Experts say the vaccination drive appears to have created a false sense of security among those with jabs to believe that they are now fully immune to the coronavirus.
Ironically, the government’s promotion of masks also may have been too successful – with many thinking it will protect them from the virus even if they crowd around. A case in point is the Saparu festival crowd in Bhaktapur earlier this week (pictured above).
“If you are going to crowd in that way for an extended period there is no point in wearing a mask,” states epidemiologist Lhamo Yangchen Sherpa.
“Many still don’t know that the virus transmission is through the airborne route, and we cannot be careless knowing how infectious the delta variant is and that the majority of the people are still unvaccinated, particularly children,” she adds.
Masks and vaccines just reduce infections and serious symptoms, they are not foolproof. And epidemiologists warn that available vaccines do not stop even those who are vaccinated from transmitting the virus.
New studies have also shown that even the protection vaccines provide will be wearing off, so Nepalis with jabs will be needing third booster shots even before the eligible population is fully vaccinated.
Covid-19 vaccines save lives by ensuring that infected people do not have serious symptoms, and do not require hospitalisation. But vaccinated people can be carriers at the same rate as those unvaccinated if they have been infected with a delta variant.
“What I’m seeing now is a surge of overconfidence among younger people who are vaccinated, they are risking everyone else not yet vaccinated, especially as Dasain-Tihar nears,” says virologist Sher Bahadur Pun at Teku Hospital. “We are creating an ideal condition for the next surge or the third wave to take place.”
Recent studies have shown that an individual infected with delta variant even if vaccinated can have a high viral load — as high as that of an unvaccinated person. This means they can be carriers of the virus just like unvaccinated people.
The real surge in Covid cases last year took place after the festivals when millions of Nepalis travelled from Kathmandu to their home villages and took the virus to the remotest corners of the country.
This resulted in higher fatalities, especially in rural Nepal with limited health care facilities. A recent report found that despite fewer cases, Dolpa, Mugu and Humla districts had fatality rates of 7%, 6% and 5% respectively – compared to only 0.9% in Kathmandu.
The delta variant and its higher transmissibility despite vaccinations have made the situation worse this time around. Covid-19 is here to stay, and managing it requires behavioural change and taking safety measures such as hand washing, physical distancing and masking a necessary part of our lifestyle.
Earlier this year, researchers at Yale and Stanford University ran a large-scale randomised controlled trial to identify a precise combination of strategies that are successful in changing mask-wearing habits.
They found their NORM strategy worked well. NORM stands for:
– No cost masks distributed at scale
– Offering information about mask-wearing
– Reinforcement in public places by intercepting non-mask wearers
– Modelling and endorsement by trusted leaders
After a successful pilot trial in Lahore with 5 million people, NORM is being scaled up to cover the whole of Pakistan. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) is aiming to reach 81 million people with NORM methods. In India, the program is being tried out in Gujarat and other states by the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).
Mask-wearing rates have tripled where NORM methods have been implemented, helping save thousands of lives. The campaign was launched earlier this month in Nepal in the densely populated urban centre of Thimi, Sunsari’s rural areas, and Melamchi which has been battered by earthquakes and floods.