Tackling the Delta variant
The icddr,b study that has found 68 percent of coronavirus cases in Dhaka city to be of the highly transmissible Delta variant is no great surprise. The rapid spread of infections from the border districts, where the variant was first detected, to other districts in the hinterland made it quite inevitable that it would soon spread to the cities as well. But what is surprising is the lack of foresight and planning for a crisis that we knew was coming ever since the variant wreaked havoc in India, and then Nepal, where hospitals were overwhelmed and thousands of people were dying every day. To think that we would not face a similar crisis, especially after the frightening experience of April in Dhaka and other cities, was naïve if not foolhardy.
Like a broken record we can talk about all the steps we didn't take to keep the Delta variant infections in check. But this will not take us back to the time when the rate of infections was coming down and there was virtually no sign of Covid in many rural areas. Now the scenario is changing even in villages, where more deaths are being reported of people with Covid-like symptoms.
Which brings us to another big problem that experts have been crying themselves hoarse about—the low number of testing for the virus and the antigens, which prevents us from getting a more accurate picture of how widely the infection has spread and due to which variant. Experts apprehend that there are many unreported deaths in areas where transmissions are high. The World Health Organization had announced at the very beginning of this pandemic the crucial need for testing, isolation and contact tracing—the most basic steps in the fight against the virus. So why have we kept our testing numbers so low?
While at present the Delta variant is dominating, other variants are also at work, including the South African, Nigerian and UK variants. The Delta variant is a cause for greater worry because of the way it has devastated India having a much faster transmission rate and leading to very serious health complications in a very short time.
While we know we have lost the valuable window of opportunity, we must now tackle the impending crisis judiciously. This means taking immediate measures that have worked in the past and taking them simultaneously. The government must ramp up testing (both for the virus and antigens), ensure free testing for the lower-income groups, and enforce health guidelines especially mask wearing and social distancing all over the country, especially in crowded areas. Going out on the streets of Dhaka, it seems as if there is no virus, with crowds in shopping areas, traffic jams and many people not bothering to wear masks. This must stop immediately, with strict restrictions on the gathering of large numbers of people. At the same time, the government must accelerate the procurement and administering of vaccines nationwide so that people can be protected from the severe conditions of the virus that can lead to death. Increasing ICU beds and high-flow nasal cannula and oxygen supply in hospitals have to be done on an urgent basis as the crisis is far from over.