affected. I thought it would be slow, and we will have steady numbers like what we reached in January and February. But things changed in the beginning of March. I think there was the human element and virus element that came together at the wrong time. People let their guard down. Gatherings like weddings took place like no COVID-19 was happening. We let the virus blip up. ”

‘Poor compliance’

A combination of reasons led to the surge in cases, according to Prabhdeep Kaur, Deputy Director, National Institute of Epidemiology-Indian Council of Medical Research. “First, there is poor compliance with COVID-19 appropriate behaviour. There is decreased compliance with masking and maintaining physical distancing. There was an increase in the size of gatherings, particularly due to elections. The recent opening of educational institutions is among the reasons,” she said.

Dr. John said India was not testing for mutants and was caught unawares. “The currently spreading virus has to be one or more fast-spreading mutants. Look at the numbers growing that is different from the way it grew the last time. Going by the rapidity of the spread, the R-value (reproduction) will be twice than that of last time. The faster spreading variant, along with a lack of precautions, has led to the second wave. Either one of which would not have created the same magnitude, except for a little rise,” he said.

What are the key areas of concern? Dr. Kaur said: “Unlike last year, there is low risk perception among the public. In particular, they are tired of the precautionary measures. There is a false sense of protection that as soon as they receive the first dose of vaccination. Another area of concern is the disruption it could cause to other health care services."

However, the experts said lockdown was definitely not a solution. “Strict mask wearing and strict crowd control are. There should be restrictions in public places such as restaurants, places of worship, and on gatherings, and restriction in the number of persons attending weddings and funerals. We should do all things short of a lockdown. We need the social vaccine now more than ever,” Dr. John said.

Dr. Kaur called for more restrictions tailored to a local situation rather than a blanket lockdown, including looking at closed, poorly-ventilated spaces, crowded areas, and restrictions in areas experiencing surges. “In high risk areas, intensify surveillance, have extensive contact tracing and testing, focus on areas where there is a rapid surge.”

Vaccination drive

As far as vaccination is concerned, Dr. John said schools and colleges were opened before staff were vaccinated.

“Tamil Nadu, however, vaccinated the polling staff and this kind of thinking is what we need to apply. Vaccination must be given but it cannot interfere in the current wave. For Covishield, we need to bring back the four-week interval for the second dose during this crisis,” he said.

Vaccination should be scaled up very rapidly for the 45+ years group, Dr. Kaur added.

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