As Covid cases were on the decline, life was returning to normal, but suddenly, cases are increasing in the country and in Karnataka, leading to fear and anxiety about the fourth wave among several sectors, which are just about limping back to normal. While the government is insisting that a total lockdown will not be imposed, the uncertainty surrounding coronavirus is the hardest thing to handle.
“We still don’t know exactly how we’ll be impacted, how long this will last, or how bad things might get. That makes it all too easy to catastrophize and spiral out into overwhelming dread and panic,” says Mahesh Gowda, Consultant Psychiatrist, Director, Spandana Hospitals, who sees at least one patient a week who is anxious about the onset of the fourth wave and its impact on business and life.
ANXIETIES BUG MSMEs
One of the biggest sectors to be hit during the earlier Covid waves was Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).
Several shut shop after the second wave, and though the third wave with the Omicron variant did not see a lockdown, many are still struggling to get back to business.
In Shivamogga district alone, 20,300 MSMEs are still on the path to recovery.
Increasing prices of almost every commodity and the government’s decision to increase power tariffs have come as a blow to these industries. Ramesh Hegde, chairman of Machenahalli Industries Association and former council member of KASS IA, says the power tariff increase during the second wave was a severe blow to the ailing industries.
“The fees collected by the pollution control board from MSMEs are enhanced three-fold. On one hand, the board emphasises development of vacant areas by planting saplings that would conserve the environment, while both the Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Board and local bodies impose taxes for vacant lands of industries. How can entrepreneurs address this issue,” asks Hegde.
Many MSME entrepreneurs feel the Centre failed to protect the interests of MSMEs unlike in other countries, including the US. They say they were given only “peanuts” as financial help, that too through loans.
“Our huge ESI funds are lying with the Centre, but it failed to grant them to the MSMEs to bounce back,” they say.
Hegde says the industry is petrified with the news of fourth wave and if it hits by June as predicted, most MSMEs would collapse.
F&B TREMBLES OVER NEXT WAVE
The food and beverage (F&B) industry, which took a serious beating during the pandemic, is keeping its fingers crossed about a probable fourth wave. Night curfew, partial lockdown and social distancing are the first mandates that the government resorts to as a precaution against the spread of the pandemic.
“These steps, though required, hurt the F&B industry the most. Our business goes down by 50 per cent with night curfew, and nose dives further when we are asked to operate at 50 per cent occupancy,” says Mukesh Tolani, head of Bengaluru chapter, National Restaurants’ Association of India, and co-founder of microbrewery ‘Toit’.
He says the industry has just got back on its feet and has been maintaining all Covid protocols.
“Our staff was vaccinated completely before we were allowed to open at the end of 2021. It’s been a trying time for the industry. Many outlets shut because of lack of business and mounting debts. We were made to pay an excise licence fee, though we were shut,” says an owner of a prominent resto-bar.
They say the government should look out for hospitalisation and deaths, and not just an increase in the number of cases or the positivity rate before announcing preventive measures.
“A lockdown is unscientific. It kills people’s livelihoods. The F&B industry will collapse completely with another lockdown,” he adds.
UNCERTAINTY LOOMS OVER EDUCATION
The education sector too is extremely anxious. With the fourth wave expected in June when schools are scheduled to open, it is not just owners of institutions who are worried, but students, parents and teachers too.
While learning took a major beating in the earlier three waves, teachers struggled to make ends meet.
Several schools sacked teachers because they could not afford to pay salaries as they failed to convince parents to pay fees — the latter equally hit due to job loss and salary cuts.
The introduction of online learning forced many institutions to rehire a few teachers post the Omicron wave. Uniform vendors to school transport owners are dreading the next wave.
“Parents who were planning to buy uniforms feel they must wait. Majority of the schools had restarted business with school buses and vans. But even before the schools started, the talk of the fourth wave has left us worried. If they again shift to online mode, we will be affected drastically. With no earning and support for us, our own kids won’t be able to go to school,” grieves Praveen Shetty, who is tied to several schools for transport facilities.
Primary and Secondary Education Minister BC Nagesh says mandates have been made with regards to education to make up for loss of learning, including an early start to the next academic year.
Guidelines will be issued and they have to be followed, he says. However, many private schools were against the implementation of additional guidelines even during the third wave.
“There is no need to panic and cause disruptions that will put education at stake. If schools close down, it will be disastrous for children, especially since it’s proven that they are not super-spreaders and aren’t as affected,” says D Shashi Kumar, general secretary, Association of Management of Primary and Secondary Schools of Karnataka.
He had been a strong proponent for schools remaining open, citing examples of multiple sectors staying open amid the third wave.
“When all sectors are closed, only then should schools shut. Schools should not be the first to have restrictions imposed on them,” he says.
Interestingly, people have changed gears post third wave and are on ‘revenge travel’ mode, leading to tourism and hospitality industry picking up.
Despite the threat, the tourism industry hopes for further revival.
Though the state government delayed lifting the restrictions on the tourism sector, the industry has once again hoped to continue the tempo despite the scare of another wave.
“There are a few dos and don’ts that must be followed by all operators. In terms of cleanliness, quality of food and safety of tourists, they have to abide by every law of a particular tourism zone. Karnataka attracts large numbers of tourists from neighbouring states. The trend continued after a gap of two years,” says Umesh GE, owner of Nadimane, who stays in Dandeli.
Dev Balaji, an adventure tour expert, says a large section of the population has received the vaccines and the travel industry may not face recession once again.
“Operators have to ensure visitors follow pandemic rules. The negligence that was witnessed during the first two waves must not be repeated,” he adds.
For farmers, the fear of the fourth wave is not making much impact. “When the entire nation was inside homes, farmers worked on the lands,’’ farmer leader Kurburu Shanthakumar says. But there are much
bigger issues which farmers are facing.
The price of fertilisers has increased, and availability of seeds is a problem.
“When we go to the bank, they have many reasons and queries to deny loans to poor farmers. Farmers also face issues like drought and flood. The government has to support us, fourth wave or not,” he adds.
BUT WILL THERE BE ANOTHER WAVE?
However, many health experts, including members of Technical Advisory Committee for Covid, state that there may not be a reason to panic and resort to knee-jerk reactions like travel ban or lockdowns during the fourth wave.
The onset of the fourth wave itself, experts claim, is in question. A TAC member says, “Once the restrictions were lifted, movies, malls, and travel are back. Didn’t we expect an uptick in cases? This bump is expected but what’s in question is whether this bump will become a wave,” he says.
He argues that only if this mountain arrives there could be a fourth wave and it’s early to say that the state will see this.
The parameters like reproductive numbers and positivity rates don’t function in isolation but with the case trajectory. Beyond ensuring personal protection, there is nothing much to be done at this point in time.
Masking up, vaccinating children and precautionary doses for adults can definitely prevent another wave, experts say.
Inputs from: Bala Chauhan, Ashwini M Sripad, Amit S Upadhye, Ramachandra Gunari & Donna Eva