Has India’s COVID-19 Epidemic Ended?

What a difference a few months make.

I returned to Germany in September after a few weeks in India. It was my first visit to the country of my birth since the pandemic began. In April and May of this year, Armageddon seemed at hand there. Sirens ringing through the night, crematoriums stretched beyond capacity, dead bodies dumped in rivers because there wasn’t enough space to burn them or wood to burn them with.

I watched in horror as the deaths mounted in India. My phone lit up with frantic pleas for plasma, remdesivir, ivermectin—all those discredited magic bullets people at the ends of their tethers turned to when they saw their loved ones slipping away.

As in India, so in its capital. New Delhi seemed the epicenter of the surge in the press. Among other reasons, this was because so much of India’s reporting happens there. The numbers couldn’t be hidden. The dying was happening in plain view. The situation in the city had a personal urgency for me. My father, my sisters, and their families live there. I couldn’t look away.

I finally got to New Delhi in mid-August. I knew things were qualitatively different since the surge of the previous months. I wouldn’t have been able to visit otherwise. I was prepared for many things but not people in restaurants, busy malls, full planes to holiday destinations. Traffic!

It was as if the entire city had shaken off the terror and decided life had to carry on. The first few days there, I thought it was insane. The horrors of April and May seemed so recent.

But that is the nature of this pandemic. Time feels compressed, to the extent that you think nothing is changing or ever will. But things are fluid, situations are dynamic, and restaurants have to reopen.

People have no choice but to be resilient.

In a late August interview with an Indian media outlet, Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, remarked, “Perhaps we [in India ] are entering some kind of stage of endemicity.” The larger context was one of a stable R number (at or below 1) and numbers that were receding week on week. The rates of transmission, outside of a few outlier states (Kerala, for example), were moderate. “We’re not seeing the kind of exponential growth and peaks that we saw a few months ago,” she said.

The interview was widely quoted and shared at the time and contributed to a sense of wary optimism wherever people were gathering, whether virtually or in person. Because of her own credibility, Swaminathan’s testimony (hedged as it was with various caveats, including India’s “heterogeneity”) bore out what most people were seeing around them.

The events of April and May had led to the buildup of distrust between citizenry and government, but the one thing government couldn’t do, everyone agreed, was fudge the number of people in hospitals. It was apparent, by August, that there was plenty of space in the city’s COVID-19 wards. Finding a bed in those wards a few months ago had been literally a matter of life and death.

Things have changed—as I saw firsthand. I went to Delhi in part because my father required a medical procedure. It wasn’t coronavirus-related. The private hospital we went to was packed to anxiety-inducing levels.

I spoke with a doctor’s assistant as we waited outside the specialists’ offices (standing room only). What about the pandemic, I asked him. He shook his head. His hospital had practically no COVID-19 patients currently. A stranger in an ill-fitting mask coughed on my shoulder as he listened to our conversation.

What caused the dip, I asked the assistant? He had been on the front line.

He shrugged. “Delhi has been good with the vaccination drive.”

This was true. Indians have been getting their jabs at a rate that seems miraculous in Germany, where uptake has dwindled alarmingly.

Was that all?

The mouth-breather behind me snickered, dripping some more aerosols on my back.

The assistant looked around. “Look, whoever was going to get it did.” He walked away.

It was plausible. Read just a bit between the lines, and think about what Swaminathan said: Perhaps COVID-19 had, at least in Delhi, literally burned itself out.

I was in a crowded Delhi hospital, seeing people in dire medical need “standing on each other’s heads,” as we say in India. In any other context save COVID-19, it would have been a depressing scene.

In this strange time, in light of the carnage that had come before, it was cause for optimism. Normal service had been resumed.

At a small, mostly socially distanced dinner (with everyone vaccinated), a friend held forth about how the missteps of the COVID-19 response would come back to bite the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which holds power in the central government. The BJP also governs Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which borders New Delhi. The election to Uttar Pradesh’s state legislature will be held next February and March. Because of its numbers and hence huge influence on India’s parliament, the state has long been a political bellwether.

The BJP will struggle, said my friend authoritatively. “Everyone has lost someone.” New Delhi is the capital of India, and every conversation inevitably pivots to politics. Now that people aren’t dying of COVID-19 in droves anymore, and now that some semblance of normalcy has returned, politics is the big game in town again. But the pandemic still hangs over everything, a malignant guest that refuses to leave the ruin of the banquet it has comprehensively trashed.

It is the same in my other home, in Germany. Every conversation, including about politics, carries the weight of the last two years. The elections to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, a few weeks ago were a generational choosing. Chancellor Angela Merkel wasn’t on the ballot.

People have picked up on various things from the fractured result: the epochal decline of Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU); the rise of the previously flatlining Social Democratic Party (SPD); the fact that young people skewed equally away from the SPD and the CDU but were split in turn between the Greens and the market-liberal Free Democratic Party.

The haggling is on now for who gets what in the inevitable coalition. What is clear is that there will be massive problems for whoever assumes power. Just in terms of COVID-19, the government will inherit a vaccine drive that seems to have stalled (though the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s public health agency, just said it may have underestimated the numbers of the jabbed to a significant degree) while battling skepticism that seems to have moved from the fringes toward the center. Over all this hangs the specter of a winter surge.

In my own circle, German friends who I assumed were on the same page as myself just left their home, bag and baggage, because they refused to countenance vaccination. It was news to me that they weren’t jabbed in the first place. They fled to Costa Rica—a country where apparently COVID-19 isn’t lurking in the shadows.

As if such a place exists.

It seems mad, yet people are willing to bet their lives on it.

In Germany, in the United Kingdom, and now increasingly among the talking heads on Indian TV, the chat is of how incidence rates are no longer the best or even a valid way to gauge the public’s health. Severe illness is what matters once vaccinations start reaching significant levels. Hospitalization rates are the gold standard. Keep those numbers acceptable, we’re told; stop the health system being overwhelmed, and we can start living with the virus.

It will become just another illness to deal with, popping up now and then, still a threat to the infirm but otherwise mostly manageable. Endemic, in other words—those few letters picking up the slack now that the unicorn of “herd immunity” has disappeared over the horizon.

I had stood at the bar of the Delhi Gymkhana Club at the end of February 2020, telling a friend that the coronavirus wasn’t just a Chinese thing. He wasn’t having it. “We are ready,” he said. “If it comes.”

It had seemed pointless to argue. I was leaving India the next day. I’d be back in a few months, as usual. We’d take stock then. The bar was packed, people spilling out onto the lawns outside. The coronavirus seemed very distant.

Now, finally back after 18 months (the longest I’ve ever been away), I stood at that same bar. It was much quieter, but there were people. On the lawn, socially distanced tables harbored groups of quietly festive people. The smiles on the bartenders’ faces told their own stories. Normalcy, or at least a version of it, had returned.

For how long, I could have asked. But I didn’t. Everyone needs a break.

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