INDIA: The markets are crowded again. Traffic is jamming the roads. Migrant workers have returned to the cities. And young people are back at schools and universities – many of them for the first time in years.
It isn’t quite how things were before the COVID-19 pandemic – mask mandates still exist in some places – but with infections steadily declining, life in South Asia is returning to a sense of normalcy.
The mental scars from last year’s delta-driven surge persist – especially in India, where health systems collapsed and millions likely died – but across the region high vaccination rates and hope that the highly contagious omicron variant has helped bolster immunity are giving people reasons to be optimistic.
While experts agree that opening up was the right move amid falling case numbers, they caution that optimism should be tempered with lessons from the past two years.
Dr Gagandeep Kang, an infectious disease expert at the Christian Medical College in Vellore city in southern India, said the Government should start preparing now for the next medical emergency, “whether that is COVID-19 or something else”.
She said that new variants remained a concern, especially if the virus mutated into a more lethal version while retaining its infectiousness.
Those concerns were put aside in Nepal this week, as hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu for a festival of the Hindu god Shiva.
“I had to wait for hours – since morning – and was finally able to visit the temple,” said Keshav Dhakal, a pilgrim.
Sri Lanka’s pristine beaches are full again. Young people sway to music and devour spicy curries with friends.
The Indian Government’s focus is also on economic rejuvenation. Apart from the loss of human life, the pandemic also made millions poorer, including many who were among the most vulnerable.
In Bangladesh too, people are cautiously taking off their masks while dealing with the fallout of the pandemic. For many, the virus itself now felt like a minor problem compared with others people were facing, such as inflation and job losses, said Mir Arshadul Hoque, a former student at Dhaka University.
“Overall, I think people have mentally distanced themselves from the coronavirus,” he said.