Experts indicated that a third wave was becoming inevitable as crowds yet again lowered their guard against infection, in India, as it has eased lockdown restrictions on businesses and life.
Daily infection rates have slowed from a peak of more than 400,000 in early May to nearly 60,000 on Sunday.
But the public precautions and preventive measures against Covid-19 have also eased.
Across the country’s largest cities, huge crowds browsed in markets and shopping malls for the first time in weeks after coronavirus lockdown restrictions were lifted.
The second wave, which hit in March, left 20 million infected and nearly 250,000 dead.
But as the authorities began to reopen public life to revive the economy, experts said: “Again crowds are building up, people are gathering,” said Dr Randeep Guleria, chairman of the country’s premier hospital, All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
“It will take some time for the number of cases to start rising at the national level.
“A third wave is inevitable and it could hit the country within the next six to eight weeks, maybe a little longer.”
India is slowly emerging from the devastating effects of the second wave, which began months after infections ebbed after the first peak late in September.
By February it hit a low of 8,000 cases a day, sparking a sense of triumph in the public and the government that declared the country had defeated the pandemic, before a local variant began to spread rapidly.
Experts blamed large political and religious gatherings and opening of public life for the wave, during which India’s healthcare system nearly crumbled and millions struggled to get oxygen, medicine and hospital beds.
One of the worst-hit cities, New Delhi, witnessed death and despair throughout April and May as patients choked outside hospitals for want of oxygen and crematoriums ran out of space.
But in recent weeks, scenes across capital city’s markets have not only defied the grim memories but also blatantly ignored coronavirus prevention.
Markets were packed with crowds, with many people not wearing masks or leaving them dangling after New Delhi reopened in early June after a six-week strict lockdown in which infections rose to 28,000 a day in April.
The city reported 124 new cases on Sunday, prompting authorities to allow restaurants and bars to open with 50 per cent seating capacity.
They further relaxed rules for public parks, gardens, shopping malls, golf clubs and outdoor yoga sessions, which opened last week.
On Friday, a Delhi court warned of a third wave of Covid-19 if people continued to breach safety measures.
“Such breach of Covid protocol will only hasten a third wave, which can’t be permitted at all,” the court said.
The scenes were no different in cities across neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state, where crowds defied coronavirus protocols.
The state government increased working hours for markets and allowed shopping malls and religious institutions to function at 50 per cent capacity.
In Haryana state, gyms, sports complexes and stadiums have been allowed to reopen.
The southern Telangana state has lifted all curbs on public life after what the government called a “drastic drop” in the number of positive cases.
But with the easing of restrictions, the slow pace of vaccination and concerns over a new mutation of the Delta variant, called Delta-plus, experts say that masks and keeping social distance are the only weapons against a third wave.
“People must behave sensibly and public administration must be vigilant in preventing super spreader events,” Dr K Srinath Reddy, President of non-profit charity Public Health Foundation of India, told The National.
“Otherwise, the virus will hit us hard again.”