Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Message of the day

Each day brings more bad news on the coronavirus. As weeks turn into months, our unease grows, and starts to slide into anxiety, edging down the slope that leads to panic. Need a little something to help stem the rising tide? This unique and inspiring illustrated guide to hand-washing may just do the trick.

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WTF is going on in Iran and Italy

While China seems to have finally turned the corner, the coronavirus is spreading faster than ever in two distant and very different nations. We investigate the reasons why.


Italy’s nightmare in numbers: The country’s death toll jumped by 168 in a single day, and is now 631. The number of infections have also spiked from 7,375 to 10,149 since Sunday. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is calling the situation the nation's "darkest hour.” And the entire country has been shut down. As of yesterday, 60 million Italians have been told to “stay home”—though there is great confusion among citizens as to what that means. 


That’s really bad, right? Yes, Italy now has the highest daily death rate in the world. The virus has killed 5% of all known cases compared to the global average of 3.5%. 


Why Italy though? The initial reason: Patient zero—the person who triggered the initial outbreak—was asymptomatic, as in, did not display any signs of the disease and therefore went undetected. Also: the spread started in the middle of flu season. By the time the first cases were detected, the virus had already been in circulation for weeks. According to one Italian expert, "Italy should be a warning to everybody, everywhere… We have an epidemic because of one person who returned with an infection in an asymptomatic phase and it spread underground in the 'red zone’." And this despite the fact that Italy was one of the first to shut down all contact with Wuhan, and then air travel to China.


The biggest reason: Italy has one of the oldest populations in the world, second only to Japan. Over 23% of Italians are over 65. This is great in terms of life expectancy, but not in the midst of a Covid-19 epidemic. According to the data gathered in China, the death rate is ten times higher in the very elderly compared to the middle-aged. The average age of deaths from the coronavirus in Italy is 81.4 years. 


Iran’s nightmare in numbers: The government reported 54 deaths over the past 24 hours. As of now, the official death toll stands at 291, and there are 8,042 confirmed cases—and everyone thinks that’s a vast underestimation. 


How bad is it? Some local media sources put the death toll as high as 927—and they point out that the government-approved number does not offer a breakdown in terms of region or province. What we do know is that the outbreak started in the province of Qom—which is home to the world’s most revered Shi’ite seminaries—and then spread to mainly to Teheran, which is now the hardest hit region. 


And why Iran? For starters, its close ties to China. There are hundreds of Chinese students in Qom, and Chinese workers and engineers across Iran. More importantly, China is Iran’s biggest trading partner—and has helped shield the government from the economic damage wreaked by US sanctions. So when other nations started to shut down contact with China in late January, Iran refused to take any precautions out of misguided solidarity. Iran shipped 1 million face masks to China as late as February in a desperate and bizarre show of support.


The biggest reason: An insecure and secretive government that has steadily lost public trust. The government has been in a pitched battle with tens of thousands of protesters over the past year—angry at rising prices and unemployment. Downing that Ukrainian jetliner back in January (and initially lying about it) didn’t help inspire faith either. So Iran’s leadership was worried that any talk of an outbreak would dampen voter turnout in the February 21 election—and further undercut the legitimacy of the government. As a result, the first deaths were reported only two days before the election. 


That’s just dumb! So dumb that as recently as March 5, a top Iranian general declared: “"Today, the country is engaged in a biological battle… We will prevail in the fight against this virus, which might be the product of an American biological [attack], which first spread in China and then to the rest of the world.” FYI: 24 members (10%) of the newly elected parliament have tested positive, and two have died.


The bottomline: Truth is the best disinfectant.

Learn more: For more on Italy, read The Guardian and The Atlantic—which explains why Italy is a sign of things to come in Europe. Politico Magazine has an excellent long read tying Iran’s disastrous response to its global isolation. Washington Post explains how authoritarianism and secrecy was fuel to Iran’s viral wildfire.


In other virus-related news: here’s what’s happening closer to home and elsewhere:

  • India reported 18 new cases, taking the total up to 62. It includes eight in Kerala, five in Maharashtra, four in Karnataka, and one in J&K. Also: the government has now suspended visas to travellers from France, Germany and Spain.
  • Kerala has declared a near-shutdown—closing schools and all kinds of mass gatherings, including weddings, movie screenings and examinations. Board exams will be held on schedule, but students can take them at home. 
  • More on India: This Holi photo that speaks volumes. Also: Al Jazeera on the deluge of misinformation on WhatsApp.
  • Meanwhile, 54 colleges and universities have canceled in-person classes in the United States. And that includes the likes of Harvard, Columbia etc.
  • BBC News offers a helpful assessment of the risks of flying or taking a train.
  • Wondering if it’s risky to go to the gym? Shape magazine has that covered.
  • Wondering if it is risky to Tinder in the time of Covid-19? Refinery29 has the answers. 
  • The Atlantic has a must-see collection of photos that capture the eerily empty public spaces around the world.
  • On the lighter side, Quartz rounds up the catchy songs being used to promote hand-washing around the world.
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seriously rethinking your summer vacay plans

Another Congress government is falling down: Former Lok Sabha MP Jyotiraditya Scindia has exited the party—taking with him at least 22 MLAs in Madhya Pradesh, one of remaining jewels in Congress’ rusty crown. Here’s what you need to know:


  • The math: Of the current 228 assembly seats, Congress had a majority: 114 plus six allies. If 22 MLAs resign, the number of active seats in the legislature will become 206. The majority now required: 104. The number of BJP MLAs: 107. The number of Congress + allies: 92. 
  • The resignation: After tweeting his resignation letter to party prez Sonia Gandhi, Scindia met with Amit Shah, who escorted him to the PM’s residence. So there are zero doubts about where he’s headed. 
  • The reasons: Scindia lost his Lok Sabha seat in the 2019 elections, but worked his ass off for the MP assembly elections that followed—which marked a rare electoral victory for Congress. However, the party establishment (read: Gandhis) chose Kamal Nath as CM instead. 
  • The final straw: the party’s decision to deny him a Rajya Sabha seat, and re-nominate its current occupant, arch-rival Digvijay Singh. Times of India has more on this very costly miscalculation. Indian Express places his exit in context of a mass exodus out of Congress.
  • Why, the BJP, why? While Scindia’s unhappiness was no secret, everyone is shocked, shocked, shocked at his decision to join the BJP. But as Indian Express points out, his father Madhavrao left the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (now BJP) to join the Congress in the 70s—then left Congress to form an independent party allied with the opposition in 1997. 
  • Also: his grandma, Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia, engineered the exact same feat back in 1967, toppling the then MP government by joining the BJP. She was later at the forefront of the Ram Mandir movements, and was one of the accused in the demolition of Babri Masjid.
  • Scindia’s future: The current speculation indicates that the BJP will make Scindia a Rajya Sabha MP, and later a cabinet minister. But the going price is likely to be his secular credentials. As one local journalist explains: “Whoever enters BJP, a non-RSS man, he is not treated well… After a few days, he would be discarded like a fly is thrown out of a glass of milk.”


The Russia-Saudi Arabia war over oil: For the past few days, stock markets have been swinging wildly thanks to a massive spat between the two countries. 


  • The reason: they fiercely disagree over how to respond to the coronavirus effect on oil prices. Simply put: the outbreak is decreasing global demand which in turns threatens the price per barrel. The Saudis wanted to cut supply, Russia said nyet. 
  • The result: a massive price war. Riyadh unilaterally slashed its oil prices—and now says it will boost supply to a record-high in April. Russia has responded by announcing plans to up its supply as well.
  • The price of oil dipped by $11—the biggest one-day drop since 1991. The 25% slump in turn triggered panic selling on stock markets across the world. 
  • Vox explains this maha yudh. The Week has more on why this may be good news for the Indian government and economy. The Wire explains why the Indian consumer may not benefit from the crashing prices.


Women ‘disappear’ in Mexico protest: Tens of thousands of women across the nation vanished from streets, offices and classrooms on Monday. The reason: a nationwide strike to protest ‘femicides’—killings of women because of their gender. In Mexico, ten women are killed every day. In 2019, authorities registered 1,006 such killings, a 10% jump from the year before. The immediate trigger for the protest: The recent killings of Ingrid Escamilla, 25, who was killed, skinned and disemboweled, and of Fátima Cecilia Aldrighett, 7, who was raped, murdered and found wrapped in a plastic bag. The ‘day without us’ strike showed what Mexico would be like without its women. (BuzzFeed News)

In far better climate change news: Carbon emissions from electricity production fell by 2% last year. It’s the biggest drop in almost 30 years. The reason: a lot of countries are saying no to coal-fired power plants. (The Guardian)


Cool stuff we learned online: includes the following:


  • Inverse exposes the truth about ‘metabolism drops’—which are being hawked on Tik Tok and YouTube as a miracle weight loss cure. 
  • The new ‘it’ arm accessory is the ‘Balloon bag’—and all the celebs are hauling it around. Upside: it holds a lot of stuff. The downside: a £2,100 price tag.
  • explains why some people sweat more than others—and what you can do about it.
  • Huffington Post tracks down Darsheel Safary, who attained fame at the tender age of nine thanks to ‘Taare Zameen Par’. Safary is charmingly self-effacing and honest about why he gave up on Bollywood.
  • The Hustle highlights the bizarre popularity for ‘ram-don’—the dish that played a starring role in ‘Parasite’. The cheap meal typically consumed by poor South Koreans is now an over-priced trendy dish in the Big Apple. 
  • The Print has an excellent timeline on the rise of the hand sanitiser. The concept dates back to the 12th century, but the bottled version was developed only in 1965.
  • Fast Company explains why we need to kill the lawn.


Your daily quota of sunshine: includes the following:


  • Before and after pics of a woman who had quadruplets—we have serious respect for any woman who can endure that!
  • A photo gallery of gender neutral nail colours—for you and your bae! 
  • The amazing loggerhead turtle named Yoshi who travelled 37,000km from Cape Town in South Africa to Australia.
  • Saveur’s list of clips that capture the greatest pasta moments in movie history.
  • Yes bank story, told in hilarious ‘Made in India’ memes
  • Sandtagious’—the Insta craze involving very cool and unbelievably real sand creations.
  • This very bizarre take on ‘Thappad’ from Rangoli Chandel, Kangna Ranaut’s sister. Let’s just say it involves TMI on Kangna’s, umm, preferences.
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