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Omicron BF.7 variant: India wants people to mask up but experts have divided views

news | Dec 22, 2022 5:52 PM IST

Omicron BF.7 variant: India wants people to mask up but experts have divided views

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Omicron new variant in India: One must wear masks to protect themselves in general, "but not because of COVID-19", said Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, epidemiologist, public policy and health systems expert, said.

Ever since reports of rising COVID-19 cases in several countries in the last few days have garnered global attention, Government of India on Wednesday (December 21) urged people to wear masks, practice social distancing, get vaccinated and follow all the COVID-19 guidelines as a proactive measure. But, hardly anyone on the street  yet seen wearing a mask. So, will the "sudden" move for Covid appropriate behaviour would fetch any results?  Here we explain what the actual scenario is and what needs to be done to avoid yet another wave.

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Daily cases in India have remained low for a couple of months even as cases in China, Japan, Brazil and the US are rising exponentially, putting a burden on their health infrastructure and economy. China, here, remains a prominent case. The Xi Jinping-led country, which recently relaxed its  Zero COVID policy following huge public protests, is now possibly grappling with the largest virus outbreak the world has ever seen.
This has sparked concerns in whole Asia, including India, with experts maintaining that the people in the country need not panic but remain cautious as "COVID is not over yet". Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya and state leaders have pushed for use of masks in public places, but analysts remain divided over it.
Dr Gagandeep Kang, Professor-Microbiology, Christian Medical College Vellore, said the idea that everyone needs to mask up might not be completely appropriate.
"It is no different from what has been happening in the past. This idea that everybody must suddenly start to mask up, I don't think, is completely appropriate, because we have to think about why we want to wear masks," she said.
However, Kang emphasised the importance of wearing a mask for vulnerable people ever since the pandemic started. "...certainly for people who are vulnerable to protect themselves, it's important to wear masks, not just from today onwards. It's been something that has been important to prevent respiratory infections, ever since we realised the value of masks two years ago," she said.
"This applies not just for COVID-19, it applies to any respiratory infection, including influenza," she said.
Meanwhile, Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, epidemiologist, public policy and health systems expert, said masks now have "limited" use. He said, "If people are not wearing masks, it is not a concern. The utility of masks, at the current level of transmission in India, is now very limited and very much an individual decision."
By "limited", he meant that individuals at high risk — those with comorbidities, unvaccinated and the elderly — must wear a mask when they go to crowded places.
He noted that the situation in India right now is different from when COVID-19 was first reported in the country. Back then, a mask had both "public and individual" benefits when people were unexposed to the virus. But now, when many have gained "hybrid" immunity and are vaccinated, an individual is wearing for his/her own protection. "It won't have altered situation for others," he believes.
He, however, suggested that people should wear masks to protect themselves in general, "but not because of COVID-19". "If there are other high risk conditions", one must protect themselves, but "not because of the surge in China", he said.
Several other experts, however, maintained that since the virus is evolving,  there could be potentially new variants of existing strains or even new strains  floating in the air or may be people infected with such variants could be entering the nation without testing.  So getting adapted to a Covid appropriate behaviour-- wearing masks, avoiding crowds, not gathering in closed air-conditioned rooms o vehicles, getting vaccinated or taking booster dozes, among others, is always advisable. But formulating appropriate policies by the government to track the variants or strains, genome sequencing of all available samples and increasing tests and initiating inoculation programme could help preventing a sudden surge.
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