For pandemic-stricken Kerala, it’s a COVID Onam
The 10-day-long Onam festivities in Kerala will conclude with Thiruvonam on August 21. Onam is the biggest festival in the state that spans religious boundaries and attracts a lot of the region’s migrant workers back home. In many ways, Onam also marks the beginning of the festive season across India – it continues till the Christmas/New Year season. Festive demand has always been important for the economy, but it will be very crucial for pandemic-affected markets this year. This year’s Onam festivities could be a make-or-break moment for the southern state, which after being hailed as a model in the fight against the pandemic, is dealing with what seems to be an uncontrollable surge in Covid-19 cases. It was around Onam last year that Covid-19 cases began rising in Kerala, putting an end to the state’s claims of successfully containing the pandemic. If there is a similar spike in cases this year too, the situation, at least in terms of the medical infrastructure’s ability to cope, may spiral out of control.
1) Onam was when Covid-19 infections started rising in Kerala last year
Although India imposed a 68-day long nation-wide lockdown on March 25, 2020, to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the pandemic’s trajectory was very different in Kerala and rest of India in the initial phase. Cases started rising steadily in rest of India as restrictions were eased. However, Kerala managed to buck this trend, earning much applause for its handling of the pandemic. The situation in Kerala changed with Onam, which was on August 30, 2020. A comparison of normalised values of the seven-day average of daily new infections on a scale of 0 to 1 (0 being the minimum and 1 maximum) for Kerala and rest of India shows this clearly, with a sudden spike in Kerala’s case trajectory around the last week of August 2020. The first wave of Covid-19, once it started in Kerala, took longer to subside, unlike in the rest of the country. That the state had two rounds of polls, local body elections in December and then assembly elections in April, did not help
2) A festive boost to mobility may have played a role in the 2020 surge and it appears to be happening again
Given the importance of festivals for businesses, governments are always under pressure to relax restrictions. Kerala is no exception to this. Last year, the state government relaxed restrictions before Onam – for instance, allowing people to dine-in in restaurants. This year too, the government announced relaxations both before Eid and Onam. The impact of this is evident in data from Google mobility indices for the state, which show a sharp rise around Onam last year. Of particular interest are the trends in mobility at retail establishments and transit stations, which potentially capture crowding in markets and inbound travel (of potentially infected) persons to the state. Mobility indices seem to have increased sharply once again before Onam this year, even though the Covid-19 situation is much worse. In fact, Kerala is recording more cases than the rest of the country put together. The rise in mobility coincides with the period of rise in Covid-19 cases in the state, both last year and now. A festive boost to mobility may have played a role in the 2020 surge and it appears to be happening again
3) Why does the Kerala experience matter for the rest of the country?
To be sure, Kerala’s medical infrastructure has not collapsed due the pandemic, as was seen in most parts of the country during the second wave of the pandemic. Daily new cases and positivity rates, while they are still high, have come down from their peak levels in Kerala. Why does the current situation in Kerala matter for the rest of the country then? One, Onam is the first in a series of forthcoming festivals, all crucial for the revival of consumption demand in the economy. Even an inkling of the third wave of the pandemic is bound to crush both consumer and business sentiment and significantly damage the country’s economic prospects. Whether or not Kerala’s Covid-19 cases surge after the festival will be the first litmus test of whether restoration of pre-pandemic mobility levels trigger the third wave. Despite having a higher number of cases, Kerala has emerged as one of the best performers in terms of vaccination. As of August 19, 2021, it has fully vaccinated 19.3% of its adult population and administered at least one dose to another 33.4%. In addition to offering personal immunity, vaccines, once they have crossed a critical threshold, are also expected to slow down the rate of infections. If cases spike in Kerala despite a significantly high level of vaccinations, then one can expect much worse in other states where vaccinations levels are lower . But a mishap-free Onam, at least on the pandemic front, could be really good news for the economy.