Monday, March 16, 2020

City of the day: Mumbai

Every year, Uber releases a “Lost & Found Index” that documents the carelessness of its riders around the world—who leave behind everything from phones to lunch dabbas.  The most ‘forgetful’ city in India: Mumbai, followed by Kolkata and Allahabad. The day of peak carelessness: August 03, 2019. The top three oddest things Indians have left behind: Artificial teeth; mangoes; and copies of ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama.

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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The right way to fight the spreading coronavirus

Now that the world has embraced the reality of a pandemic, there is a fierce debate over how we count cases, and how to deal with an outbreak. The UK made global waves by announcing a very different and controversial strategy. (Read our explainer on the virus and how it works)


First, the numbers: The global tally of cases: 169,531. India: 110. Number of deaths, worldwide: 6516. India: 2.


The stages: There are four stages of a pandemic:

  • One: The infections are primarily “imported”—i.e. limited to  travelers from infected regions. We were at this stage when the first set of Kerala patients from Wuhan were detected and treated back in January.
  • Two: Local transmission—which happens when these travelers come in contact with other people in the country. Example: the second Covid-19 fatality in India is the mother of a man who returned from Italy.
  • Three: Community transmission. Now the virus spreads beyond the first set ‘imported’ cases, and those infected by direct contact with them. 
  • Four: The outbreak is a full-blown epidemic, and there is no way of knowing when it will peak. Italy, Iran and Spain are in this stage right now.


What stage is India in now? That’s a matter of heated debate. 

  • The reason: We have only performed 6,500 tests on suspected cases so far—even though we have the capacity to conduct 4,590 tests per day across 51 labs. As The Hindu’s data analysis shows, we have among the lowest testing rates in the world. 
  • In India, the focus remains on people who have a travel history and exhibit symptoms. Also: everyone who’s been in contact with known cases. 
  • Even when people call in to report their symptoms, only the most severe cases—or those who fit the travel criteria above—are tested. See, for example, Kerala’s new testing policy
  • Many argue that the lack of extensive testing creates misleading data. One leading US-based medical expert says: “Community transmission is already happening [in India] and we’ll know about those cases only if we test more… Cases could be doubling every two to three days right now."
  • Others point out that airport screenings aren’t sufficient. As one public health expert told The Telegraph: “I returned from Sydney last week. After the thermal screening which only looks for fever and cannot determine whether I am infected, no one said anything about staying home in quarantine… There is no firm directive that compels people to home quarantine themselves.”
  • And there is evidence that a number of people successfully evaded screening at airports. 
  • And even those who self-report symptoms aren’t always handled properly. For example: A Kanpur resident who returned from China and called the helpline after he developed symptoms—only to be told he is not infected (over the phone!). 
  • Related must read: US public health experts say that infected people without symptoms might be driving the spread of the virus more than we realize.


Also, Covid-19 runaways! Patients who sneak out of quarantine are adding to the worry. Some examples:

  • A UK national who tested positive boarded a plane to Dubai from Kochi. He broke quarantine in Munnar—along with his tour group—but health officials caught him before takeoff. The Telegraph explains why officials are scrambling to trace all those who came in contact with them.
  • Also in Kochi: A family of three simply walked out of the airport, ignoring the call for additional screening (required for travelers from Italy). They were detected only when they went to the hospital after developing symptoms. The fallout: “[A]t least eight relatives and friends had become infected and the family had allegedly made more than 100 other ‘contacts’ by visiting shops and social events.” 
  • Plus: five patients escaped from an isolation facility in Nagpur. They simply walked out of the hospital ward to “get snacks” 🤦🏽‍♀️
  • Each such case increases the likelihood that we will enter the community transmission stage—if we are not in it already.


Ok is there a better strategy? As we said before, there are two very different strategies in play right now. One being implemented by the UK—and the other by everyone else!


The most popular strategy: minimises the movement and interaction of human beings to prevent further spread. That can include extreme measures taken by Italy, and now France and Spain—where the entire country is locked down. Or it may involve less invasive policies like travel bans, shutting down schools, colleges, malls, theatres etc. In India, some states have taken more drastic measures than others. For example: Maharashtra—which now has the highest number of cases thanks to an overnight surge of 15 cases.


And this works right? The strategy is called “flattening the curve”—i.e. minimising the peak of the epidemic so that the healthcare system can cope with the crisis. See Vox’s explainer of the chart showing how it works. Or if you’re a cat lover, you may prefer this version lol! 


Ok, and the UK’s approach? It’s best summed up as, er, ‘let’s do nothing’. The Boris Johnson government has not imposed any travel bans, airport screenings or any shutdown of any kind.


What does that mean? The government’s advisers—who are behavioural scientists—are advocating a very different kind of strategy. The aim is not to prevent a full-blown epidemic, but to manage it more effectively.


Wait, what? Yes, the starting premise is that preventing the spread of Covid-19 is futile. Therefore, doing nothing right now is the smartest approach because:

  • One: Shutting everything down now will soon lead to “self-isolation fatigue.” People will start breaking the rules of social distancing—exactly when the epidemic starts to peak. 
  • The number of infections will escalate, creating an unbearable load on the health care system. So shutdowns are best implemented only when the situation becomes visibly bad.
  • Two: This delays the worst stage of the epidemic to the summer when the public health system has more beds and will have bulked up on resources. Also: the virus doesn’t do well in heat—though that 'fact' remains unproven. 
  • Three: This is the most outrageous bit. According to a Johnson adviser, the aim is to create ‘herd immunity’—a theory which claims that a population develops immunity (i.e. antibodies) when large numbers are exposed to a given disease.
  • But in order to develop this ‘herd immunity’, up to 60% of the population will have to become infected! 
  • The gamble is that the young people will contract a mild form of the disease and become immune. And the older, more vulnerable citizens will be isolated at home for up to four months, and hence remain healthy. 


That sounds nuts! Some think the theory is just fine, but the problem is that it hasn’t been tested. And it may not apply to this new coronavirus. For example, no one knows if you can develop immunity to it—like chicken pox or measles. Or another example: Over the weekend, the number of deaths in the UK surged to 35—and the country added 232 cases in just 24 hours. Covid-19 clearly isn’t interested in staying on Boris’ schedule. 


The good news: Thanks to the immediate and fierce backlash, the government is getting ready to make that big U-turn.


The bottomline: This simulation of the ‘exponential curve’ shows how quickly the virus spreads. Enuf said. 


Related stuff that made us smarter: includes the following:

  • National Geographic lays out the underlying medical conditions that make people more vulnerable to Covid-19. 
  • The Correspondent reminds us that a great crisis often brings out the best in humanity. Selfish jerks are the exception not the rule.
  • Bloomberg News predicts how the pandemic will change the way we work, shop and travel for decades to come.
  • Refinery29 explains how to take care of your hands in this time of constant handwashing.
  • CNN explains how to protect elderly family members who are at greatest risk.
  • Ars Technica offers a continually updated and comprehensive FAQ on the virus and the pandemic.
  • Inverse offers seven science-based strategies on how to deal with Covid-19 anxiety.
  • Science has the latest and best advice on pets—can they get the disease and can they pass it on?
  • Indian Express explains the great flu pandemic that killed 10-20 million Indians.
  • Also: Read how Taiwan kept the virus out by moving very quickly to trace and isolate cases. 


Other virus-related updates: include the following

  • France and Spain have announced sweeping new restrictions—even as WHO declared Europe as the new “epicentre” of the pandemic.
  • ISIS has issued a travel advisory for terrorists.
  • Maharashtra has gone on war footing after a weekend spike, but UAE remains exempt from the travel ban—even though 54% of Maha’s new cases originated in Dubai.
  • Experts predict the virus is here to stay for the rest of 2020.
  • IPL season is not only delayed, but it may also be a lot shorter.
  • Airlines are facing global meltdown as travel bans multiply across nations.
  • Iran has given its citizens 24 hours to get off the streets, or else the army will force them indoors. 
  • US authorities have approved a new test that is ten times faster than the existing one. Japan will also roll out a 15-minute test very soon. In related news: Trump has tested negative for Covid-19.
  • A Hindutva organisation hosted a gaumutra bash where folks downed “cups of cow urine and panchkavya—a cocktail of cow urine, dung extract and milk products—to try and appease the coronavirus, or the ‘Corona demon’.”
  • There was lots of confusion and blame-mongering over a viral story about the wife of a Google employee in Bangalore—and whether she was trying to hide from the police.
  • The PM proposed an emergency fund in a virtual teleconference with fellow South Asian leaders.
  • The latest casualty of the pandemic: your watchlist. According to Variety, production in Hollywood has ground to a complete halt.
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canceling all your 'hang out' plans for the next week

Disney+ pulls a disappearing trick: Just as everyone got all excited about the surprise early arrival of Disney+ on their Hotstar app, the service suddenly vanished—rolled back within 24 hours of its release. The company’s explanation: It was just a beta trial. And we will have to wait until March 29 for the real thing. In happier streaming news: A browser extension called NetflixParty lets you host long distance movie nights with your pals. Perfect technology for these social distancing times. (Livemint)


Your smartphone is getting more pricey: The government hiked the GST rate on mobile phones to 18%—up from the existing 12%. Xiaomi’s India MD says this move will “crumble the industry.” 


The strange case of a WSJ reporter: Last week, the government-owned Prasar Bharati tweeted out the details of a story concerning Wall Street Journal‘s South Asia deputy bureau chief Eric Bellman. According to the now deleted thread, the government was actively pursuing a request to deport Bellman. The reason: “misreporting” the killing of IB officer, Ankit Sharma, during the Delhi violence. The WSJ quoted Sharma’s brother who said of the attackers: “They came armed with stones, rods, knives and even swords; they shouted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ [Glory to Lord Ram]; some even wore helmets.” Point to note: the police has rounded up a number of Muslims—including AAP’s Tahir Hussain—for the killing. The government has now denied any such plan, and the Twitter thread has since been deleted (preserved here). (The Telegraph)


Justice for rape survivors as slow as ever: Despite a law requiring a speedy completion of rape trial within a year, the number of pending cases has jumped by 46% since March, 2018. The worst delays are in Delhi, where the increase is 353%!! (Times of India)


Neha Dhupia speaks out against thappads: On the TV series ‘Roadies Revolution’, a contestant bragged about slapping his allegedly cheating girlfriend—only to be immediately schooled by the actor. She said: Yeh jo tu bol raha hai na ki ek nahi paanch ladko ke saath gayi thi... Sun meri baat, it's her choice (You're saying she was with five men, listen to me. It's her choice). Maybe the problem lies with you. Nobody gives you the f***ing right to slap." A good turn that earned her the wrath of misogynists. She finally broke her silence with a statement: “What a man or a woman does in a relationship is their choice and moral choices are always ambiguous. But no matter what they are, they cannot lead to physical abuse. I stand by the fact that NO MATTER WHAT ... physical abuse or assault is not acceptable.” Yup, that’s exactly right. Watch the Roadies clip here.


Things that make you go ‘Hain?’ McDonald’s new burger with four patties! Why die of Covid-19 when you can give yourself a coronary instead. Also: Everyone’s fave smut site, PornHub, has ambitions of making an Oscar-worthy movie.


Weekend reads you might have missed: include the following:


  • Snighda Poonam and (Broadsheet subscriber!) Samarth Bansal in Quartz co-report a brilliant piece on how Chinese dating apps are exploiting the loneliness of Indian men.
  • Long Reads has a thoughtful must-read essay on 'cancel' culture, which has resulted in a bizarre erosion of privacy—where personal crimes (big and small) now receive very public punishment.
  • Big Think explains why BDSM could be good for your work ethic—if that’s your thing, of course.
  • Food Network offers a smart guide to reducing salt in your diet—without eliminating it entirely.
  • BBC News profiles the unexpected friendship between Ratan Tata and his Twitter-savvy millennial buddy
  • The Hindu reports on Lakshwadeep’s fragile lagoons that are being threatened by a multi-crore tourism project.
  • The defection of Jyotisaditya Scindia is playing out as a coup in New Delhi, but not in his home state. Indian Express has an excellent ground report on the anxious and annoyed BJP foot soldiers in Madhya Pradesh.
  • Bon Appetit profiles an industry dedicated to a single task: making food crispier.
  • Grist explains how warming waters are making shellfish toxic.

Your daily quota of sunshine items: includes the following:


  • No one does quarantines quite like the Italians. Watch: this clip of Italians leaning out their windows and singing in solidarity. 
  • Also: the Italian government put on this awesome air show to boost morale.
  • A Covid-19 musical, anyone? (courtesy our subscriber Nayantara Raja)
  • A trance remix of a minister chanting ‘Go Corona’ anyone?
  • The brilliant news that the Kerala government is home delivering midday meals to feed students. 
  • Gloria Gaynor washing her hands to ‘I Will Survive’
  • Michelle Obama posted a clip of a four-year-old girl, crying because ‘I’m ugly!’ It’s the kind of thing that breaks your heart, but leaves you with a smile.
  • Also: elephants make the very best dance partners!
  • Plus: cat cricket.
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