After a brief period of coronavirus restrictions due to a surge in cases caused by the Omicron variant, England recently returned to Plan A, lifting mask-mandates and other coronavirus restrictions as its Covid-19 planning shifts towards living with the virus. “As Covid becomes endemic, we will need to replace legal requirements with advice and guidance,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told lawmakers. His decision to allow citizens to resume daily activities stems from a successful booster dose rollout and the Omicron variant’s current nature, which drove cases up to record levels in December without increasing the number of hospitalizations and casualties in the same manner.
Several other European countries such as Portugal, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Spain have followed suit to consider public health and the effects of lockdown-like measures on the daily lives of citizens, businesses, and the economy. Whether the European blueprint can be applied to other nations, vaccination rates seem to be a decisive factor in deciding how safe it is to begin living with the virus.
After a devastating second wave in India, thousands of hospital beds were converted to ICU beds, anticipating a rise in Covid-19 cases fuelled by the omicron variant. Almost a month after the onset of the third wave, most Covid ICU beds across the country remain empty. Trends across Europe follow suit, with Omicron cases resulting in fewer hospitalizations. This begs the question – can India begin to live with the virus, and what will our new normal look like? While India’s Covid handling is commendable, the country has been able to fully vaccinate over 71 crore people, which given its large population, yields a vaccination coverage of only 51.7%. It seems unlikely that India will adopt a no-mask and no-restrictions policy anytime soon. However, with decreasing active cases and hospitalizations, the need for a shift in strategy and policy measures is evident. India’s priority at this stage should be to revive its economy and continue to strengthen its health care systems. India has shuffled between two extremes throughout the pandemic: undue panic and extreme carelessness.
There is a growing need to find a middle path – living safely with Covid, and taking into consideration the reality of how the pandemic has changed our socioeconomic fabric. Since the first Covid case was detected in India on January 27, 2020, the country faced a two-month-long national lockdown, heavy restrictions, and curbs on citizens’ mobility. With the overnight closure of the country, Indians were forced to think quickly and collectively decided to accept the new way of living, which put the power of human adaptability to test. Today, the new normal is mutating with the virus. As we repeatedly went back into lockdowns, descended from having a semblance of normalcy right back into isolation, we were forced to find a way to keep on living and adapting.
A Bengaluru-specific study found that while night and weekend curfews delayed the spread of the virus, eventually, Omicron would spread and affect the same number of people it would have without restrictions. It might be time to stop implementing lockdowns whose primary function is to avoid overwhelming health care systems. Following the decline in cases, states such as Maharashtra, Delhi, and Karnataka have begun easing restrictions with many reopening schools and colleges and adjusting curfews. India also began second dose inoculations for 15-18-year-olds on January 31, 2022 as a step to ensure a safer return to physical classrooms.
The high transmissibility of the Delta and Omicron variants has made it clear that the goal of zero-Covid is not possible without stringent public-health measures and restrictions. Civil society must collectively set new goals to facilitate a shift from pandemic to endemic. While targets to reduce the burden on healthcare systems continue to be necessary, there is a need for new metrics to be used to ascertain the goals that account for the impact of Covid-19 on the daily lives of people, such as missed workdays, closed businesses, or school absenteeism. Hospitalizations and ICU occupancies should be monitored closely, but mass testing may no longer be required.
Until India reaches 90% double vaccination coverage and protects vulnerable sections with a booster dose, preventive measures such as masking-up, maintaining social-distancing, and making use of self-testing kits will remain a part of people’s daily routines as citizens start stepping out. These will aid the government in implementing policies that enable society to start living with the virus.
The fear of falling sick enabled the world to develop a cashless society. Being social creatures, necessity drove us online, accelerating the infrastructure for virtual interactions. College students worldwide have spent entireties of their college experiences learning on Zoom, with many even graduating virtually. This has opened up the possibilities of developing the proper infrastructure for remote learning to those unable to access education. Similarly, offices moved entirely to work from home, showing that countries can be more productive and have more meaningful work experiences working remotely rather than in-person. A study showed that 82% of employees preferred working from home rather than returning to the workplace, and hybrid work environments are here to stay. Mental health was brought to the forefront of conversations as recognized by the 2022 budget, which will boost the mental healthcare sector in India.
The need for interaction led to a virtual entertainment sector with virtual concerts, stand-up shows, and live streaming. This proves that the pandemic has caused a shift in the way businesses will function moving forward. Video calls became a way to bring people together for everything, from birthdays and weddings to funerals, allowing people never to miss a crucial moment. Covid has normalized the online behaviours of millennials and Gen-Z for all generations, assisting the transition to the metaverse that is coming our way. As our normal keeps adapting, as tricky as it has been, it is also exciting to see the many ways in which our experiences with Covid will lead to progress in innovation, infrastructure, and quality of life.
Reya Daya is a third-year student, studying psychology and media studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include writing, photography and music.
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