In the district with the highest number of cases, there’s some good news — more testing, lower mortality — but hospital beds are filling up fast and there’s no room for laxity or complacency.
The morgue attendant rolled out a trolley carrying the dead body of a 27-year-old youth in a black bag. A transparent plastic rectangular patch on the body bag revealed the face. His 50-year-old cancer-stricken mother was home, waiting for a last look. My fingers trembled while setting up a video call, but I managed. Her cry upon seeing her son’s face shattered the silence of the morgue. The youth was hurriedly laid to rest — just another grim statistic in the increasing number of COVID-19 deaths.
A year after the pandemic struck, Pune district is moving towards a COVID death toll of 10,000. It would bring the grieving mother no solace to know that deaths in the 21-40 age group (671 so far) have remained constant through the course of the pandemic. More than half of those who died in the district were in the older 51-70 age group. The proportion of the younger population to be infected has not radically changed.
Joy Merwin Monteiro, a scientist analysing Covid data with the Pune Knowledge Cluster (PKC), says he has no reason to believe that the younger population has been contributing more to the second wave (January-March 2021) as compared with any other time during the pandemic in Pune. He believes there has actually been a reduction in Covid mortality over time. If deaths were to be considered vis-a-vis the number of recoveries in three relevant time frames over the last 12 months, Pune city had a 4.6 per cent mortality rate in the March-June 2020 period (early days of the pandemic), 2.4 per cent from August-September 2020 (the previous peak) and 0.95 per cent from January-March 2021 (second wave). This shows that mortality during the second wave is almost five times lower than the early days of the pandemic and almost 2.5 times lower than the previous peak, says Monteiro. The PKC has been set up by the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the government of India to bring academia, R&D institutions and industry to address challenging problems in the Pune region. Union health ministry data has it that Pune tops among districts in the country with the most active COVID-19 cases (59,475). It is closely followed by Mumbai at 46,248 and Nagpur at 45,322 (figures as on March 30).
But with 6,000-8,000 cases being reported daily in this second wave, which has taken the cumulative caseload in Pune district to 5.25 lakh, the best preventive options remain speedy vaccinations, masking and social distancing. Many people, such as Sudhir Mehta, coordinator, Pune platform for Covid-19 response, and president, Mahratta Chamber of Commerce Industries and Agriculture (MCCIA), have written to Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan of how it is fast becoming impossible to trace the source of infections. A large number of people are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic compared to the infectivity in cases last year. This means a very large number of infected people remain undetected and continue to transmit the virus. Pune is managing to vaccinate, on an average, 34,000-36,000 people daily which, experts say, needs to be stepped up specially for vulnerable adults.
Data is currently under assessment for links between double mutant strains of SARS-CoV2 and rising cases during this second wave but what is known is that this time around, free movement of people and reduced adherence to physical distancing guidelines have contributed to a large increase in cases in the city.
Tests have increased from a mere 3,000 daily in February to over 20,000 in Pune. Prioritising the vulnerable groups is crucial but experts have also asked for a close check on the mobile younger lot. Emerging data is showing that young adults are contributing to at least 15 per cent of the infections. The good news, though, is a fast recovery in this age group. Still with hospital beds filling up and patients in home isolation now under the scanner, there is clearly no room for laxity or complacency.
But how much of this do you impress upon children sorely missing their school atmosphere or Covid-fatigued youth yearning to move around freely? The harsh reality remains that for every attempt to wish away the virus and get life back on the rails, there will be someone like the young man, whose mother has been left to grapple with the tragedy of his death.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 6, 2021 under the title ‘Second wave, silver lining’. [email protected]
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