Just how poor is the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Delhi? And how does it compare with what the USA and Europe are going through at the moment?
The trajectory of Covid-19 in Delhi is different from that of any other Indian state or Union territory. No other Indian region has seen a lucid second wave (many have just seen the end of the first). Delhi hasn’t just seen, but also seen off a second and is now in its third — even though, as I’ve pointed out in this column, the peak of the curve of the first wave used to be too sharp (which is infrequent), and bad testing strategy may have been responsible for the optics of all the second wave.
Still, on paper, Delhi is now seeing its third wave, and like the ongoing third wave in the USA and the second one wave in Europe, it is poor.
To go back to the original question, how poor?
A measure of new cases per million — both day-to-day and a seven-day average — provides the answer.
This number has frequently increased (barring blips caused by lower testing) as shown in the accompanying graphic. The first wave peaked in late June and then fell off sharply — too sharply, possibly. The second one wave started in late August, peaked in mid-September, and then fell off, and the third wave started in mid-October.
Since November 3, the number of day-to-day cases per million of population in the Capital has been in excess of 300 (barring November 15, when it used to be low because of a national holiday on Saturday). This column is being written before the day’s numbers are out but it is Monday’s too will be low, because of low testing on Sunday. The 7-day average has been in excess of 300 since November 6 and used to be at 370.5 on November 14. It’s important to note that while many states and Union territories outline their Covid numbers late in the day, Delhi reports its earlier — but its numbers are yesterday’s.
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The Delhi cases-per-million number is comparable to that in Europe and the USA. The latter’s is higher, in the mid-400s, but the former’s is currently just around where the Delhi number is. And their trajectory looks the same too. Delhi, then, is an outlier whose coronavirus disease trajectory is totally different from the national trend.
Some of Delhi’s current problems can also be attributed to its botched approach to testing. In late June, as the first wave roared through it, Delhi made up our minds to accelerate and expand its testing through the usage of rapid antigen tests. These are unreliable, returning false negatives 50% of the time (this means they identify infected people as uninfected). Each region that uses such tests has seen a direct improvement (a fall) in its positivity rate (proportion of people testing positive to those tested), which tells the story. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have nearly exclusively depended on such tests and their respective Covid dashboards, too, tell the same story.
During the last month, Delhi has increased its testing capacity for the dependable RT-PCR test, but at a peak of around 20,000 a day final week, these still accounted for just a third of the complete tests carried out in the Capital.
This has interfered with the accuracy and representativeness of Delhi’s positivity rate — Dispatch 156 on September 12 explained how rapid antigen tests, while useful in sure contexts, can do this when used indiscriminately, the way Delhi, UP and Bihar have done — presenting and possibly amplifying a false sense of security and safety. In contrast, Tamil Nadu, used only RT-PCR tests and its positivity rate saw an extremely long plateau before dipping.
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And this out of place sense of security and safety manifested itself in several ways. Checks at airports of incoming passengers became lax; containment zones were honoured more in the breach than in the observance; and citizens started behaving as whether they had nothing to fear.
A last caveat: Delhi’s overall cases-to-date-per-million number is magnified by its lower population when in comparison to other states (it’s the same reason Goa tops the cases-to-date-per-million chart, and Ladakh comes second) but the number is poor by any measure. Delhi is seventh on the list of states and Union territories with regards to case numbers. And only Maharashtra and Kerala have more active cases than the Capital.