The country’s Covid positivity rate has been coming down on the back of a welcome increase in testing. Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan pointed out at a press briefing on Tuesday that, based on a seven-day rolling average, it had become 8% compared to 11% during the first week of August. But as usual the devil is in the detail. Very different testing choices are playing out in different states, with different outcomes. Here Delhi is a telling example, because of how it lost the inglorious crown of the city with the highest number of total cases, and also why it is once again seeing a spike in cases.
After a terrible June the state government seriously amped up the testing, and the rewards showed up soon enough. Infection numbers began coming down, beds began emptying in hitherto overrun hospitals. Even at this point experts were warning that Delhi was over-relying on rapid antigen tests, which are quicker but also faultier. Now that the case numbers have been spiking in Delhi once again, although still far from earlier peaks, the Kejriwal government has done well to call an emergency meeting and commit to doubling the daily tests from current levels. But it is equally important to improve the testing mix which bears an unhealthy 30:70 tilt against RT-PCR tests. In fact many days have seen less than half the state’s RT-PCR capacity utilised.
Several states – including the most populous Uttar Pradesh – have relied too much on rapid antigen kits to boost testing. States such as Bihar have not even been providing the breakup of different tests, even though it is clear by now that this is crucial data. The gold standard RT-PCR test catches more infections and that is why it is better at slowing infection spread. Furthermore, as ICMR chief Balram Bhargava underlined this week, base cost of RT-PCR kits has shrunk dramatically to Rs 320 from Rs 2,000 in March, thanks to domestic manufacturers upping their game. The right thing has become affordable.
More lockdowns are, however, unaffordable. To name just one deeply worrying indicator, CMIE data shows this April-July with salaried jobs 22% lower than in the last fiscal year. So this is the other Delhi lesson for the country to learn – normal work has to be resumed. Moreover, improving mask discipline is essential. Otherwise everything we gain by improved testing, we lose by reckless respiratory transmissions.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.