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Only about 15% have been immunised outside urban areas

Vignesh Radhakrishnan CHENNAI

Even as the second COVID-19 wave shows signs of easing, the spread of cases in rural areas and the relatively lower vaccination numbers there points to a burgeoning crisis. During the first wave (which peaked in September 2020), the COVID-19 cases started piling up in urban areas initially and spread to rural areas (including semi-rural ones) constituting 65% of all cases.

The second wave also followed a similar pattern. The split was 52%-48% in urban/semi-urban vs rural/semi-rural areas in March 2021 and by mid-May, the estimated case load split was 65% in rural/semi-rural areas vs 35% in urban/semi-urban areas. These percentages are also skewed due to the lack of adequate testing facilities in many parts of rural India.

Adding more cause for concern is the fact that the rise in registered cases has not seen a concomitant increase in vaccination in rural areas. While more than 60% of cases were from the rural and semi-rural districts, only an estimated 12%-15% of inhabitants have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by May 14.

In contrast, an estimated 30% of residents in urban and 19% in semi-urban areas have received at least one shot. In terms of being fully vaccinated (both doses), only an estimated 2.6% of rural residents received them by May 14, even as an estimated 7.7% of urban dwellers had received both doses.

Vaccination helps

Data from some States show that the daily confirmed cases have decreased among the vaccinated higher age groups, while the infections among the non-vaccinated continue to rise during the second wave. Experts have also said that vaccines effectively prevent severe disease even if a vaccinated individual gets infected.

The lower vaccination numbers in semi-rural and rural areas suggest that the impact of the pandemic will be more severe there, as is being reported anecdotally from ground reports in several parts of north India, in particular.

‘The virus hasn’t got tired, so we cannot relax just yet’
Tracking the virus: Over 18 lakh samples were tested across the country on Monday.Shiv Kumar PushpakarShiv Kumar Pushpakar

Special CorrespondentNew Delhi

Over 98% of India’s population continues to be vulnerable or susceptible to COVID-19, said Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary, Health Ministry, on Tuesday, adding that so far only 1.8% of the total population of the country had been affected.

“Despite the high number of COVID cases reported so far, we have been able to contain the spread to under 2% of the population. But with the majority still vulnerable, we cannot let our guard down and hence continued focus on containment is critical. The virus hasn’t got tired so we don’t have the option to relax just yet,” he said.

Releasing data, Mr. Agarwal said that from the 17.13% of the total COVID-19 case load reported on May 3, India’s current status stands at a reduced 13.3%

“Currently, eight States have more than 1 lakh active COVID-19 cases and 22 States have more than 15% case positivity. Maharashtra, U.P., Delhi, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have shown a decline in COVID-19 cases and a decline in positivity. There are 199 districts showing a continued decline in COVID-19 cases and positivity in the last two weeks,” he said.

NITI Aayog, Member (Health) V.K. Paul, who also addressed the conference, said that the COVID-19 curve was stabilising in India.

“We are already looking at the possible vaccine use for children as is being done internationally also, and are carefully tracking any changes in the virus. The basic rules to prevent the spread of the virus don’t change, and together we have to contain and defeat the virus,” he said.

Trials for children

Dr. Paul noted that Covaxin had received approval for Phase II/III clinical trials in the two-to-18 age group. “And I have been told that trials will begin in the next 10-12 days,” he said.

He added that the COVID-19 National Task Force would examine the drug 2-deoxy-D-glucose (‘2-DG’) developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for adding it to the COVID-19 treatment protocol.

The drug has received emergency use authorisation from the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI).

Replying to a question about a COVID-19 virus variant found in Singapore, which could be more harmful to children, Dr. Paul said that it was being looked into.

“We are examining the report about this particular variant. Regarding COVID-19 among children, so far, the knowledge that we have is that most of them are asymptomatic, and it is reassuring that they don’t get serious infections. Meanwhile, we are keeping an eye on variants found in Singapore,” he said.

The initiative, similar to how hurricanes are labelled, seeks to remove stigma
Soumya Swaminathan

Jacob Koshy NEW DELHI

The World Health Organization (WHO) would unveil a system of naming of coronavirus variants drawn from the way tropical storms are named, WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan says.

“The new naming system should go live soon — yes, it will be names like hurricanes. This is so as not to stigmatise and deincentivise countries from making their sequencing results public. It will also be easier for the lay public to remember rather than these complicated lineage numbers,” she said in an email to The Hindu.

The WHO and health and science agencies across the world, for instance the Indian Council of Medical Research, the United States’ Centres for Disease Control and the Public Health England refer to viruses and their variants by formal lineage names, which are a combination of letters and names that point to the relationships between different variants.

To the trained eye, variants such as B.1.1.7 and B.1.617 suggest that they have certain mutations in common and as well clues to their evolutionary history.

Geographical tag

However, because virus names and their associated diseases have frequently been named after geographical places where outbreaks were first reported or samples first isolated — such as the West Nile virus or Ebola.

B.1.1.7 started to be known as the ‘U.K. variant’ and B.1.351 as the ‘South African’ variant.

India’s Health Ministry, in the aftermath of B.1.617 that was popularly called the ‘Indian variant’, issued a press release decrying the media’s use of the name.

The dilemma of having names that don’t stigmatise places but also are amenable to popular use has to an extent been solved by the system of naming hurricanes, or tropical cyclones. The World Meteorological Organisation leaves it to countries that surround a particular ocean basin to come up with names.

It’s the highest for any Assemblypoll since scheme launch

Damini Nath NEW DELHI

The State Bank of India (SBI) sold electoral bonds worth ₹695.34 crore from April 1 to 10, when the Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, West Bengal, Assam and Kerala polls were in full swing, says an RTI reply by the bank.

The amount sold was the highest-ever for any Assembly elections since the scheme started in 2018, according to the numbers provided in the reply.

All but ₹2,000 of the bonds sold in the 16th phase of the scheme were encashed. Predictably, the sale shot up during the elections in comparison to the previous tranche in January when bonds worth ₹42.1 crore were sold, it said.

The highest amounts were sold at the Kolkata branch (₹176.1 crore), followed by New Delhi (₹167.5 crore) and Chennai (₹141.5 crore). The Hyderabad and Mumbai branches sold ₹91.5 crore worth bonds each, while ₹15 crore worth bonds were sold at the Gandhinagar branch, ₹5 crore in Jaipur, ₹4.15 crore in Guwahati and ₹3 crore in Panaji.

972 bonds encashed

In the 16th phase of the scheme, 972 out of the 974 electoral bonds were encashed, with over half the amount — ₹ 351 crore — being encashed at the New Delhi branch. The rest were encashed at Bhubaneshwar (₹116 crore), Chennai (₹106 crore), Hyderabad (₹63.5 crore), Kolkata (₹55 crore) and Mumbai (₹3.8 crore).

In its May 14 reply to a query filed by Bihar-based RTI activist Kanhaiya Kumar on April 16, the SBI declined to name the political parties that encashed the bonds, saying it was “third party personal information” that was exempted under the RTI Act. The bank also declined to share the details of how much commission it had earned from the sale of bonds since the scheme started in 2018, saying the information was of “commercial confidence in nature” and its disclosure would “harm the competitive position of the bank”. Mr. Kumar, however, pointed out that the SBI was the only bank authorised to sell electoral bonds by the government.

The scheme allows any Indian citizen or company to purchase the bonds sold by the SBI in denominations of ₹1,000, ₹10,000, ₹1 lakh, ₹10 lakh and ₹1 crore and give them to political parties anonymously.

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