With the first reported case of COVID-19 in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, there has been a continuous development in the prevention and treatment of COVID-19.
Many of the variants of COVID-19 have been identified in different parts of the world showing different signs, symptoms and mortality profile.
Vaccine development has been instrumental in reducing the burden and suffering from the disease.
Everyone among us has seen the suffering related to the Delta variant of COVID-19.
Continuous siren of ambulances, requests for drugs, oxygen and admissions on social media and on mobile, hearing the news of death of someone close terrified us in April-May of last year.
In spite of the best efforts by Government and civil societies, we witnessed the collapse of our health care system.
That was the worst moment for all of us as an Indian as whatever we experienced and observed was far beyond our thought process.
As a doctor, I never imagined that I would beg for oxygen for my family members to make them survive from COVID-19. We all worked like Team India during that crisis.
We blamed our government, our policymakers and even doctors and scientists were criticised at some or the other point of time.
Criticism, anguish and blame were very well taken by everyone as that was well expected when we were so helpless at the peak of the pandemic to assist everyone in need and people were dying.
Many of the questions were raised against vaccine efficacy as a large number of vaccinated people were also found to be infected and some of them died too.
Life came back to normal for most of the citizens except those who lost someone in the family and especially the younger one in this pandemic. Many of the children lost both their parents and a few families lost their sole bread earner.
When things were becoming normal and people started moving to face to face mode from the virtual world, South Africa reported a highly transmissible variant Omicron in the last week of November, 2021.
This was followed by a rapid rise in South Africa, followed by many other countries with lower hospitalisation rates than previous waves.
On 26 November 2021, WHO designated the variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern, named Omicron, on the advice of WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE).
The World Health Organization (WHO) warned of a "tsunami" of infections from Delta and Omicron variants that could overwhelm health systems.
To mitigate the spread of this variant, many countries stopped flights from South Africa and neighbouring countries which was criticised by the World Health Organization(WHO).
WHO urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on Southern African nations due to concerns over the new Omicron variant. India also started preparing for the prevention and spread of Omicron and guidelines were issued in this direction.
Good news was shared by study findings from researchers of LKS Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong about severity of Omicron infection.
Researchers concluded that the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 infects and multiplies faster than the Delta variant but does not easily infect the lower lungs. This explains why instances of severe disease are proportionally lower in cases involving Omicron.
It is human nature that we start making our assumptions based on our first-hand experience and when Omicron was not associated with increase in oxygen demand and other life-threatening complications like delta, all of us changed our perspective towards COVID-19.
Many of the people are no more bothered about transferring the infection to family, friends as they have learnt that this disease is like the flu.
People have just forgotten that Omicron is showing mild symptoms in most of the infected people, but there are other variants which are increasing in number and life-threatening.
Virus can mutate and no one can predict the symptoms and severity of mutant variants.
This careless attitude is going to cost very heavily if the virus mutates and becomes life-threatening. Our preventive steps are going to help us to fight this disease better.
Recently, Dr Jayaprakash Muliyil, epidemiologist and chairperson, Scientific Advisory Committee at ICMR's National Institute of Epidemiology argued that rules so far to tackle the pandemic needed a complete relook as Omicron was a far milder variant than Delta and not frightening.
He also added that the consequence of a viral infection now is just like a cold.
This statement was very supportive to people who were not taking it seriously but might pose a great risk to our health care system by making it overburdened.
Without delay, this misconception of Omicron like a common cold was clarified by a known face of India’s fight against COVID-19 Professor VK Paul, who is the member of NITI Aayog and Head of Task Force on COVID-19.
Prof Paul said that Omicron is not a common cold, and it's our responsibility to slow it down by using a mask and by getting vaccinated.
Dr Paul also urged people to take Omicron seriously and warned it could badly hit health care systems.
We all know that Indians are 1.38 billion and a larger proportion of our population are with co-morbidities in the form of NCDs. We are well aware that people with comorbidities are at greater risk of serious consequences of infection.
If Omicron even affects the least number of people severely, our numbers are going to be very high.
India has a diverse health system and there are disparities and inequalities in access to care and outcomes, and we have closely observed this difference during the peak of Delta variant.
We can easily observe the difference between Omicron and other variants but at the same time, we must continue to maintain respiratory and hand hygiene along with vaccination as COVID-19 acts differently in different individuals.
Omicron has not burdened our health system so far, but we have no idea about the future ahead.
Although Europe has shown optimism considering Omicron as the beginning of the end of the pandemic, we as an Indian have to trust on our best practices of using masks, handwashing, physical and social distancing, and vaccination to fight against COVID-19.
(Dr Abhishek Shankar is Associate Professor, Department of Radiation Oncology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Patna, India; Associate Editor, Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention (APJCP); Associate Editor, South Asian Journal of Cancer (SAJC), Editor-in-Chief, Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Care (APJCC); Founder Secretary, Indian Society of Clinical Oncology (ISCO); Member, Tobacco Control and Smoking Cessation and Lead, Membership Working Group, International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC). He tweets with @ShankarAbhishek.)