As 2021 departs….

December has come, and the year is ending. We had all been hoping that 2021 would see the retreating back of COVID. However, the discovery of Omicron – the new variant found in South Africa has pushed the panic buttons again. There are many scenarios being discussed, but one thing is clear – we are looking at living with COVID for some time to come.

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The future trajectory of COVID depends on the immunity that populations build up due to vaccination and being exposed to the disease. As the virus mutates new challenges come up for the scientific world and common people. What does the idea that we have to live with COVID mean for all of us? 

One thing is certain, the protocols of mask wearing, washing hands and maintaining social distance are going to be a part of our lives. It is now the ‘normal’ – not new anymore. At events and weddings, gatherings will be regulated and the number cap will be adjusted according to the way the virus is behaving. 

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After 9/11, security checks at events, malls, departure points and other venues have become an intrinsic part of our lives. Similarly, testing and other health protocols would also become essential ingredients of our day to day lives.

Planning for things in life, both big and small – a trip or a marriage – will revolve around the surge, if any, that is in the offing.

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Vaccination against the virus will be an ongoing precaution. Already many countries are giving booster doses. Vaccine mandates may also become a part of our lives, as in many countries. Puducherry has made vaccination mandatory in the UT in response to Omicron, while Karnataka has said that only children of fully vaccinated parents can attend school.

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There was a report of a theatre chain in India tying up with a company that provides anti-viral air purification system in the cinema halls. Increasingly, new products and innovation that ensure that public places are safe will become a part of our lives. Hybrid working is likely to become the norm, as will online interactions and entertainment. Education too is likely to adapt to a mixed remote and physical learning environment, depending on the virus spread.

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Hospitals will have regular and permanent COVID wards, much like maternity or cardiac ones. Data, AI and machine learning were used extensively in the initial COVID response all over the world. Whether it was in tracking cases, testing or later even running vaccination campaigns. This will continue as is demonstrated by the number of health tech start-ups that have started. The digital delivery of health care is seeing a dramatic transformation, and this trend will only gather strength.

As infections surge, we will see restrictions, which will be relaxed once the surge abates. Countries across the world are struggling with ways of dealing with these waves. In Europe, while Germany and Austria have locked down again, France has decided to go for the booster dose of vaccination to fight the latest wave. China and Singapore still follow a ‘zero tolerance’ to COVID, and Japan and Israel have shut their borders. The world is watching with bated breath how this new variant pans out.

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Pandemics in history changed the way we lived. The Plague, apart from annihilating large swathes of population, lead to evolution of property laws and the middle class in England. Cholera epidemics lead to focus on municipal waste disposal systems, while Spanish Flu led to widespread changes in public health management. COVID is no different.

Life as we knew it in 2019 is not likely to return soon, if ever. The sooner we accept this inevitability the better will be our preparedness to fight the virus going forward.  

Published in Hindi in the Dainik Bhaskar on 15-12-2021

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