Friday, March 20, 2020

Non-virus news of the day

The only big headline other than the pandemic is the hanging of the four men convicted in the infamous Delhi rape case. They were executed at 5:30 am this morning. The Telegraph has the details. Also: Indian Express live blogged the execution?!! Fair warning: the rest of Broadsheet is all coronavirus all the way through. Sorry!

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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PM Modi's address to the nation

The Prime Minister finally spoke on the subject of the coronavirus at 8 pm on Thursday in a nationally televised speech. It was big on empathy and explanation, but short on any major policy announcements. (Read it here or watch it here)


First, the latest tally: Number of cases worldwide: 245,612. Number of deaths: 10,048. Cases in India: 195. Death toll: 4. 

  • The most recent victim: A 70-year-old man in Punjab who recently returned to India from Germany via Italy. 
  • Also noteworthy: India has seen a spike of 54 new cases over the past two days. 
  • Also: Italy’s death toll is now 3,405, rising by 427 in just one day. It has officially overtaken China, which has 3,245 reported deaths.


The speech: The key points of the 30-minute address included a one-day curfew, the creation of a Covid-19 economic taskforce, and a list of “requests” to the nation. 


The curfew: The PM announced a ‘Janta curfew’ on Sunday from 7 am to 9 pm. This will be a nationwide lockdown where no one can step out of the house—unless they are in “emergency or essential” services. Modi framed the event as a self-imposed ban—“a curfew imposed for the people, by the people, on the people themselves.” 


Also part of the curfew: a request to stand outside doors or on balconies at 5 pm and “clap our hands, beat our plates, ring our bells” to salute those who have been selflessly serving others. Modi’s list of such people included not just medical, police and government employees—but also home delivery agents and the media!! The gesture is likely inspired by similar displays in Italy and Spain (watch clip here).


But just one day? Yes. He framed the curfew as a public show of “self-restraint”—and that “the experience gained from it, will also prepare us for our upcoming challenges.” Earlier in the speech, he also referenced blackout drills that were common during times of war in India. If you connect those dots, it is clear that Sunday is a trial run for a longer lockdown—if required. Point to note: Modi opened his speech by asking citizens for “your coming few weeks from you, your time in the near future.”


Point to note: The PM made clear that no one over the age of 65 or under 10 should step out of their homes for the next two weeks. And he urged companies to offer work-from-home options to all their employees—echoing a government circular directing states to enforce the same.


The economic taskforce: The COVID-19 Economic Response Task Force led by the Finance Minister will consult with all “stakeholders” and announce measures to “reduce economic difficulties.” But Modi gave no indication of what these measures might be. 


What caught our eye: A reminder to affluent Indians of their privilege: “It is clear that this pandemic is deeply hurting the economic interests and well-being of our nation's middle class, lower-middle class, and poor segments. In such a time of crisis, I request the business world and high income segments of society to as much as possible, look after the economic interests of all the people who provide them services. In the coming few days it is possible these people may not be able to come to office or your homes. In such a case, do treat them with empathy and humanity and not deduct their salaries. Always keep in mind that they too need to run their homes, protect their families from illness.”

The bottomline: The PM spent a great part of his speech explaining the pandemic—its global dimensions, the urgent need for social distancing etc. It was clearly directed at the great majority of Indians who get their information from WhatsApp and shrill TV anchors. So the PM’s first move was to define the enormity of the crisis, and what it will require. Our take: the speech carefully laid the ground for far more drastic measures (and hardship) to come.

The latest scientific gyaan on the pandemic

As more data becomes available, researchers learn a bit more about this new scourge that is sweeping across the world. The latest research is a mixed bag of good/bad news. But what comes most clearly across is—ironically—the lack of clarity on what the future will bring.


The good news for India: quite simply put is this: “High temperature and high relative humidity significantly reduce” spread of Covid-19. Here are the details of the findings:

  • An increase of just one degree Celsius and 1% of relative humidity substantially lower the transmission of the virus.
  • The sample size: 100 different Chinese cities that each had more than 40 cases from Jan. 21 to 23. Why that time period: It’s just before the Chinese government intervened to stop the spread. So this is what the virus does when left to its own devices.
  • The data was also adjusted for income levels and population density in different areas.
  • They found that in at least the early stages of the outbreak, the virus spread far more slowly in hotter, more humid regions.
  • So this is good news for all countries headed for summer in the coming months—especially hotter nations like India. But it bodes ill for any country in the Southern Hemisphere (where they will soon be in winter).
  • Key points to note: the study has not as yet been peer-reviewed—vetted by others in the field. And there is nothing to prevent the virus from roaring back once the weather cools. 
  • Also: warm weather isn’t guaranteed protection. Whether an early stage nation like India moves to a full-blown outbreak still depends on measures taken now.
  • Yahoo News offers an overview. The published paper is here.


The good/bad news: People with blood type A may be more vulnerable to infection while those with type O seem more resistant, according to a preliminary study of patients in China who contracted Covid-19.


The worrying news: A new study—again based on Chinese data—shows that for every confirmed case, there are most likely another five to 10 people in the community with undetected infections. Let’s break down why that matters:

  • Scientists again looked at the data before January 23 when the government took drastic measures to stop the spread.
  • They found that just before the storm broke—January 10-23—only 14% of the infections were reported, i.e. 86% were still ‘invisible’. The reason: these people likely suffered mild symptoms or even were asymptomatic.
  • Now, these “undocumented” cases are only 55% as infectious as someone who has a full-blown version of Covid-19. 
  • BUT because they are mild cases, they are far more likely to ‘circulate’ among the population—and therefore were responsible for nearly 80% of all infections.
  • Also a medical expert notes: “Just because you get the disease from someone with mild symptoms does not mean yours are going to be mild… You could still end up in the I.C.U.”
  • Why this matters: it reiterates the urgent message of the WHO—“Test, test, test!”
  • Why this matters to India: We may have more cases than the official 195 figure—more so since we have only conducted 12,426 tests. So the actual number of ‘invisible’ infections could be worryingly high—despite the early travel ban and warmer weather.
  • New York Times has the overview. The original study is here.


The bad news: An Imperial College study looked at possible responses to the virus, and mapped out their effects. Each has implications and a significant downside. 


Option #1, Mitigation: This is where we institute policies aimed at slowing the spread—i.e. making it more manageable. 

  • Mitigation “involves isolating suspected cases, quarantining households with suspected cases and socially distancing those most vulnerable for around three months at the peak of the outbreak.” 
  • The study says that if we go with mitigation, around 80% of the population will become infected, and around 10% will die. That’s 250,000 deaths in Britain, and 1.1-1.2 million in the US. If that percentage also holds true for India, it will be stratospherically high.
  • But remember: the study only looked at the US and UK. It also doesn’t take into account the weather, what stage we are in, what we do next etc. 
  • And there is an upside: Most of the population could build some kind of immunity—as it happened with the flu—and no longer transmit the disease. Hence, the number of cases and deaths will eventually taper off. 
  • However, we don’t know enough about this virus to be sure that this so-called ‘herd immunity’ will kick in.


Option #2, Suppression: The aim is to stop the spread entirely. And here’s how it works:

  • We basically shut everything down—like Italy or Spain, right now. We socially distance the entire population—everyone works from home, schools, universities remain closed etc—and quarantine suspect cases and their households. 
  • China took this route, and expects to stop reporting new cases by the end of the month. So this is the best strategy for rapidly dialling down the infection rate.
  • The downside: The virus will rebound the moment we lift these restrictions. The reason: most of us will not have been exposed to the virus, and therefore will not have any immunity. So we’ll be right back at square one within months of relaxing the rules.
  • And we can’t prevent this from happening until we find a vaccine and widely administer it—which will take around 18 months.
  • But OTOH, the economic and social effects are likely to be devastating if we impose such drastic measures for long periods of time.
  • Wired has the most details. And the published study is here.


So what do we do??? The authors of the study advocate a start-stop-start strategy. 

  • Start with suppression, ease restrictions, and then clamp down again the moment new cases bubble up. Rinse and repeat—until we have vaccines for everyone, i.e. 18 months from now. 
  • As this New York Times op-ed explains: “Maybe the best analogy is pumping a car’s brakes on an icy road. Either doing nothing or slamming on the brakes leads to an accident. So we pump the brakes — pushing on the brakes, then easing up, and then applying them again — and after three or four times we slow down enough to stop.” 
  • This US-centric but useful thread lays it out in plainer terms. Vox explains in greater detail why we may have to live with lockdowns for a year or even longer.


Eighteen months? Developing an effective treatment—which is possible within 4-5 months—will also shorten that horizon. Also: “The next round of social distancing will be activated more rapidly, because officials — and the public — will be more prepared. It should also be shorter, because we can assume that most of the people who were initially infected are likely to be immune next time around.”


The bottomline: This pandemic isn’t going away any time soon. If we do nothing or too little, its economic effects are likely to be as devastating as the damage to public health. But with a disciplined, measured and focused strategy, we can all get through this. 


Other virus-related news: (as if there is any other kind) includes the following:


  • Testing: CoSara—a joint venture between US firm Co-Diagnostics and the Sarabhai Group—has developed a diagnostic kit. The good news: it has already been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Point to note: India has conducted 12,426 tests—that’s 9.2 tests per million people. 
  • Also: Four hospitals refused to admit a doctor who suffered from high-grade fever breathlessness. He is now on a ventilator. But he has still not been tested for the virus! The reason: he has no travel history or reported contact with a Covid-19 patient. Yes, that’s how effed up it is right now.
  • Treatment: India has pinned its hopes on a cocktail of HIV drugs because it seemed to have saved an Italian couple in Rajasthan. But a 199 person-trial in China shows that it offers no benefit
  • The economy: Deutsche Bank experts predict a severe global recession this year—and the biggest plunge in the global GDP since World War II. But the global economy is expected to rebound by the end of the year. 
  • Closer to home: the pandemic is expected to destroy the jobs of four crore workers in the tourism industry. Also: Mint has a useful guide on how to think about personal investing in this time of total chaos.
  • Shutdowns: Kashmir has been sealed after reporting its first case. Rajasthan invoked Section 144 that prevents the unlawful assembly of four or more people. Similar restrictions were introduced in Noida. Delhi has shut all restaurants until March 31.
  • Travel: All international flights to India have been suspended for a week. IndiGo cut the salaries of its employees, while GoAir instituted a rotating leave-without-pay program for its staff. The government is planning a $1.6 billion rescue package for the aviation industry.


Stuff that made us smarter: about the coronavirus:


  • Washington Post has a fun piece on the five kinds of celebs you meet during a global pandemic. 
  • Zomato and Swiggy have introduced contact-less delivery. The News Minute explains how it works. 
  • Huffington Post explains how to open and clean delivery packages.
  • Indian Express offers a guide to the Covid-19 diagnostic test.
  • Nyayaa put together an Insta explainer on the Indian laws that govern pandemics and other natural disasters in India. (courtesy Broadsheet ambassador Yogini Oke)
  • Our ambassadors Ashwin Row Kavi and Apurba Ganguly flagged the official WHO bot on WhatsApp. Just type ‘hi’ to this number for the latest information: +41 79 893 18 92. This is the invite link.


Your daily dose of sunshine: includes the following:


  • This priceless photo of ‘social distancing’ at a liquor shop in Kerala.
  • Judi Dench’s awesomely quirky coronavirus message.
  • Our already amazing medical staff have been going viral with their messages. Check out this thread from India. Or this one shared by Ivanka Trump.
  • This powerful video on conservation with a voice-over by Julia Roberts. A must watch! (courtesy our ambassador Resham Gupta)
  • This collection of social media posts from Bolly celebs keeping busy at home.
  • McSweeney’s brings you famous lines of poetry revised for the age of the coronavirus.
  • This funny quarantine workout video from fast bowler Jimmy Anderson
  • This excellent coronavirus PSA delivered by a magnificent Kathakali dancer (courtesy Broadsheet subscriber Neetha Raman)


Broadsheet’s Stuck-At-Home Sanity List: Stay busy, engaged and, hey, have some fun. 


  • Get smarter: here are 450 free Ivy League courses you can take online—ranging from literature and art design to programming and data science. 
  • Lockdown cooking: Want help with whipping up easy and yummy meals while you self-isolate? Ina Garten and Samin Nosrat can help. Links to both are here
  • Check out a concert: Chris Martin put on a free performance on Insta for his fans, calling it ‘Together at Home’ (courtesy our subscriber Darshana Rajaram). John Legend followed suit over here. Keith Urban live streamed a 30-minute set with an in-home audience of one: Nicole Kidman.
  • Immerse yourself in art: Take one of these six amazing virtual museum tours.
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