The start of a new financial year does not seem to have happened on the most auspicious of notes. Raising a question mark over the optimistic projections of a robust recovery in 2021-22, especially after the coronavirus-induced decline in GDP in the previous year, is the fact that large swathes of the country are yet again in the throes of a fresh wave of the pandemic. Two days ago, the country recorded over one lakh new cases, a record since the pandemic first hit the country. A worrying aspect is the detection of newer mutants of the virus, with the UK variety common in Punjab and the South African mutant seen in Maharashtra.
Medical experts discount media speculation that these mutants are weaker in strength than the original coronavirus. A day after Maharashtra and Rajasthan enforced night curfews to try and stem the sharp spurt in infections, the national capital followed suit, imposing a 10pm to 5am curfew till April 30. The sudden increase in the Covid-19 cases and a high positivity rate were cited by the Delhi Government as reason for the drastic measure. Like all governments, Delhi too was reluctant to enforce fresh restrictions, but there being no respite from the virus despite a large number of people taking the vaccines daily the night curfew was considered necessary. People employed in essential services were exempt from the curfew. Delhi on Monday recorded over 3,500 new cases of infections.
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister took stock of the situation at a virtual meeting with a number of chief ministers at which top health officials and those specially tasked to handle the pandemic were present. A number of chief ministers voiced the demand for a free hand to manage the state-centric vaccination drives, though how it would help overcome supply bottlenecks and other shortages of health workers and facilities to step up the pace of vaccinations was unclear.
We think given that the vaccination drive has to necessarily cover the entire country, given that the production of the vaccines at this juncture is limited to two manufacturers who are unable to meet the national and international commitments, a centralised system is best under the circumstances. Individual states competing with one another to get their hands on a larger number of vaccines will not only create confusion but would disrupt its current orderly implementation.
Also, to demand that those below the age of 45 ought to be allowed to take the jabs while neither everyone above 45 has received it and those above 60 are in the process of getting their second jabs is again playing to the gallery. For once, the CMs should stop using the pandemic to score brownie points against the Centre and their counterparts in other states. The pandemic is a national menace and it is best the fight against is led by the Centre with the full cooperation of all chief ministers regardless of their party affiliation. Of course, the Centre should consider approving a couple of more vaccines for use in India. Reports that the Russian vaccine might soon be licensed give hope of greater supplies and higher number of daily vaccinations.
Meanwhile, there are renewed jitters about the economy.
The headline in a pink daily, ‘Maharashtra Covid curbs sink markets’, on Tuesday tells but only a partial story. The benchmark Sensex fell 870 points on Monday. The rupee lost 18 paise against the dollar to end the day at 73.29. With the most industrialised state in the grip of a second surge of infections, and on Tuesday fresh fears emerging of other states considering restrictive measures to contain the spread, market sentiment turning pessimistic again should not surprise anyone.
Aside from the farm sector, other sectors are still to capture the pre-Covid-19 normal. The pick-up in demand in key sectors such as autos, services, hotels and entertainment is slow. The new restrictions will further hinder the return to normal. Meanwhile, if it is any consolation, much of Western Europe is yet again in the grip of the virus, forcing several countries to impose restrictions. The US too is far from being normal though the inoculation programme is gathering pace. The UK has managed to administer a record percentage of jabs and may be considering further opening up but the spread of the virus in continental Europe is a constraining factor.
In other words, we should not be surprised by the fresh spurt in new infections. But we all need to cooperate with the health authorities to limit the danger and the damage.