India fears new COVID wave as Omicron infections spread

Nearly 800 Omicron cases reported as daily COVID-19 infections rise by 9,195 cases – a 44 percent spike from the previous day.

A paramedic checks an oxygen cylinder at a makeshift COVID-19 care center at an indoor sports stadium in New Delhi
A paramedic checks an oxygen tank at a makeshift COVID-19 care centre at an indoor sports stadium in New Delhi [Altaf Qadri/AP]

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is raising fears of a third wave of the pandemic in India.

The country on Wednesday reported a total of nearly 800 Omicron cases, while COVID-19 infections rose by 9,195 new daily cases – a 44 percent spike from the previous day.

India’s capital New Delhi has reported the highest 238 Omicron cases so far, while the western state of Maharashtra, which witnessed a brutal second wave of COVID-19 earlier this year, registered 167 cases, according to government data.

New Delhi banned large gatherings for Christmas and New Year, and many other states have announced new restrictions, including night curfews and vaccination requirements at stores and restaurants.

“The (coronavirus) cases have increased with the arrival of international flights,” Delhi government’s Health Minister Satyendar Jain said. “Not a single Omicron patient has required oxygen support so far.”

Rajesh Tope, the health minister of Maharashtra, home to India’s financial capital Mumbai, said it was “worrying to see the number of active cases increasing in the state”.

“Mumbai’s positivity rate is at 4 percent. If this goes above 5 percent, then we will have to think about imposing restrictions,” he told India’s ANI news agency.

In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, also one of the worst-hit during the second COVID wave, authorities reported “an increasing trend” in infections. Police in the state’s main city of Chennai have restricted New Year’s celebrations in hotels and public places.

In neighbouring Karnataka, a night curfew from 10pm to 5am was imposed until January 7.

However, despite rain and wintry weather in New Delhi, thousands of people flocked to markets during the holiday season, many without masks.

At the usually busy Chandni Chowk market in the older quarters of the city, cycle rickshaw driver Mahesh Kumar said he is afraid of passengers who do not believe in the existence of the virus.

“They think it doesn’t exist. But I am very scared. I have children and a family,” he said. “If something happens to me, who will take care of them?”

Businessman Mohammad Saqib said many feared a spike in infections as a lot of people lost loved ones in the devastating second wave of infections in India earlier this year, which killed hundreds of thousands.

A policeman directs pedestrians towards a COVID-19 testing booth at a Sunday market in Jammu, Indian-administered Kashmir [Channi Anand/AP]

Officials fear another wave, bringing in a round of travel restrictions, expanding mass screening at airports and sending out public health warnings, experts say.

COVID-19 centres that had gone into hiatus are making a return with isolation wards ready to take in patients.

But New Year’s festivities are around the corner, and a spate of state elections early next year could allow the virus to advance quickly.

New Delhi announced last week that samples of all COVID-19 positive cases will be sent for genome sequencing at two government labs, going beyond screening for the variant at airports.

But not all cities or states have the bandwidth to sequence all positive cases.

Currently, 38 government labs across India can carry out genome sequencing. But it is still not close to analysing five percent of all samples, the ideal standard.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies