Written by Dr. shailendra singh
Maharashtra’s stringent Covid norms for international and domestic air travellers, now largely rolled back, had significantly diverged from Centre’s Omicron advisory and provoked a strong response from the latter. Rightly so. Air travel is regulated by GoI and if every state begins to impose its own regulations, this is a recipe for chaos especially in the busy December season for travel and tourism. GoI’s norms were reasonable, mandating RT-PCR test for some “high-risk” countries and home quarantine for all international travellers for seven days. Maharashtra’s augmentations – like mandatory testing of all international passengers followed by 14-day quarantine apart from domestic travellers having to produce RT-PCR test results – failed to see the big picture.
If contradictory regulations proliferate across states, it endangers the still-uneven economic recovery. Overall GDP in the July-September quarter has exceeded the pre-pandemic benchmark of the same period in 2019. But private consumption and activity in contact-intensive sectors such as trade and hotels, which also employ many informal workers, remained below the 2019 mark, indicating two lost years for them.
Interstate travel restrictions have hardly worked given the uniformly high seroprevalence across most states in July. Instead, states must ramp up testing, especially using RT-PCR test kits that check for the S-gene. A missing S-gene is seen as a potential proxy indicator of Omicron, which can later be confirmed by genome sequencing. India’s daily testing numbers have stagnated at 11 lakh. Nearly 3 lakh Covid cases were detected in November but just over 9,000 samples (3%) were sent for genomic sequencing. In contrast, the UK has done genomic sequencing on nearly 15% of its positive samples.
With Omicron cases already detected, sending more Covid positive samples for sequencing, not just those missing the S-gene, is necessary. In the longer term, this will reveal if Omicron gives competition to the Delta variant, just as Insacog’s sequencing efforts revealed Delta’s phenomenal surge over other mutations. With airports getting overcrowded thanks to new testing norms and thereby becoming a contagion risk, more rapid PCR tests with one-hour turnaround times, unlike regular RT-PCR tests, should be available to travellers. With samples for genome sequencing from airports being dispatched to high-throughput labs, it will help GoI make timely, informed decisions. States must reserve blunt legal instruments, which allow extraordinary movement curbs under the Disaster Management Act and Epidemic Diseases Act, for emergency situations. India can’t afford more economic shocks. Being smart is better than being hasty.