COVID-19 cases across the globe now number in excess of nine million. India’s situation is bleak, with more than 15,000 cases added per day consistently — now taking its place as the fourth most-affected country. Could monsoon season add to India’s already dire situation?
It had been speculated that the hot weather of the summer months may slow the onset of the virus. Some went as far as to say India’s unique situation of a hot climate coupled with a young population relative to other countries with aging populations would allow India to remain all but unscathed. Neither of these eventualities occurred and India is now firmly within the grip of the pandemic.
The hot summer weather has not seemed to slow the virus. As India braces itself for the monsoon season, followed by the winter months, the spread of the virus could indeed be altered. It may be the case that progression of the pandemic has thus far been slowed by the hotter weather of the summer. In this case, it may be expected that as the winter months arrive, the rate of infection would increase.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which causes COVID-19, is a novel form of the coronavirus. As a result, the scientific community currently has no previous records to test against. However, information can be gained through observing the behaviours of other, similar viruses during the winter months and monsoon season.
Other respiratory illnesses such as the flu may offer an insight into the proliferation of COVID-19 during the winter months. The problem, according to Dr Marc-Alain Widdowson, director of the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, is that even in the case of the flu, and several other viral respiratory diseases, the drivers for their seasonal behaviour are not fully understood.
“In the United States, for example, it is very difficult to predict the flu season,” Widdowson told The Indian Express. “There is no single factor like temperature or rainfall, or staying indoors that can be said to have decisive impact. Many other factors like sunlight, and Vitamin D levels in people are also responsible in how these diseases spread. In addition, it is not very clear how much transmission happens through surfaces (as against human contact, or through air). Most people are of the opinion that only little contamination happens through surfaces. And, that during the rainy season, it would not affect indoor surfaces at all.”
Experts have determined that in order to fully understand the spread of COVID-19, as well as its seasonal behaviour, monitoring would need to take place over several years. This offers no short term insight though at this stage all that could be garnered without evidence is entirely speculative.
Many other infectious diseases are known to spread more prolifically during, as well as shortly after, the monsoon season. While the season brings much-needed rain, the ensuing flooding and stagnant water present ample opportunity for the spread of water-borne diseases, as well vector-borne conditions such as those spread via mosquitoes.
Illnesses such as dengue fever and malaria infect more than half a million people and kill hundreds in India every year. While these diseases have an entirely different means of transmission to COVID-19, they are likely to play a role in reducing India’s capacity to deal with the pandemic.
Vidya Thakur, medical superintendent at Mumbai’s Rajawadi Hospital has noted the effects of COVID-19 on India’s hospitals, “COVID-19 has left us helpless…and the monsoon will make things even more difficult”.
While the direct effects of the monsoon on COVID-19 are currently uncertain, the potential for health systems to be overwhelmed by other diseases presents a clear issue. Instances of flooding are highly likely and, along with it, the potential is there for displacement of people in large volumes. This could result in increased transmission of COVID-19 among vulnerable populations. Resources must be allocated in advance or India may face increasing caseloads it is entirely unprepared for.