Hope can’t be crunched out of machines

If there is an option to rename coronavirus, I would propose to call it confusion-virus thanks to one uniqueness it has over all other past-viruses, and that is to have arrived in the age of data science.

When H1N1 had hit about a hundred years back, there was no confusion about what to call it. It was plain and simple Spanish flu, even though no one had any idea about where it came from, and yet no Spaniard really minded enough to set up social media bots to counter the bad branding.

It killed millions of people: Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Americans, Tahitians, Samoans, Chinese and more, but there was no argument about which religion or nation was to be blamed for it at the time the epidemic ravaged because there was no real data to analyze.

In short, the last pandemic that had really hit us at the scale of coronavirus was battle fought in total data-darkness, and yet we could beat it and are here, populating the planet with 7.7 billion strong today thanks to one very simple fact that we did not require data analysis to tell us.

Data or no-data, humans survive by hoping for the best, because only when we have hope, we have empathy for each other.

Even when black death raged in the mid-1300s or when Cholera pandemic of 1899 what really pulled humanity through was the fact that people tried saving each other.

This may sound too simplistic and you are wondering what is so special about the idea of people trying to save each other, let me point out something that the mighty tool of data analysis that we are now using to make decisions.

Crunch data and it is possible to see that helping others doesn’t really help in times like an epidemic.

If a chap takes two years of supply with him and goes underground, he is most likely to wake up to a pandemic-free world when he steps out, but (barring some Americans), not too many people have done that. So, if we ask a computer to work out the best possible deal using data, the “logical” conclusion is not in line with what many humans do in a pandemic.

Is this proof that we humans were stupid enough in the past not to see what deeper analysis of data tells us today? Or is humanity crunching data that we don’t know about?

The answer lies in understanding what is the objective of data crunching for a modern data analyst and for the human brain.

While modern data crunching is impressive in its scale and depth when you step in up close to it, you make a simple discovery, and that is, it is of very little actual use in predicting anything in this chaotic universe where a flap of a butterfly wing can cause a storm to kick up in Brasil. Humans, on the other hand crunch data to survive.

Now, if we return to the counterintuitive wisdom that humanity has shown when confronted with a calamity in the past, it is easy to see that humans make it because they keep seeing a rosy picture emerging from the data even if they are working amongst the dead and dying, and that is if we help each other, we will come out of this in the end together.

The most important realization that we must have is that hope is never a product of data analysis. In fact, data analysis could be a dangerous game to play in a situation like a pandemic.

Even if we have the best of supercomputers to crunch the pandemic data, the only wisdom that one can have is that governments must believe in the worst possible outcome, while the general public must believe in the best possible outcome, while both options would actually be far from what will really unfold on the ground.

Let governments use machines if they must, but within each of us we have our own supercomputer that tells us that we will, we will make it through this.

At times this machine ends up getting a bit damp, and worse, ends up taking unnecessary data from social media that make us feel less hopeful. When it happens, step out and look at the sunny sky or midnight moon. Smell the air. Listen to the birds and it will reset itself back to hope.

Hope is all we need and is all we can have in a chaotic reality that no amount of machine-generated data analysis models can predict.

Unbelievable, yet true

So many hitherto unbelievable things are a reality now with Covid-19. We must really learn to never say never again! Unbelievable, yet true!

“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” Vladimir Lenin’s words resonate hauntingly in the present Covid-19 stricken times. 

Certainly, decades seem to have been folded into the last couple of weeks. In some ways we have rolled back several decades, in others achieved things that future decades wouldn’t have helped us achieve. We thought we knew best; suddenly we know nothing at all. We roamed the world at leisure, now we are confined home. We thought a hug conveyed all, now it is shunned! Overtime was a mark of efficiency, now we work from home! Unbelievable, yet true!

Confined at home, cut off from the rest of the world, unable to meet friends or go out for a family meal, scared of shaking hands or even touching our own faces – would you have believed just three months ago that this would be your new reality? Prince Charles and  Trump along with many others have resorted to Namaste….maybe hand and water will replace the toilet paper soon with market shortages! Unbelievable, yet true!

When the children went to settle abroad, one consoles oneself — we are just one flight away. Where is that flight now? Today their own country will not allow them to come home! Unbelievable, yet true!

As we grapple with a new reality and dodge a diabolical mutating virus holding the world at ransom, many deep truths surface. These are strange times where each one of us is on our own, and yet cannot hope to be safe unless all are safe. Corona has taught us the true meaning of Universal spirit! In this World War, the big difference is that the entire world is on the same side – lined up in unity against the common enemy – a virus!! Unbelievable, yet true!

What I am missing is the freedom of movement, the reassurance that all I love are safe and all is good with the world. As we work from home, what I am not missing is the long daily commute, the pollution and exhaustion, the diversions and distractions at work! And what I am loving instead is working at my pace, the satisfaction of getting much more done, lack of stress, the me-time and the time to stand and stare.

Many youngsters have been complaining about loneliness, lack of self-motivation and the stress of being confined at home. To them, I would say treat it as a God-given gift in the middle of a catastrophe. Here is your island of peace that allows you to look within. Unprecedented times like these call for unprecedented measures. They challenge your strength, resilience and creativity. Even as you keep yourself very, very safe and remain alert to dangers, find productive and entertaining ways to spend your time. Be creative and disciplined.

Structure your own routine. Give yourself chunks of time to work with short breaks. Take a coffee or fruit break at mid-day. Make that a time to look forward to; allow yourself an activity usually forbidden at work, like 10 minutes of reading a book or playing a game. You must try to exercise at home. Learn a new language, yoga, dance, cooking or sketching online, fill up gaps in reading. Watch movies. Do video chats with family and friends you are missing. Bring out those board games.

Disciplined structuring of the day is important. Stick to work hours for office stuff. It helps to also have fixed time slots for everything else you want to do. Believe me, once you know what all you want to manage in the day, it seems too short to pack it all in! And yes, music is great to uplift your mood. Remember, having a schedule and reward-based system is very important to stay productive and also feel cheerful in these times.

And yes…. This too shall pass!

Challenge of New American Politics

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders represent insular tendencies in US politics. Delhi should find ways to step into spaces this politics open up

As India prepares to host US President Donald Trump in the next few days, Delhi would want to factor in two important developments this week in America. Trump’s visit is an opportunity for Delhi to limit the potential negative fallout from these two developments and take advantage of the emerging possibilities.

One is the impeachment drama that is expected to conclude on Wednesday with the Senate acquitting Trump of the charges framed by the House of Representatives. A liberated president is expected to pursue his political agenda with greater vigour. The other is the challenge posed by Senator Bernie Sanders’ in the contest for Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. While Trump is now unconstrained, the Democrats are heading towards a political blood bath. Together, the two underline the accelerating changes in America’s internal and external orientation.

Free from the prospects of impeachment, Trump is expected to lay out an optimistic vision for America’s future in his annual State of the Union address to the US Congress on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Democrats are heading towards a major struggle for the political soul of the party. The Democratic Party establishment is nervous that the radicalism of Sanders — who has long identified himself as a socialist — will only help Trump win a second term in the White House. There is widespread suspicion that the grandees of the party will rig the rules against Sanders and deny him the nomination like they did in 2016.

Although the radical platform of Sanders has generated much concern in the Democratic Party, socialism is not new to American politics. Socialists and progressives had significant influence in the early decades of the 20th century. In the post-war era, the two traditions lost out amidst unprecedented expansion of economic prosperity at home and the prolonged confrontation with international communism. In the decades of deregulation and globalisation that came after the Cold War’s end, socialism had become a dirty word. Sanders, however, appears to have broken the taboo amidst the widespread economic discontent that has enveloped the US in the 21st century.

While Trump and Sanders could not be more different as individuals, they are alike in one respect: They promise or threaten — depending on one’s perspective — to overturn the established order in the US. Both are “outsiders” who rose to prominence in the teeth of the insiders’ opposition.

Trump managed to defeat far more powerful candidates in the Republican race for the presidential nomination in 2016 and has consolidated his position against all odds. He has survived the attempts by the so-called “deep state” and the Democratic Party to undo the results of the 2016 presidential elections in which Trump secured a majority in the electoral college while losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a large margin of three million votes.

If the initial attempt focused on Russian interference in the elections in favour of Trump, the more recent one focused on Trump’s alleged abuse of presidential power for personal gain in Ukraine and obstructing Congressional investigation into it. Trump, however, has reveled in his confrontation with the establishment and has crossed many red lines on US domestic and foreign policy. He has dismantled much of the regulatory state that constrains domestic capital and overturned the conventional wisdom on trade, migration and American role in the world. Whether it was the result of his policies are not, Trump has claimed credit for the accelerated economic growth in the last few years and the falling unemployment rate.

Unlike Trump, Sanders’ critique of the American system is comprehensive and deep. Pointing to the growing concentration of wealth and the declining opportunities for those at the bottom of the pyramid, Sanders is calling for radical remedies. On his agenda are a significant increase in the minimum wage for workers, renewal of trade unions, universal healthcare, abolition of college debt and free tuition, shift away from fossil fuels to hundred per cent renewable energy and massive taxes on what he calls “extreme wealth”. While this agenda frightens the Democratic Party’s leadership, it has fired up the young and the working people to rally behind him in large numbers.

There are two things, however, that are common to the agenda of Trump and Sanders. Both oppose free trade and agree on ending America’s “endless wars”. The shift away from free trade in the US demands that India adapt to the new dynamic where bilateral trade deals are supplanting the multilateral regime. Delhi, which had been slow to respond to this change, now has an opportunity to make amends during Trump’s visit. Media reports say a trade deal worth $10 billion is on the cards when Trump comes to India. That is much too modest and Delhi needs to be ambitious in imagining its commercial ties with the US the transformation of global trade politics.

Both Trump and Sanders are also calling for a measure of retrenchment from the costly global burden that America has borne since the middle of the 20th century. Both are eager to withdraw US troops from the Middle East and Afghanistan. While an American retrenchment could create a potentially dangerous vacuum, it also opens space for India to step in and take larger responsibility for regional and global security affairs.

India has always claimed such a role and in more recent years, its capability to undertake such a burden has improved. Trump’s visit is an opportunity for New Delhi to think boldly about expanding Indian contribution to the stabilisation of Afghanistan and the Gulf region. In the past, the US tended to discourage India’s role in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. Today, Washington is urging Delhi to do more for peace and security in India’s near and extended neighbourhood.

Germany’s low COVID-19 Death- Rate- A Mirage or A Miracle

But what is remarkable about Germany’s COVID-19 outbreak to date, is the relatively small number of deaths — 482 as of March 29. That works out to a case fatality rate of just 0.8 per cent, compared to China’s four per cent, between six and eight per cent in France and Spain, and 11 per cent in Italy, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resoures Center.

The Germans have a pretty good idea of how and when COVID-19 arrived in their country.

The first 16 infections were all traced to a Shanghai-based employee of a German auto parts maker, who paid a visit to company headquarters in Bavaria on Jan. 19.

Authorities were notified on Jan. 27, the day after she first fell ill back in China, and contained the cluster within a couple of weeks via testing and isolation.

The second wave of novel coronavirus hit in late February, as winter-break vacationers returned home from ski slopes in Italy and Austria. 

It has proven much more difficult to limit; and as of Sunday, the country had 60,659 confirmed cases, the fifth most in the world. 

The discrepancy has been drawing plenty of international attention, as epidemiologists, health-care providers and the media try to figure out if Germany has found a way to limit the human cost of the global pandemic. 

If Germany has an advantage in the fight against COVID-19, it has probably been in its testing, with close to one million people swabbed and analyzed over the past three weeks, and lab capacity now up to half-a-million samples per week. (Still just a small fraction of the country’s population of 83 million.) Compare that to Canada, which had tested a total 164,564 people as of Friday, Italy with around 375,000 tests, or the United States, which now has the world’s biggest outbreak, but has tested 541,000 people.

“It’s not a top down approach here, it’s a bottom up approach and everyone just started to test as soon as the sequence and the protocol was available,” said Melanie Brinkmann, a virologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig. “So I think we saw the much bigger tip of the iceberg than other countries, such as Italy, for example. They didn’t do the testing and they suddenly had very many cases in their hospitals and very soon they were overwhelmed.”

The aggressive testing may be providing a fuller picture of the coronavirus crisis in Germany since many of the cases being detected are mild or asymptomatic — the kind of people who aren’t yet being swabbed in other countries. It has also given authorities a chance to break the chain of infection at an earlier stage, before the disease gets passed on to someone who falls ill enough to seek medical attention. 

“I think we have gained a lot of time, and now have had time to prepare the hospitals for the patients that will come eventually,” says Brinkmann.

A gathering storm

Even with those COVID-fighting efforts, and the cushion they’ve provided, there’s a growing sense of pessimism among German experts and a feeling that the country’s apparent good fortune is probably just a temporary mirage.

“There is nothing special about what we are doing. We had good luck,” said Dr. Karl Lauterbach, an epidemiologist and a member of the German Parliament. “We are very well aware that in a couple of weeks we may be in big trouble.”

Lauterbach, a longtime spokesperson on health issues for the Social Democratic Party, said his country has caught some breaks when it comes to COVID-19. Most people who contracted the disease thus far have been relatively young — a median age of 48, according to government statistics — and healthy. 

The cases have also been fairly evenly spread across the country, meaning that local and regional hospital systems haven’t yet been overwhelmed as in parts of Italy, France and Spain. 

Yet Lauterbach said he is acutely aware that Germany’s trend line is quickly turning ominous. In the course of the last week, the number of cases has doubled, and now daily deaths are climbing as well — with 47 new fatalities on March 25, 60 on March 26, 84 deaths on March 27, and another 82 on March 28.

From the early days of COVID-19, German officials started requiring quarantines and implemented widespread testing, and it seems to have helped keep the pandemic from overwhelming its health-care system. 7:32

“I see this as a tidal wave that is coming,” said Lauterbach. “A sharp increase in the number of infected people, and also the number of people getting severe disease and people dying, unfortunately.”

Germany is surely better prepared for a surge in coronavirus cases than many other countries. It has one of the best-funded healthcare systems in the world — ranking fourth in per capita spending among OECD nations. (Canada ranks 11th, while Italy and Spain are 22nd and 23rd, respectively. The United States spends the most, by far, but there are wide quality gaps between its private and public hospitals.)

And a lot of Germany’s spending has gone into the type of critical care infrastructure that will become crucial if severe COVID-19 cases start to spike, as predicted. 

“At the moment I can tell you that we have in Germany up to 10,000 ICU beds available for severely ill patients,” said Dr. Uwe Janssens, the head of the German Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine Association. “We stopped any operation, any elective surgery, anything, and we told the people you come back when the situation’s over and I think this is a very important measure.”

Germany already had more intensive care beds than most other countries — 34 per 100,000 population, said Janssens — on a par with the United States. Canada has 12.9 such beds per 100,000 population (spread unevenly across the provinces and territories.) Italy’s ratio is 12.5 beds. In Spain, it’s 9.7, while the United Kingdom has just 6.6 critical care spaces per 100,000 people.

The Germans also have 25,000 ventilators on hand. (Canada has 7,752 total ventilators across all provinces, with another 371 on order, to serve a population of around 37 million people.)

But all of that may not be enough to overcome the country’s demographics.

Germany, like Italy and Spain, has one of the oldest populations in Europe, with 21.6 per cent of its residents aged 65 or older. And those upper age groups are just as vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19 as the elderly in other countries. To date, 88 per cent of the novel coronavirus deaths in Germany have been among people 70 or older. And while the median age of the country’s infected patients remains more than a decade below Italy’s 63 years, it has already begun to climb.

Slow to act on distancing

And if the Germans have been ahead of the curve when it comes to mass testing, they have been slower than other nations in shutting down non-essential businesses and imposing physical-distancing rules. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel — who herself is now in self-isolation after a doctor who vaccinated her against pneumonia tested positive for COVID-19 — warned that 70 per cent of the country, or 58 million people, could end up infected, back on March 11. 

However, a national emergency wasn’t declared until 11 days later, on March 22, with an accompanying ban on public gatherings of more than two people, and the shuttering of bars, restaurants, hair salons and tattoo studios.

Experts in Germany anticipate that it will be months before their outbreak is brought under control, and that COVID-19 may well spike again in the fall, as the weather turns and people come back into closer, indoor contact. 

Martin Stuermer, a biochemist and virus researcher who runs a private testing lab in Frankfurt, said he thinks the true scale of the pandemic in Germany won’t become visible until after it’s over — when people can be tested for the antibody; a sign that they had indeed been infected, even if they never developed symptoms. 

Stuermer himself is at home under quarantine after he caught COVID-19 during a ski trip to Austria. He describes uncomfortable symptoms — some shortness of breath, severe back pain, and an ongoing loss of his sense of taste and smell. But he said he’s relieved that he contracted the disease early on. 

“At the moment I’m happy that I’m infected now and that I don’t have to think about it — in every situation when I’m out again. To see can somebody infect me, or can I infect somebody else?” he said.  

And even as the outbreak grows, Stuermer thinks there are already lessons to be learned for Germany — and the rest of the world.

“I think we can learn a lot about communication between local and federal governments. We can learn a lot about hygiene — washing our hands more regularly, and keeping social distance from people who are ill,” he said. “We should have respect for the virus. We should respect the illness. But we don’t have to be in panic mode.

A little knowledge and dangerous things

Namastey! An Indian practice of greeting, like “yoga” for the initiated, is the first step in social distancing now accepted globally. The other, of more reverence as “touching thy holy feet” should be instantly banned. The feet may be carrying the virus, and lusty intentions may actually weaken the immunity transiently, in preventing sufficient flow of blood to the upper parts of the body. Let’s see which religious body, political party is the first to ban it on grounds of social distancing!

It was a bold, unexpected, and immediate step by the PM took, that was the most important in preventing spread of the disease. There may be more to be done as science and data unfolds, even as the country gears up for a recession (acceptable verses a viral holocaust). Wages are somewhat reimbursed in the public and private sector. As an economic shut down of sorts is anticipated, protective gear, sanitizers, drugs with claims of mitigation, may scrape the treasury. The total foreign reserves have depleted by $15bn, but that was anticipated. In fighting this undeclared pandemic, Indian Healthcare shall touch the base of the curve, from where it shall only escalate.

Medical personnel have always had a lower people/medico ratio, but in case of positive cases, quarantine, daily upkeep, suggested medicines, may be enough. In cases that are complicated, mostly with respiratory distress, mechanical ventilatory support is required. Two companies, Mahindra, perhaps Vedanta have pledged more than a lac, ventilators in the shortest possible time. That raises the overall protective-curative bar for all times.

It was great thinking by the government to blur the line between the private and public healthcare. The patient goes to the best facility required. There are Jan- Dhan, Aayush by the ministry to take care of expenses. I wonder if there is a clause in Medi-claim policies that disallows payment for a hospitalization during an epidemic. In borderline cases, fresh policies can be issued in the presence of disease, and the EMI’s be adjusted over time, at no-profit-no loss basis. The finance and health Ministries can certify bonds to the effect. Times for the “haves” to part to the “have nots”  

There is this huge issue of rural workers migrating in hordes to their villages. That may be assisted with caution, as in their simple living lifestyles, homemade food, fresh vegetables, and clean air and water, they may lessen the incidence, rather than living in dingy slums, sharing pre-used water within a family, inadequate hygiene in cramped pigeon holes. They are asking for their own social distancing. After taking precautions, providing ration, food, masks and the hypothetical medicines, the same job is being done, at, perhaps 1/3rd the cost. What shall complete the whole kitty of therapy, is to provide at least two ventilators at each District Centre.

The statistics shall keep changing, but as of now, Delhi has 49 infected case, and 2 deaths. Nation-wide it is 909 infected, and 23 deaths. May have changed. Most of the cases in Delhi and NOIDA are related to contact with foreigners so we are not exactly in stage III. It is still a close person to person contact.

The majority of cases are in Kerala, but proportionally deaths are few. Maharashtra has a wider spread, probably so far there was unscreened spread of sea and air travel from Mumbai. Some of this may still be essential for key imports/exports, but under strict scrutiny. The government is aware, and quite open about the impendent economic situation.

The RBI, mega financers, maybe working overnight to fish out floating currencies, as the waters settle down.

Tragic that Italy had 969 deaths in a day and a total of 9.000. The US has somehow become the most indecisive country, but they have a culture of coming out of pits, and yet climbing up. They are the largest economy, and somewhere global monetary losses due to a complete shutdown, does not become an easy alternative.

Their culture is perhaps more diverse than ours. A famous jazz festival held in New Orleans, close to the end of Feb, “Mardi Gras”, unchecked by the federal govt, is now being attributed to the 500 deaths that have occurred thereafter.

The dangerous things are the innumerable electronic bulletins you keep getting when the only site you need to go is your govt’s or the WHO. These are quite a distraction to hurried minds, re-learning to settle down in intellectual comfort, music, good reading. I frequently go over authentic texts as Bhagwat Purana, now available in Penguin, thanks to a flawless translation by a very wise man. The background is King Parikshit, who had only eight days to live, asks the sage Shukdev to enlighten him, so that he attains “Nirvana”, a concept of permanent relief from birth and death cycles, as defined in Vedic texts.

The other dangerous ones are the number of suggestions you get on speculations on the share market. Nothing wrong, but a bit perverse when millions are at risk of their lives, or don’t have a Rs 50 note to buy a square meal for themselves, and their starving children. “Thou are a better man than I Ganga Din”

The spirit of philanthropy remains. Only, we are now more capable. The freedom movement had donations from Bajaj, Birla, Agha Khan. Today we have a line -up of Shiv Nadar (770 Cr), Tata (500Cr), Ambani (437 Cr), and many more I salute to. Cumulative individual donations may actually top the list.

The pandemic over, we shall have a Brave New India. A stringent work culture. A co-operative mindset at the workplace, perhaps a serious look at putting brakes on the population, and stopping the slide of a young generation from falling prey to recreational drugs.

Sure, a doctor makes his money out of people’s miseries. It should be done in a way that the patient’s misery ends first, and then his!

“I can summarize my life’s experience in just three words, “Life goes on” – Robert Frost

Sunday Special: Inequality Begins at Five-Kids enter school with cognitive deficit

Every year, millions of children enter the Indian education system. But a large proportion of them fail to derive the real benefit of schooling, which is learning.

While there are several factors such as curriculum, pedagogy, teacher training and others that are preventing all children from achieving better learning outcomes, one factor that has a disproportionately significant impact is the lack of a fair and equitable place at the starting line. The ASER 2019 report found an absolute lack of school readiness among five year olds – only 23.5% of kids in an anganwadi or a government preschool could do a listening comprehension task, only 45% could do a simple four-piece puzzle, and only 36.8% could do a task involving counting of objects.

Our brain develops the most in the first eight years of life. Numerous studies have indicated that children benefit from quality early education as they pick up on a wide breadth of developmentally appropriate skills and are therefore more likely to finish school successfully. Data from the 2017 India Early Childhood Education Impact study, by Ambedkar University and ASER Centre, confirms that the origins of the learning crisis lie even before children enter Grade 1. 27% of children are under the age of six when they start out in Grade 1. Early age enrolments cause a mismatch in learning ability. For instance, the ability to do cognitive activities among seven-eight year olds can be 20 percentage points higher than their friends who are five years old but in the same class.

Rural India, with 65% of the population, is dependent on the anganwadi network for its pre-primary education needs. While the government has invested significantly in these networks and launched many schemes to ensure early childhood education, the sheer scale needed is mindboggling. Unfortunately, in this overburdened system instructional time takes a backseat to other critical imperatives – such as vaccinations, maternal health and malnutrition – that take up a majority of anganwadi workers’ time. And so, these children land up in the education system dismally unprepared.

What we see around us is also reiterated by the Draft National Education Policy 2019 that has identified early education as a critical gap and goes on to call it ‘perhaps the greatest and most powerful equaliser’. The committee has recommended some bold reforms and universalising the three years of pre-primary schooling, but doesn’t provide a clear direction on how it will go about achieving it.

One of the pressing reforms that could help achieve this goal earlier would be to ensure the provision of at least one year of developmentally appropriate pre-primary schooling (PPS) delivered through the primary school. Pre-primary cognitive and social skills such as paying attention in class, following instructions, interacting with peers, identifying shapes and colours, recognising patterns, correlating alphabet to their sounds, counting etc are critical components of school readiness. What we need is a well-designed curriculum involving these skills, with a dedicated teacher putting in three to four hours of instructional time to ensure that a child enters Grade 1 with better foundation.

In all fairness, some state and municipal governments have made efforts to implement PPS provision in their schools, but multiple questions loom around quality of implementation. Civil society organisations working in these geographies report that these roll-outs lack a structured curriculum, a dedicated teacher, adequate instructional time, or all of these.

The role of the state education departments becomes integral in ensuring that quality Early Childhood Education (ECE) is provided to all children at scale. To get started on this journey they need to:

Build technical competence: The curriculum developed by the NCERT focusses on the right skills; what we need is for states to localise these guidelines and provide classroom material, teacher training, monitoring framework and assessments. Experts from the civil society organisations come with a deep understanding of local contexts and early childhood pedagogy from across the country. States can gain a lot from building strong partnerships with such organisations to up-skill themselves in all aspects of quality ECE.

Identify staffing models: Dedicated teachers and instructional time is essential for quality PPS. Hiring and building a separate cadre of teachers who specialise in pre-primary education is the need of the hour. States could look to build this cadre from young women in the community, who are passionate about education. In the near term, another option is to hire contractual teachers for a specific tenure or leverage underutilised cadres in states such as Shiksha Mitra (UP), Panchayat Education Assistants (Sikkim), etc.

Leverage central funding for pilots: Increased quantum of financial assistance from the Centre renders lucrative opportunities to states to improve the quality of pre-primary education manifold. This includes setting up interesting PPS pilots.

Create a pathway to scale: States could launch the PPS in larger schools in the first few years so that there is optimum enrolment and stronger infrastructure including the appointment of qualified teachers. States could then aim to scale the improved programme to all primary schools with an enrolment of greater than 100 (which is 31% of all government schools in the country). This would ensure that about 70% of kids in the country are covered by a quality pre-primary programme in the next three years.

The cards are falling in place for states to be able to introduce excellent pre-primary education programmes. With strong reforms in tow, investments from the government, and partnerships with civil society organisations, states are well placed to start their pre-primary sections in right earnest.

Spitting in the coronavirus era: How Europe overcame the urge to spit, & India might succeed now

Elite European aesthetics, rather than fear of tuberculosis (TB), did much to discourage public spitting in the West. Is there a lesson here for India where we are combatting not just TB, but now coronavirus too?

Social distancing will, hopefully, become unnecessary in the not too long run. We, however, have an opportunity now to rally public opinion against spitting and this could be for our everlasting good. If the Western world could overcome the spitting urge, so can we.

Anti-spitting sentiments first rose among European aristocrats and the high bourgeoisie. This happened well before Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch propounded the “germ theory”. Only later, the more common classes in cheaper seats began to adopt this view, clearly imitating their social superiors. Science can only do so much, it is how the upper echelons behave that often turns things around.

So far, the Indian elite has shown little interest in giving up public spitting. To ask Indians not to spit is met mostly with disbelief. It is almost as if nature would stop and birds would die. That may now change as the coronavirus fear has prompted Madhya Pradesh MLAs and parliamentarians to wear masks to work. As a facial mask is spit inhibiting, once our netas begin to use it as an essential accessory, the general masses too might do the same. At long last, a glimmer of hope.

We should remind ourselves that Europe’s success in combating spitting was not because of law or science, as often believed, but because the elite considered it repulsive. Till the 18th century Europeans (much like many Indians today), believed that it was wrong to swallow one’s spit. The great 15th century Dutch philosopher and theologian, Desiderius Erasmus, strongly advocated spitting out saliva for moral and physical reasons.

This is why spitting continued among the lower classes even after the European courts and big merchants had condemned it as disgusting.  When, in 1842, Charles Dickens berated the Americans for public spitting, he was upset not because the poorer classes were indulging in this practice but because members of the American elite were.

This aversion to spitting might have remained an upper class affectation, and no more. The two Great Wars of the 20th century changed all that. They brought about massive social mobility and economic growth. Now there was a sudden surge in the numbers of the newly arrived middle classes who had one driving ambition and that was to imitate the well born. This truly ended public spitting in the West. In the final analysis it was not science, but the good old urge towards status emulation and social climbing that did the trick.

By the 1930s public spitting had become so rare that, among other things, spittoons began to disappear from bars in London. If left to science, germ theory would have impacted a very limited area. Outside laboratory confines, science made cameo and uninspiring appearances primarily in the field of law and public health, but not in everyday life.

In 1896, New York banned spitting citing TB as the major reason. Very soon about 150 other American cities followed. In 1898, French authorities moved in the same direction. This, however, did not significantly lower incidents of public spitting, either in Europe or in America. Even though TB, not bullet injuries, was the major reason most World War 1 soldiers were discharged from active duty, public spitting continued unabated on and off the battlefield.

South Korea and Singapore provide contrary examples. Both these countries successfully banned public spitting by law; incidentally, they have also been the most effective in battling the coronavirus. Korea’s Confucian education and its longstanding army presence (that has habituated people to seeing officials in hazmat suits) are often put forward as reasons for the country’s success. So far, Korea and Singapore (not even China) have been exceptions to the rule.

Unlike the impersonalised Confucian etiquette we, in India are traditionally tuned to individualised guru-shishya norms. Our politics too does not support regimentation, but mild, slow release anarchy. Most importantly the Indian upper classes, in the main, see nothing wrong about public spitting. It is routine to see massive amounts of glob floating out of luxury cars in India.

It is not as if there is a paucity of laws against public spitting in our country. One of the earliest was passed in 1939 by the Madras Government. Since then, in independent India many states, such as Delhi, Maharashtra, Bengal, Uttarakhand have instituted clear sanctions against spitting. But nobody really cares, not even the law enforcing authorities. Clearly, it requires elite disapproval of this practice as a necessary condition. That will nearly always be Stage 1.

Now that our law makers are wearing masks to work we might have arrived at Stage 1 of this process in our own unique Indian way. As facial masks are spit inhibiting attachments our legislators will soon set a new social norm, or aesthetic, against spitting. Once this happens, Stage 2 is waiting to take over what with the purported claim that millions are entering the Indian middle classes today. This facial gear, if widely adopted, could bring public spitting to a stop.

Can this be true? Can we actually win our spat against spitting?

Jewel in the Corona: The Covid-19 outbreak calls for more globalisation not less

Among the greatest and most cataclysmic events to befall Planet Earth from the time it cohered into existence some 4.5 billion years ago, one occurred relatively recently – only some 66 million years ago. A comet or asteroid about 15 km wide slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula in present day Mexico at a speed of 72,000 km an hour, unleashing an explosion now estimated at 37.4 billion times more powerful than the Hiroshima nuclear bomb. There were no human beings on the planet to record this event. But scientists who figured it out from geological evidence have drily observed that it was a bad day to be a dinosaur – the most prolific large species of the time – when it happened. They were annihilated.

By contrast, the coronavirus event is a relatively slow-moving pandemic. It gave ample notice to humankind from the time Covid-19, thought to have an animal origin, was transmitted to humans in Wuhan, China, last November. In fact, long before the 8-12 weeks that Covid-19 took to make its presence felt around the globe – dinosaurs got only a 8-12 minutes heads-up – humankind had been warned by its precursor coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS.

But having largely kept them – along with the more fatal Ebola virus – at bay, there was a certain smugness in how the world initially viewed Covid-19. Also it forgot: Compared to 2003 when SARS emerged from a horseshoe bat in Yunnan province, China in 2019/2020 is far more influential and profligate, its trade and people spread out across the world.

Even movies based on the killer virus theme did not jolt the world. Thanks to the much-maligned Air India, which has not updated its long-haul entertainment system for years, one got to watch the 2011 movie Contagion while flying back from New Delhi to Washington after the recent Trump visit to India, even as Covid-19 winged west. The movie begins on Day Two of a contagion when female executive Beth Emhoff, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, collapses at her home in the US after returning from a business trip to the Far East, where she has contracted a Covid-19 like virus. Before long, people are dying like flies around the world.

It is not till the end of the movie that Day One of the pandemic is revealed. A forest is being felled in China. Displaced bats flutter into a pigsty. A piglet that has eaten a bat dropping is subsequently being prepared for dinner by a chef at a swish restaurant in Macau. The chef is suddenly called from the kitchen where he is handling the meat – to meet and greet the diner Paltrow. He just wipes his hands on his apron, goes out, shakes her hand, and poses for a selfie. The virus begins its journey.

Mercifully, Covid-19, while dangerous, is far less fatal than the pathogen in Contagion that generates a mortality rate of 30% and kills 26 million people worldwide. It is eventually controlled by a vaccine made by a research scientist, who injects herself to check its efficacy. Whether or not a similar miracle or breakthrough will occur in real life, the fact is Covid-19 is not ultra-lethal. Beyond Dr Trump’s enthusiastic endorsement, there are promising signs that a drug cocktail could mitigate its effects.

The pandemic will eventually ebb. Some people might even look back and wonder if we overreacted. More cynical millennials, some of whom have not stopped partying despite the current crisis, may calculate that allowing the aged and infirm – who are most vulnerable to it – to die would give the world economy a bump, saving nations the cost of geriatric care, pensions, social security, etc.

But one thing is certain: Life will never be the same again – for young and for old; for countries and for ethnicities. Lessons will be drawn both at the individual and global level.Both people and nations will be more circumspect and wary of each other. From geostrategic embrace to personal handshake, a wide range of protocols will be reconsidered. Some of the barriers and biases – both physical and mental – that have emerged during the current crisis may become entrenched. Globalists and isolationists will argue even more fiercely about the nature of international relations, trade and emigration.

Already some global outcomes are starting to emerge. While China, for long an economic hothouse, is in the hot seat, the US is being shown up badly. This is the first great international crisis in the modern era where Americans have failed to lead. A nation that made one warplane an hour and one warship a day during World War II has been found wanting – unable to provide masks, gloves, ventilators, and test kits for its people. Having originated the virus, China seems far more in control of the situation at least on its turf.

But as the dinosaur extinction episode showed, a catastrophic global event does not recognise boundaries, which are both artificial and more recent in the planet’s history and timespan. Any nation that dodges the next apocalyptic meteor or the next civilisation-ending pathogen is not doing it for itself but for humankind, because destructive global events are not selective. They don’t strike one nation and spare another, and they don’t stop at boundaries.Walls and quarantines are of limited use over limited time. All this suggests the future lies in greater not lesser globalisation so that problems, whether of a rogue pathogen or a stray meteor, can be quickly relayed and solutions can be devised equally swiftly. We are all in this together.

Saturday Special: This Asterix Moment

The world that came alive in the lines of Albert Uderzo speaks to us today. For the world today, under an unseen threat, it is the Asterix moment. The time to stay back, stay together and resist the invader.

Comic lovers will forever debate which is superior, the adventures of Asterix or Tintin. But for the world today, under an unseen threat, it is the Asterix moment. The time to stay back, stay together and resist the invader. Albert Uderzo, who visualised the indomitable Gaulish village, died at 92 this Wednesday of a heart attack. The world over, he would be intensely mourned for the spirit of his work.

The boy reporter Tintin can never stay for long at sailor friend Captain Haddock’s well-appointed bungalow. It doesn’t take much for the two to dash off on some strange mission. Asterix and Obelix are not averse to travel either. More than the journey, however, what is central to the two is their small Gaulish village (circa 50 BC), the incredible little quarter that refuses to yield to an imperial Ceaserean Rome. Writer Rene Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo would take you out of this quaint hamlet only to bring you back at the end to the familiar banquet under the Gaulish sky. The full moon, the owl, the stars and plenty of roast wild boars, not to mention a mercifully silenced Cacofonix.

What is celebrated is the safe return, not the triumphant travel. Asterix and Obelix are no conquerors. They resist conquests. Left to themselves, they would hardly step out of home except to hunt for wild boars, an essential act of sustenance. They would have coped with today’s lockdown more than the footloose Tintin and Captain Haddock, who would have sworn his head off.

In a world working from home, we are all rediscovering the long lost corners of our dwellings. The pile of old books and magazines cast away in forgotten trunks and shoe boxes. From where comics fans would in all likelihood dust up a well-thumbed volume of Asterix for the umpteenth re-read. In honour of Albert Uderzo. He is the last creative link to the Gaulish world we have more reasons than ever to love today.

Thirty years back when his co-creator Rene Goscinny died, the writer was mourned, but by a world more hectic, more happening and more distracted. Today in a slowing down, reflective world, we have time enough to mourn. Uderzo, the illustrator, took on the writing part in 1977 and single-handedly sustained the comic series. Diehard fans did detect a dip in the wit. But many stayed loyal, thanks to the visual content that grew on you no less than the textual humour. The drawing had finish and it was fresh. The artist, though, had taken his time to settle down. After entertaining dreams to become a clown and then an aircraft engineer, Uderzo finally found his calling because throughout his schooling he had a pronounced talent only in drawing. By the early teens, when he was ready to paint, his teachers discovered he was colour blind. By then, the line had firmed up and that mattered. Colour could always be added.

The line is what went on to grip millions of readers across 116 languages. Uderzo brought to life Goscinny’s world through highly stylised characters set against a meticulously drawn to scale architectural backdrop. A daring mix that gave the comic characters a certain sense of reflected realism.

The setting told the story as well as the script. Fortified overbuilt Roman camps where troops practised absurdly geometric formations contrasted sharply with the open airy cluster of elegant modest hutments where Gauls carried on in merry abandon till they were called to war. The battle itself looked like the extended brawls outside Unhygienix’s fish stall. Only, more animated, on the strength of the magic potion Druid Getafix brewed. Structured war theatre of the Romans squarely outwitted. Till the next round.

Meanwhile, the way we go on and on it would seem we have read the original in French. What we have lapped up is the work of Anthea Bell, the celebrity British translator who died in 2018. At home in multiple languages and varied content, her fidelity to the source text is unsurprising. But she had to manage the word count visually. The translated dialogue had to perfectly fit into the speech balloon. The balloons were integral to the structure. That is how Uderzo crafted the frames. Some very bright minds worked in seamless sync to bring us today the much-needed cheer.

Opportunity Provided by Covid 19-A Look at The Positive Aspect of Coronavirus

Never before has a pathogen sent a prime minister and a prince into quarantine and set free prisoners, divided families and united humankind, left its survivors with mild aches and killed its victims with no choice of defence. The novel coronavirus has at once been a threat and a teacher, a reminder of our vulnerabilities, a redeemer of our priorities and a messenger of the ultimate truth about our smallness in the universe.

It is not the first pandemic, it is not the worst. But, coming as it has just when we were looking invincible riding the crest of our scientific prowess, it gnawed at the roots of our self-importance, it shook the foundation of our survival. That we are yet to develop a vaccine even after three months into the scourge is evidence enough of the lack of our preparedness despite our history being washed repeatedly by waves of plague and flu.

Once we realise this, we may look deeper into the recesses of our collective conscience, which is where our real inefficiencies, masked by our perfidy and pretentions, play hide and seek. There we will find reasons for our reluctance to accept the threat when the virus was dancing under our nose. There we will feel ashamed of our anger at the neighbour who sneezed and our inability to sympathise with him when he was quarantined next door. We will squirm at our ignorance that washing our hands was to protect only ourselves, not others.

This invisible virus attack has taken everyone aback. No one imagined that we would need to practise physical distancing – being termed ‘social’ distancing – and live in fear of the person next to us. Someone you may have hugged, shook hands with, shared a meal with or even prayed with, is now to be avoided in proximity.

Personal domain: Try to answer honestly, the following questions:

Are you in control or in panic? Are you scaring people? Are you off-loading your stress on others? Are you securing things for your basic needs or are you hoarding? Are you being helpful or inaccessible? Are you sleeping well? Are you looking at the time on your hands now as a rare opportunity or are you wasting it, sulking? Are you willing to learn something new or you think it is too late?

Are you bonding with family and friends? Are you comfortable in your own company? Are you watching what you eat and drink? Do you have a fitness routine? Are you doing what you always wanted to do or are you waiting impatiently for the lockdown to end? Are you choosing your news sources for information or are you bingeing on doomsday predictions, sensationalism and rumours? Are you expressing gratitude for what you have or are you waiting to settle scores? Are you a source of joy and help in the home or are you a pain? Do you share household chores?

Professional domain: Are you in command and control of your own responsibility or are you looking for an opportunity to pass the buck to someone else and absolve yourself of all responsibility? Are you staying well informed so that even by a minor intervention, things may get better?

Are you audio or net-connected to colleagues or are you unavailable? Are you finding fault or working out corrective measures? Are you appreciative when something goes right? Are you looking out for areas of strengthening the system once normalcy returns?

We live in extraordinary times of unforeseen dimensions, where we have to first protect our own physical space before we protect others. We are surrounded by ‘an invisible enemy’ with power to invade even our tiny ‘space’ at any time, whoever we may be. With neither vaccines nor cures, we need to take all precautions possible to avoid infection; hence the need to conform with recommended guidelines on prevention.

We need to also take care of our mental health, keeping ourselves constructively occupied, staying calm, perhaps with the help of spiritual practices like meditation. Good reading and good listening.

It’s both an external and internal challenge. The world will never be the same once we emerge from the current crisis. We need to reset our priorities and lifestyles. As is being pointed out, ‘Planet Earth is closed for repairs.’

The same is true for us human beings as well

It is also the time to realise the frivolity of our nuclear weapons that we made to annihilate our invented enemies but could do nothing to stop the march of the invisible corona. It is the time to acknowledge the futility of our jihad and the emptiness of our saffron war cries. It is the time to check the stock in our refrigerator than the bourses— and make sure we don’t overstock in either of the places. It is time to eat what’s on our plates and thank the farmer who put it there.

Perhaps we’ve already learned to live this new normal. See how politicians are – for once – not at each other’s sore throats. No mudslinging, plenty of washing hands. No slogan shouting, a lot of poetry. No polluting vehicles on our roads, only a black panther, a few civet cats and elegant elephants. We finally sit at the dining table with our children and talk about our parents. We notice a new wrinkle on our partner’s neck, talk about our childhood, and joke about growing old. The curd rice, it turns out, tastes better without our favourite pickle.

It is time to dust those guitars and wash those painting brushes. We may have forgotten a chord, but not the music of our soul. Wash the discarded white paper with water colour and we know whoever designed the world is an artist— and we are but imitators. We may not know what will happen to our jobs, but we know we will use our skills to earn our daily bread. And we know that we will win this battle against that flower-shaped virus which, incidentally, is just living out its devastating life– as much as we have been.

We may not eradicate it soon, but we will make sure it doesn’t cohabit with us. Our moment of deliverance will be when the last of the Covid-19 patient is cured – when we bask in the sun, feel the sand between our toes, listen to the sparrows that would have returned to our balconies, smell the roses that had grown on our unattended kerbs and unmanicured gardens, shake a friend’s hand over the hedge, and yet not wash our hands.

( This is the print version of my comments delivered on 2nd April and is being published at the request of many friends. The comments can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoXG5yMvAjw&t=101s )

Wake up Call: China’s Military Advances Under Cover of Coronavirus

As worldwide panic over coronavirus dominates the media, China quietly builds up its military. While the world is preoccupied with the coronavirus, China is quietly expanding its power around the world. Chinese President Xi Jinping has seized this opportunity to intimidate Taiwan, influence Europe, modernize its military, and entrench itself deeper into the South China Sea.

When the world finally became aware of the crisis within China’s borders with the rapid spread of the virus, several speculated that this could be the undoing of the Communist Party. It was even dubbed China’s Chernobyl moment. But a different reality is emerging. Instead of being its undoing, the Communist Party has used the crisis to cement its position within its borders and beyond. In so doing, it has left the world superpower, the United States, looking fragile and weak. Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi wrote for Foreign Affairs on March 18:

As Washington falters, Beijing is moving quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening created by U.S. mistakes, filling the vacuum to position itself as the global leader in pandemic response. It is working to tout its own system, provide material assistance to other countries, and even organize other governments. The sheer chutzpah of China’s move is hard to overstate. After all, it was Beijing’s own missteps—especially its efforts at first to cover up the severity and spread of the outbreak—that helped create the very crisis now afflicting much of the world. Yet Beijing understands that if it is seen as leading, and Washington is seen as unable or unwilling to do so, this perception could fundamentally alter the United States’ position in global politics and the contest for leadership in the 21st century.

China is using the coronavirus to make its global ambitions a reality.

China Threatens the Globe

China’s state-controlled Global Times reported that “training for war preparedness will not be stopped even in the middle of the covid-19 epidemic.”

While everyone is distracted, China has taken the opportunity to intimidate Taiwan with few repercussions. Last week, the South China Morning Post published an article titled “In the Coronavirus Fog, Tussling Over Taiwan Goes Under the Radar.” In the last month, China has invaded Taiwanese airspace, ran military exercises across the Taiwan Strait, and damaged a Taiwanese Coast Guard vessel during harassment by a Chinese speedboat. China has become so pushy that a Taiwanese defense official was forced to reassure the public on Monday that the island is prepared for an attack.

China has also been making inroads into Philippine-claimed reefs, building new facilities in the West Philippine Sea. China’s state-run news agency Xinhua reported that the two facilities were research stations intended to “help scientists expand their research into deep sea ecology, geology, environment, material sciences and marine energy.” The facilities built on Fiery Cross and Subi Reefs in the Spratly Islands are both claimed by the Philippines. While these reefs were not included in an international ruling as belonging to the Philippines, they are located closer to the Philippines than another reef that China built an installment on and which was ruled to be Philippine territory.

Meanwhile, China has also used the coronavirus panic to make inroads into Europe. Several European countries have turned to China for help to battle the pandemic and thus China has been hailed as a savior. While sending face masks, ventilators and medical personnel may not seem like a military takeover, it is giving China a greater foothold in the region and opening the door for further cooperation. It has also offered this support to other affected nations. Serbia is one of the nations that, upon the arrival of Chinese doctors, implemented the “Chinese model,” which includes mass testing, isolating all cases and punishing those who break social distancing and curfew rules with three to 12 years in jail. China’s support led to an outpouring of praise from the Serbian president. This is just one of the many ways China has used this pandemic to transport its Belt and Road Initiative (bri) into Europe and beyond, an initiative that also includes global military ambitions.

Serbia is also a prime example of another export China could take advantage of during coronavirus. On March 29, the South China Morning Post published “With Coronavirus Crisis, China Sees a Chance to Export Its Model of Governance.” The article discusses how China could use the BRI as a means to export its governance by concentration of power “as an alternative to the Western liberal model. The Western press is full of praise for China’s authoritarian handling of the crisis (ignoring the negatives of such a totalitarian crackdown), indicating that the West has become more open to this model of governance. This is evident with Serbia’s harsh crackdown on those disobeying quarantine rules, the British police use of drones—almost an exact copy of Chinese tactics, and national data and mobile phone tracking.

China has also been modernizing its military and enhancing its capabilities. It is preparing to paint military aircraft with new coatings to make them harder to detect with military radars. On March 10, the People’s Liberation Army (pla) Navy and Air Force performed a joint exercise that “simulated face-to-face encounters with invading foreign aircraft and warships in the South China Sea.” The exercise rehearsed searching unidentified foreign aircraft, “driving enemy planes out of China’s airspace,” and even “shooting them down with missiles to stop them from attacking Chinese warships.” The PLA announced on March 20 that its aircraft had recently performed an anti-submarine drill over the South China Sea.

U.S. Prepares for War

The United States has been aware of China’s actions. On March 4, the House of Representatives passed the Taipei Act (Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative), which was later signed into law by U.S. President Donald Trump. The bill acknowledges continued U.S. support for Taiwan and promises to help advance Taiwan’s international standing. Sen. Cory Gardner, who co-wrote the act, said that the legislation “will send a strong message to nations that there will be consequences for supporting Chinese actions that undermine Taiwan.” The act could also lead to the U.S. reducing its economic, security and diplomatic interactions with nations that oppose Taiwanese independence.

The White House has received several warnings from leading military and political officials stating that America must be prepared for conflict with China. U.S. Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for China Chad Sbragia warned that China is currently undergoing “one of the most ambitious military modernization efforts in recent history.” He said: “In most of the potential flashpoints in the Indo-Pacific region—the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands or the Korean Peninsula—the United States may find itself in a military crisis with China.” He warned that the threat was equally as serious as the Cold War and that U.S. preparations must match that. Sbragia said it was no longer a matter of if but when tensions would escalate. One military analyst said that for China, Taiwan is not the goal, it is merely “the template for how it will eventually threaten every other democracy.”

As the U.S. prepares for conflict, its Marine Corps has proposed a decade-long plan to prepare its force for battle, with a focus on China. This modernization of the Marine Corps includes decommissioning all tanks, reducing infantry numbers, significantly reducing artillery units, reducing the number of amphibious vehicles and some aircraft. This is designed to allow the creation of the Marine Littoral Regiments with shore-based anti-ship weapons, specialized units for seizing and building expeditionary bases, as well as fighting units intended for areas outside of larger U.S. fixed bases. The Marines plan to work more closely with the Navy to prepare for deployment under greater opposition than currently experienced. Meanwhile, the Marines also included in its 2021 budget a request for funding to acquire a ground-launch Tomahawk cruise missile for targeting ships, a weapon banned under the Cold War inf Treaty.

The U.S. has also increased its presence in the disputed waters around China and Southeast Asia. While this has generally been confined to freedom of navigation operations, the U.S. also sent a more blatant warning to China. On March 19, the U.S. Navy conducted a live-fire missile drill in the Philippine Sea. Beijing military specialist Zhou Chenming said that because these drills are not common, it “could be seen as a warning to the People’s Liberation Army.” Beijing military analyst Li Jie agreed that the “U.S. Navy wants to tell China that they can counter the PLA’s advanced missiles.” Meanwhile, Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said, “The Philippine Sea is also the critical maritime artery for PLA vessels when they sail to the western Pacific and Indian oceans. The U.S. Navy needs to further enhance its military presence in the region, signaling that political trust between the two countries is falling.”

Within a few short years, this nation—the ascendant, proud China that has emerged today—will dazzle the world. Watching its vault into great-power status truly is a look at the future.”

Though Europe and Asia will work together for a while to bring America down economically, a military clash between the two blocs is coming. That is why China’s military preparations are so significant.

The framework for this tumultuous turn of events is being laid right now. Even as the rest of the world panics over coronavirus, don’t forget to watch how China is using this crisis to its advantage.

Converting Covid-19 Crisis into an Opportunity

The spread of COVID -19 has called for global cooperation among government, health care professionals, researchers, business houses, civil societies and most importantly, citizens across the globe. In this stride, we must acknowledge the hard work of health care workers, biomedical researchers, front line workers who are working day and night to contain the spread of the virus and to safeguard us. The Hon’ble Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 24th March 2020 had declared a three-week nationwide lockdown, seeing lockdown as the only ray of hope at present to combat Covid-19.  He affirmed that social distancing at the time of lockdown will help India to break the cycle of infection. At this critical stage, I request every citizen of India to abide by the 21 days of lockdown.  

More than 35 crore students and 1.08 crore teachers across 15 lakh schools, 1028 universities,  41,901 colleges and 10, 726 stand-alone institutes are unable to attend the classes due to nationwide closure of the education institutes as India prepares to fight against the pandemic.   But, mind you, my dear students, the pandemic is no reason to not learn. We have to trust in education’s power to transform; the zeal to learn cannot be bounded by the presence of four walls of the classroom. Ministry of Human Resource Development strongly affirms that in the era of Digital India, a pandemic is not an excuse to stop continuous leaning.  The response to this pandemic is while maintaining the social distancing, one adapts to e-learning.

To battle with COVID -19, teachers across India are making a transition to virtual classrooms. They are working day and night to develop content to transact it to their fellow students. To support the teachers and accelerate the process of learning, the Ministry of Human Resource Development provides a plethora of educational applications and platforms at both school and higher education level. The platforms make available with engaging content for the students, teachers, and parents to facilitate the process of learning at the times of social distancing and school closure. There has been triple traffic on the SWAYAM platform within a week of lockdown. SWAYAM facilitates hosting of all the courses, taught in classrooms from Class 9 till post-graduation to be accessed by anyone, anywhere at any time. 

The country is witnessing a greater acceptance of online education as a large number of students and working professionals are joining e-learning platforms to enhance their skills. The National Mission on Education Project ICT SWAYAM PRABHA with its 32 DTH channels covers new content every day for at least (4) hours which gets repeated 5 more times in a day, allowing the students to choose the time of their convenience.  The DTH Channels provides curriculum-based course contents at a post-graduate and under-graduate level covering diverse disciplines such as arts, science, commerce, performing arts, social sciences, and humanities, engineering, technology, law, medicine, agriculture, etc. For school education, it provides content for classes 9-12 and modules for teacher’s training as well. It also assists students (class 11th & 12th) to prepare for competitive exams. For supporting life – long learning, the channels run curriculum-based courses that can meet the needs of Indian citizens in India and abroad.  

To realize the goals of Digital India in the school education and teacher education sector, The National Repository of Open Educational Resources (NROER) an initiative of Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and CIET-NCERT brings together all digital and digitizable resources across all stages of school education and teacher education. It has the power to reach out and connect all members of the school community through a variety of events and interactions, presently it has 17,656 e-resources and 460 discussion points. The repository also provides a platform for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and online forums for different stakeholders. 

Another platform, NISHTHA app provides a platform for integrated capacity building of teachers, the teachers are trained on learning outcomes, school-based assessment, learner-centred pedagogy, new initiatives in education, addressing diverse needs of children through multiple pedagogies, etc. With an impeccable consumption pattern, DIKSHA (National Teachers Platform for India), the DIKSHA platform offers teachers, students and parents engaging learning material relevant to the prescribed school curriculum. To continue learning at the time of lockdown, teachers and parents can access the app for aids like lesson plans, worksheets, and activities while students can use it to understand concepts, revise lessons and do practice exercises. Sharing of best practices and experiences amongst the teacher community through case studies, research papers and innovative pedagogical practices through DIKSHA is highly encouraged.  Further, E – pathshala app has been developed for showcasing and disseminating all educational e-resources including textbooks, audio, video, periodicals, and a variety of other digital resources. Teachers, Educators, and Parents can access eBooks through multiple technology platforms that are mobile phones and tablets (as epub) and from the web portal through laptops and desktops (as Flipbook). 

Since the pandemic has derailed the classroom process, I would encourage all the students to continue learning using the e-resources. E-Learning surely provides wider opportunities for enhanced learning, flexibility of learning at your convenience, uniform quality content delivery, re-usability of the content, less paper for hand-outs and books, saves time by enabling quick access to information and the ease of research across subjects. Though the teachers and students are putting in remarkable efforts to make sure that the learning does not stop. The future of e – learning in India has to be rethought to make it more immersive and hopefully more constructive to the teacher and student community than it is today.  The school and higher education institutes should become strategic competitive to foster constant innovation and become more resilient. Thus, as much as we brace to face the worst, we must encourage global efforts to promote digital education and nurture the capability of turning this crisis into an opportunity.

Locked-downed, Watch Dunkirk

For all those who like watching movies during the ongoing 21-day nation-wide lock-down in India to combat the dreaded and incurable Coronavirus, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (released in 2017) is one of the most inspiring films to watch. The movie Dunkirk is all about how leadership inspired the people of Great Britain to heroic and purposeful action for 9 days from May 26, 1940, to June 4, at a time when their nation was in crisis and its very existence threatened.

After the fall of France to the German blitzkrieg, almost 400,000 thousand British and allied soldiers were trapped on the beaches around the port of Dunkirk and it seemed only a matter of time before they were forced to surrender to the tanks and infantry of the invading army. The men of the British Expeditionary Force could see home across the English Channel but there seemed no way of getting there.

At which stage, the soldiers were offered an unexpected reprieve when the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler inexplicably stopped the advance of his army and, at the instance of his ministerial colleague Herman Goering, ordered his air force, the Luftwaffe, to strafe and bomb the stranded British and Allied soldiers into submission.

The British prime minister Winston Churchill and his military commanders sensed in this unexpected stoppage of the German army onslaught an opportunity to get a big chunk of their stranded soldiers back. Churchill sensed that even if they were able to bring back 30,000 to 45,000 of the stranded soldiers back to Britain, it would be a boost to the Allied forces at what seemed to be England’s darkest hour.

The only problem was that the waters off the French beaches were too shallow and difficult to negotiate for the big ships of the Royal Navy. And so Churchill and Admiral Bertram Ramsay launched Operation Dynamo with the objective of using the lighter vessels of not just the Royal Navy but the Merchant Navy, the fishermen’s boats, motor boats and yachts to evacuate the stranded soldiers.

And the British people responded magnificently. At the height of a World War, hundreds of small vessels went across the English Channel day after day, running the gauntlet of the Luftwaffe’s fighter-planes and bombers, to evacuate the stranded soldiers. The only air protection the small vessels had was in the Royal Air Force fighter-planes which were heavily outnumbered by the Luftwaffe.

Despite the odds, Churchill’s target was more than achieved. A total of 3,38,226 British and Allied soldiers were evacuated and brought back to Britain to continue the fight against Fascism.

Make no mistake. From an Indian perspective, Churchill’s policies were responsible for the 1943 Bengal Famine which killed millions, with India’s stocks of rice being exported to sub-serve the war effort. .

However, from a British perspective, Dunkirk in May-June 1940 was a turning point in World War Two and an example of how when everything seemed lost, a resolute leadership could inspire the ordinary people of a country into extraordinary action.

Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940. sums it all. “Wars are not won on evacuations”, Churchill admitted, but went on to add, “Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old.”

Churchill went on to lose the next general election but Britain had, by then, won the war. Churchill’s visionary and resolute leadership was one of the key factors in saving Britain from the Nazi juggernaut which had subjugated the rest of Europe, barring the likes of Spain which remained neutral under the pro-Fascist leadership of General Franco.

The movie Dunkirk is all about how, during a grave national crisis, ordinary people can be inspired to extraordinary efforts by a resolute and visionary leadership which may have lost the next general election but saved the country in its darkest hour.

The newspapers in the summer of 1945 recorded that the Labor Party, led by Clement Attlee, swept the post-war election, winning 393 seats to the 197 won by Churchill’s Conservative Party.

However, history’s eternal verdict is that Churchill’s visionary and resolute leadership during World War Two was Britain’s finest hour.

Remembering an Indophile Chinese icon & his Tagore-inspired school

With India and the rest of the world combatting against the coronavirus pandemic that started in China, April 1 coincidentally marks the official 70th anniversary of the establishment of India-China diplomatic relations. If one looks at the chequered but uninterrupted history of the India-China bilateral relationship, very few individuals can match the colossal contribution of late Professor Tan Yunshan (1898-1983), the man who not only consolidated age-old golden bridge between the two neighbours but also laid the foundation for a stronger friendship. One needs to understand that the two neighbours are not ‘nation-states’ but ‘civilizational states’ and the future interface between the two sides has to be based on ancient friendly civilizational dialogue.

In October last year, close on the heels of the recent heart-to-heart second summit between the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram and just a year before the two neighbours going to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their formal diplomatic ties, Professor Tan Chung, the erudite son of Professor Tan, helmed a symposium, commemorating the great contribution of his multi-faceted father, who heralded a new era of friendship between the two great and uninterrupted ancient civilizations. The venue was Chaling County, the closest urban habitat near Professor Tan’s birthplace of Changle village in China’s Hunan Province and I was one of the fortunate attendees of that enlightening three-day event.

In his keynote speech at the well-attended three-day event, featuring a slew of top-notch India-China experts from both the countries, Professor Tan Chung quoted a famous line from famous Tang poet Li Shangyin (813-858), “ As a silkworm won’t stop from spinning silk even in its’ old age”, even though I would try very hard, I would not be able to narrate the wonderful interface between the two civilizations in just one life.

The 91-year-old scholar, who taught at the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Khadakvasla before joining Delhi University as Lecturer of Chinese and subsequently, becoming head of the Department of Chinese and Japanese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, followed into his father’s footsteps to India-China friendship through his scholarship and goodwill missions, and carved a niche for himself in the thousands of years of cultural exchange between the two Asian giants, recollected his fond memories of living in India and consolidating his father’s legacy.

However, the most memorable part of attending the event came when, along with UK-based Professor Yukteshwar Kumar, a former student of Professor Tan Chung and a leading expert of Chinese Studies, we decided to visit the birthplace of Professor Tan, who was not just a friend of Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru or Mohandas K. Gandhi, but was also an old acquaintance of Mao Zedong and played a pivotal role in facilitating a special visit of China’s then Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and Madame Chiang to Santiniketan in 1942. Prof. Tan Yunshan was also instrumental in arranging the visit of Zhou Enlai, the first Chinese Premier to Santiniketan. Visva-Bharati had conferred Deshikhottam on Zhou Enali in 1956.

As there was no public transport connectivity to Changle village, a couple of motorbikes were arranged for our visit to the birthplace of the man, who had adopted India as a second home since meeting Tagore for the first time in his life in Singapore in 1927 and subsequently, visiting Santiniketan a year later after being personally invited by Asia’s first Nobel Laureate. It was a memorable trip through the gravel road meandering through the misty mountains and the lush green sylvan surroundings to the non-descript hamlet where Professor Tan, who had started Chinese classes in Chinese Tagore’s Visva Bharati that went on to become a central university while the Chinese language-learning centre gradually turned into its famed Cheena Bhavan or the Chinese department.

Standing in front of the dilapidated humble hut, where the pioneer of Indo-China friendship in the 20th century was born in 1898 to a Confucianist scholar and teacher, and reminiscing about the humongous contribution made by Prof Tan to build a rock-solid foundation for the future relationships between the two countries, I was informed by Professor Kumar, who also taught Chinese in Visva Bharati, that we were probably the first visitors from India to the birthplace of the man, who breathed his last in the holy city of Bodh Gaya, the revered seat of Buddhism, after the completion of the pilgrimage of his legendary life in 1983.

Sharing the enlightening moment, Prof Kumar, who is also a recently-elected councillor of the city of Bath in the UK, told me, “Visiting Dong Changle village was nothing short of a pilgrimage for me, where the father of my Guru, Padma Bhushan Prof. Tan Chung was born. Prof. Tan Yunshan was born in 1898 and the village resembles my own small village of India. Prof. Tan Chung invited me to participate in an international conference at Chaling County and how could I deny? Despite my academic, administrative and research association with three universities in the UK now, and then being a councillor it was not easy to find a time and visit China during the middle of the academic term. But coming to Changle is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me”.

Being an alumnus of Visva Bharati, personally, it was quite heartening for me to be at the birthplace of the man, who not only set up the Cheena Bhavan, a premier institute of Chinese studies in India, but also quite religiously and rigorously raised funds to fulfil Tagore’s dream of realizing his university’s motto of “Yatra visvam bhavatyekanidam (where the whole world can find a nest). Interestingly, he didn’t take a penny from Tagore and his university for years and lived an austere life with his family on a regular stipend he used to get from the Chinese government until the birth of the People’s Republic of China, founded by his old acquaintance from Hunan, Chairman Mao.

It was quite unbelievable to even imagine that how a man from the sleepy village of Changle, which has still remained almost untouched by China’s gargantuan growth and rapid development over the past several decades, traversed a few thousand miles to set his foot on the Indian soil and left an indelible mark by sowing the seeds of harmony and brotherhood between the two neighbours of the “Himalayan sphere” – an idea that was later conceived by Prof Tan’s son Prof Tan Chung.

On our way back to Changsha, over three hours’ drive from Chaling County, we took a brief stopover at another place that has been a remarkable reminiscent of Prof Tan’s unflinching love for Tagore and unique educational model. When India became independent in 1947, Prof Tan returned to China with his family and it was in his home town Changsha where he built a school, modelled on Tagore’s vision of education and philosophy of learning. As Tagore started his Brahmacharya Ashram with five students and turned it into a full-fledged school of Patha Bhavan before gradually converting it into his dream university, Prof Tan’s Datong school was set up with the same dream and a mission in March 1948. His wife Mrs.Tan, Chen Nai-Wei became its first Principal and ran it for two years.

However, the inception of the new People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong in 1949 saw an uncertain Prof Tan returning with his family to his second home, Santiniketan, lock, stock and barrel once again. His departure to India shattered his dream of upgrading the school to a higher educational institution or a university like Visva Bharati wasn’t materialized even though the school was run for many decades by his sister-in-law Chen Laisheng. Incidentally, the Chinese term “Datong” is the abbreviation of “Shijie Datong,” which can be roughly translated as “Vasudeva Kutumbakam” – the Tagorean philosophy with which Visva Bharati was established and encapsulated in its motto. English is not rich enough a language where one can truly mirror basic nuance of this concept.

“Many people do not know about Datong School of Changsha which Prof. Tan Yunshan founded in 1948 after seeing Gurudeva’s Patha Bhavana (in Visva-Bharati) and it was an absolute privilege and honour to visit the school,” Prof Kumar informed while strolling around the campus along with veteran China scholar Prof Manoranjan Mohanty, who was once a student of Prof Tan Chung before working with him at Delhi University.

Datong School was taken over by the Chinese government in August 1952 and in 1959 it became an important focal school of the city. However, in 1966, the school was renamed as the Anti-Japanese Aggression War School before getting back its original name of Datong Primary school in 1978. The current expansive and upscale building that we visited was constructed in 2015 under the provincial government funding. Although Prof Tan’s dream of upgrading the primary school to a full-fledged university like Visva Bharati remained a distant one even more than three decades after his death but his spirit and his unbridled passion for Tagore’s educational system lived on even more than three decades after his death. The model primary school in the heart of Changsha with its current student-strength of 6,500 also houses a gorgeous and modern museum dedicated to the incredible memories of its founding father, Prof Tan.

The small yet informative museum highlighted the larger than life of the man who had once lit the lamp of Sinology in India and built a time-honoured bridge between the two overwhelming neighbours. With his able son Prof Tan Chung tirelessly carrying forward his legacy and consolidating it further throughout the past few decades, the cordial golden bridge of bilateral relations between India and China has been standing tall irrespective of whether the consistent flow of water is remaining tranquil or turning troubled sporadically.

A Tale of Whistleblowers-China & Viruses: Corona & SARS

On 30th December 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist working at Wuhan Central Hospital sent a first warning about the deadly coronavirus outbreak to his fellow medics in a chat group. The message went viral in China and four days later he was summoned by Police and was reprimanded for making false comments that severely disturbed the social order.

Unfortunately, by 10th January 2020, Dr. Li Wenliang started displaying symptoms of coronavirus infection and passed away on 7th February 2020. His death sparked outrage in China, leading to an investigation by the country’s highest anti-corruption agency. Following the investigation, Dr. Li Wenliang was exonerated of the charges and disciplinary action was taken against Police personnel. An apology was issued by Wuhan’s public security bureau to the family of Dr. Li Wenliang and it promised to “conscientiously draw lessons and improve” its operations.

The total number of reported cases of Covid-19 are 332935 with 12955 deaths (as on 24th March 2020).

This is not a first for the world or for China.

In 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome commonly known as SARS virus started spreading in China. The number of cases of SARS was being under-reported by the Chinese Government.

On 4th of April 2003, Dr. Jiang Yanyong, a Chinese Physician emailed a letter to Chinese Central Television – 4 and Phoenix TV (Hongkong) stating various details pertaining to the said virus. Thereafter, this information provided by Dr. Yanyong got leaked to Western news organizations and by 8th April 2003, journalists from Time and Wall Street Journal contacted Dr. Yanyong. Subsequently, Time published news article having details provided by Dr. Yanyong with Title “Beijing SARS Attack”. This resulted in proactive dealing of SARS by the Chinese government resulting in the containment of the disease, which also covered resignation by Mayor of Beijing (Mr. Meng Xuenong) and Minister of Public Health of China.

Dr. Yanyong said that he went public with his claims because he feared that “a failure to disclose accurate statistics about the illness will only lead to more deaths”.

Dr. Yanyong was awarded a Ramon Magsaysay Award, recognizing his brave and bold stand in China for the truth, spurring life-saving measures to confront and contain the deadly threat of SARS. The total number of reported cases of SARS were 8098 and 774 deaths.
These two incidents narrate a tale of chance, while in Dr. Yanyong’s case a leak lead to an end to the spread of deadly SARS in 2003, in Dr. Wenliang’s case it led to reprimand, harassment and death. The lack of proper channel for a whistleblower to report an incident or occurrence of this magnitude has made Coronavirus one of the most unpredictable disasters of our times. We cannot fathom the scale of loss of lives, economic slowdown, and unemployment etc. that this virus brings with itself.

Both the doctors felt compelled to share the said information for a timely action to prevent a worldwide disaster. We must collectively work towards creating easier, smoother and safer methods for whistleblowers to report such instances without any fear of consequences.

Whether it’s the Government, Public or Private sector entities, it is essential to ensure the protection of whistleblowers, so that world at large does not suffer the consequences of the suppression of their voice. Today, we have a global health hazard, that shall affect every aspect of our lives, which could easily have been prevented.

‘Deep State’ Stockpiles Guns

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is not buying .308-caliber rifles and explosives because it expects a bad tomato worm season. A Coronavirus spreads, Americans are preparing for the worst. People are dashing to the stores to buy toilet paper, hand sanitizer, bread, beans, sugar, chicken, respiratory masks, ammunition and guns. On March 16, background checks for firearm purchases were up 300 percent compared with the same day last year, according to federal data shared with the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Several states such as California, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania have now issued shutdown orders demanding that gun stores and other nonessential businesses close up shop during the quarantine.

These orders have led to a debate over whether or not the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution makes firearms stores essential businesses during a pandemic.

As people debate the legality of closing gun shops during a national emergency, many Americans seem to have forgotten an issue that was once a major talking point in gun control debates. Namely, that several government agencies—including the Environmental Protection Agency, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Small Business Administration, and the Social Security administration—have stockpiled enough guns, ammunition and military-grade weapons to supply a standing army of federal agents.

Shortly before President Barack Obama left office, investigative journalists Tom Coburn and Adam Andrzejewski wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Does the IRS Need Guns?” The authors pointed out that 200,000 unelected federal bureaucrats have the authority to carry firearms and make arrests. That does not include soldiers and local police officers. That is the number of federal bureaucrats (aka “deep state” agents) with the power to use a gun to make arrests; a number that now exceeds the number of soldiers in the U.S. Marine Corps and the British Armed Forces.

“The number of non-Defense Department federal officers authorized to make arrests and carry firearms (200,000) now exceeds the number of U.S. Marines (182,000),” wrote Coburn and Andrzejewski. “In its escalating arms and ammo stockpiling, this federal arms race is unlike anything in history. Over the last 20 years, the number of these federal officers with arrest-and-firearm authority has nearly tripled to over 200,000 today, from 74,500 in 1996.”

What are these federal officials up to?

On June 17, 2016, the American Transparency organization released a report on “The Militarization of America.” It details how 67 deep state agencies spent $1.5 billion on guns, ammunition and military-style equipment between 2005 and 2014. About 77 percent of this money was spent by “traditional law enforcement” agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security. The remaining 23 percent was spent by “administrative” agencies like the Internal Revenue Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

The IRS armed each of its 2,316 special agents with $11 million in guns, ammunition and military weaponry ($5,000 in gear for each agent). Meanwhile, the EPA spent $3.1 million on military-style equipment; and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service spent $4.8 million on .308-caliber rifles, night-vision goggles, propane cannons, liquid explosives, pyro supplies, buckshot, drones, remote-control helicopters, thermal cameras and military-grade waterproof thermal infrared scopes.

The U.S. must have some of the best-armed accountants and entomologists in the world.

Media outlets were growing alarmed at the Obama administration’s militarization of federal agencies, but this alarm seems to have subsided since President Donald Trump took command of the executive branch. Yet while Mr. Trump has reversed many Obama-era policies, the militarization of the deep state does not seem to have been one of these reversals.

The deep state is still arming itself to the teeth.

In December 2018, the Government Accountability Office published a report informing Congress about $1.5 billion in deep state purchases of guns, ammunition and military-style equipment between 2010 and 2017. The Department of Veterans Affairs bought 2,800 rounds of ammunition for each of its 3,957 officers. According to Forbes, “The VA also purchased camouflage uniforms, riot helmets and shields, specialized image-enhancement devices and tactical lighting,” while the “Social Security Administration purchased 800,000 rounds for their 270 special agents, amounting to nearly 3,000 rounds per agent.”

These purchases are concerning. America has 1.3 million active-duty soldiers to protect it from foreign attack, and 760,000 state and local police officers to protect it from domestic criminals. Why does the government need another 200,000 federal agents armed to the teeth with guns, ammunition and weapons of war? The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is not stocking up on propane cannons because it expects a bad tomato worm season. The government does not stockpile guns, ammunition, camouflage uniforms, riot helmets and remote-control helicopters unless it is anticipating domestic rioting and urban warfare that local police would be unable or unwilling to handle.

In his article “Nunes Memo Exposes Unseen Threat to America,” Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry detailed how Obama’s top national security officials took part in a Jan. 5, 2017, meeting to discuss how to use unverified propaganda, paid for by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, to illegally obtain a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign. This shows that there is virtually no limit to what former Obama administration officials are willing to do to undermine the last election—and the next one. What would these officials have done with 200,000 armed agents if they had successfully rigged the last election? What will they try to do with those agents still more loyal to the last president than the current one?

On Jan. 16, 2013, President Obama signed 23 executive actions on gun control, and then urged Congress to pass even stricter gun laws. At the same time the president is putting more restrictions on guns among the populace, his administration is arming itself to the teeth! What is going on here? Investor’s Business Daily editorial writer Andrew Malcolm wrote Feb. 8, 2013, about how the Department of Homeland Security had just placed an order for 21.6 million bullets. Several government agencies have been buying massive amounts of ammunition—even the Social Security Administration, of all things. As Malcolm wrote, the government’s total store of ammo amounts to ‘sufficient firepower to shoot every American about five times.’ Why does the government need to be so heavily armed but not the people? This government is showing its tendency more and more to force its will on the public.”

Over the past three years, President Trump has made a lot of progress in exposing the crimes of the radical left and reining in Obama’s deep state. But it is still important to keep a close eye on the federal agencies that the Obama administration worked so hard to fundamentally transform. Something sinister is happening in the nation

Can the ‘Experts’ be Trusted?

The scale of the measures the world is taking to combat Coronavirus are unprecedented in human history. And we are basing these measures on the advice of a handful of experts. These measures will no doubt save lives that would have been cut short by this virus. But they are also coming at incalculable cost—to our economies, our livelihoods, our civil liberties and freedoms, our social cohesion, even mental and physical health.

Granted, this particular Coronavirus seems especially contagious, and it poses significant risk for people with chronic health problems. Initial expert projections about death rates were shockingly high, some of them in the scores of millions.

However, the experts have also been making some fairly spectacular errors in their calculations, and these are being underreported and virtually overlooked in the response of our governments.

On March 3, World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made this shocking announcement: “Globally, about 3.4 percent of reported Covid-19 cases have died. By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1 percent of those infected.” It turned out that Tedros was frightening the world with dishonest math. He based the death rate for influenza on the estimated number of people infected with the common flu each year. He based the alarming 3.4 percent figure on the number of known cases of coronavirus. The vast majority of those infected are never tested. This is a simple, well-known fact, yet Tedros and other experts issued even more-ominous death rate predictions, some as high as 4 and 5 percent.

Many scientists and medical experts have put forward terrifying models, charts, graphs and reports to show that Covid-19 is a catastrophe in the making. For the United States and Britain, the most authoritative and influential team of experts came from Imperial College London. The New York Times wrote on March 17, “With ties to the World Health Organization and a team of 50 scientists, led by a prominent epidemiologist, Neil Ferguson, Imperial is treated as a sort of gold standard, its mathematical models feeding directly into government policies“ (emphasis added throughout).

What did the “gold standard” of scientific research uncover about Covid-19 and its threat to society? The Imperial model stated that, unchecked, the virus would kill 510,000 people in Britain and 2.2 million in America. The Washington Post asked, if First World nations would suffer this badly, what would happen in the rest of the world?

Ferguson’s March 16 report began by saying the public health threat of Covid-19 “is the most serious seen in a respiratory virus since the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic.” It said that if the governments of Britain and the United States drastically restricted the freedoms of their citizens, they could reduce the death count to 260,000 in the UK and 1.1 million in the U.S.

“Finally, if the British government quickly went all-out to suppress viral spread—aiming to reverse epidemic growth and reduce the case load to a low level—then the number of dead in the country could drop to below 20,000,” the Post stated. “To do this, the researchers said, Britain would have to enforce social distancing for the entire population, isolate all cases, demand quarantines of entire households where anyone is sick, and close all schools and universities.”

The advocacy of the media and health experts was, Do what China did: Lock your people down. Their justification? Ferguson and Imperial College’s “gold standard” model, which has “ties to the World Health Organization,” and Director Tedros, who is simultaneously calling China a “new standard” in confronting outbreaks.

Ferguson told the New York Times outright: “Based on our estimates and other teams’, there’s really no option but follow in China’s footsteps and suppress.” Follow Communist China’s lead, or millions and millions of people will drop dead.

And how long would Western governments need to impose Communist-style lockdowns? The “gold standard” model recommended up to 18 months. Shutdowns, social distancing the entire population, and quarantining the infirmed and their families—for a year and a half! Even then, the UK death count projection would be 20,000 people. According to the BBC, this scenario represented a “good outcome” for Britain.

Covid-19 task forces in London and Washington accepted the catastrophic Imperial forecast without objection. As the New York Times opined, “It wasn’t so much the numbers themselves, frightening though they were, as who reported them: Imperial College London.”

The “gold standard” had spoken: Lock them down.

Before Imperial spoke, governments in Britain and America both favored promoting commonsense guidelines: wash hands frequently, sneeze or cough into your folded arm, stay at home if you are sick, etc. Both British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and United States President Donald Trump were disinclined to enforce stricter guidelines. Then, over the weekend of March 14-15, the Trump and Johnson administrations were briefed on the Imperial College forecast. The sudden, profound impact this model had on both countries and the world was disastrous.

On March 16, President Trump’s Covid-19 task force released its 15-day “stop the spread” campaign. During the briefing, the president emphasized the commonsense guidelines, but also admonished all Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and eliminate discretionary travel; he also asked the elderly and vulnerable to quarantine themselves.

Prime Minister Johnson admonished the British public to take more drastic action to arrest the spread. After his public address, Johnson’s team briefed reporters off camera about “jaw-dropping numbers from some of Britain’s top modelers of infectious disease”—this would be Neil Ferguson’s 20-page forecast of 2.7 million casualties in the U.S. and Britain alone. According to the Washington Post, Ferguson’s forecast was “quickly endorsed by Johnson’s government” and it was “also influencing planning by the Trump administration.”

In the Trump briefing in Washington, Dr. Deborah Birx referred to models the Coronavirus task force had been working on with “groups in the United Kingdom.” It was Ferguson’s forecast, the New York Times wrote, that “triggered a sudden shift” in America’s and Britain’s “comparatively relaxed response to the virus.” Thus, it was the Imperial College model, which was essentially based on the who model, which was essentially based on the Communist Chinese model, that “jarred” the U.S. and UK into taking the actions that would fundamentally transform the U.S. and Britain in ways a contagious disease never could.

In the United States, the changeover was swift. On March 10, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that for most people, this disease “basically acts like a common cold or flu” and that the elderly and sickly were most vulnerable. He gave commonsense guidelines for city residents to remember to protect the elderly. But on the whole, New Yorkers are “pretty tough,” he said, adding, “We cannot shut down because of undue fear.” Just four days later, this same mayor said his staff was on “full crisis footing” and had entered a “wartime dynamic.” Many state governors and city mayors followed a similar pattern.

They were following the experts.

On March 21, Medium posted an article questioning many of the predictions for covid-19. To author Aaron Ginn, a Silicon Valley technologist with no background in medicine or infectious disease, the numbers didn’t add up. He noted the established fact that as more people were tested for the virus, the death rate would inevitably decline. The United States and Germany have tested for the disease the most and they had mortality rates of 1.7 and 0.78 percent as of this writing. These rates were higher than the seasonal flu, but nothing like what Tedros predicted on March 3.

As more information on the Covid-19 crisis emerges, it is not Ginn who is being proved wrong, but the public health experts.

On March 25, just nine days after releasing his frightening report, Neil Ferguson told British members of Parliament that the UK death toll could end up being “substantially lower” than 20,000. Furthermore, he testified that the overall impact on the deaths in the UK this year might be negligible because most of the covid-19 victims would have died of other health complications anyway.

Had Ferguson said any of this just a few days earlier, it might have prevented the U.S. and Britain from plunging headlong into the governmental and financial abyss.

Even with his newly revised forecast, Ferguson believes the UK government was right to lock it down. He said it probably saved the National Health Service from disaster, but did acknowledge that because of the economic impact, we will be paying for this “for many decades to come.”

At some point, Covid-19 will go away. But the “cure” will remain.

The day after Ferguson quietly backtracked from his Imperial model, another study in America received a lot of attention. It was headlined “U.S. Virus Deaths May Top 80,000 Despite Confinement.” With most of America now glued to the daily death tracker, this study was used to incite more fear and hysteria. The truth behind the headline, however, is that it represented another rapid retreat from the original projections of Spanish flu-like devastation. Eighty thousand deaths from Coronavirus is not a repeat of the 1918 pandemic. It’s more comparable to the ferocious flu season of 2017–18, when 45 million Americans were infected, 810,000 were hospitalized and 61,000 died (0.14 death rate). That happened two years ago. And no one cared.

Journalists also reversed course. CNN’s Sanjay Gupta said on March 27: “The vast majority of people, even if you are elderly, aren’t going to need hospitalization. The vast majority are going to recover. The vast majority are not going to die.” Just one week before, Gupta had said U.S. hospitals were unprepared for what was about to happen. And the week before that, when Gupta declared Covid-19 a pandemic, he relied on case studies in China that said 5 percent of those infected became critically ill.

Even President Trump’s own medical expert, Anthony Fauci, who had originally said covid-19 was “10 times more lethal” than the common flu, wrote in the March 26 New England Journal of Medicine: “If one assumes that the number of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases is several times as high as the number of reported cases, the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1 percent. This suggests that the overall clinical consequences of Covid-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza … or a pandemic influenza.”

As the experts who initially proclaimed their high death tolls now quietly lowered them, President Trump said America needed to get back to work soon. But Fauci rushed to the media, telling them America might lose 100,000 to 200,000 people even under a strict lockdown. The president then extended social-distancing guidelines through the end of April. The experts, you see, are right—even when they get it spectacularly wrong.

There are so many things to take in and to learn from this Coronavirus phenomenon. But here is an important thing to stop and dwell on: “[C]ursed be the man that trusteth in man” (Jeremiah 17:5).

Ordinary people, leaders and even experts around the world are going crazy trying to find someone in whom to invest their trust. They are trusting in man.

Obviously, if an expert has studied infectious disease far more than you, it is wise to listen to what he has to say. But it is also wise to remember that he can be misinformed. He can be biased. He can be wrong. It is wisest to place your trust in the Expert who created biology itself.

Just because you see the world news tonight anchorman introducing a man in a lab coat as an “expert” doesn’t mean you should put your trust in him. We already know how much to trust the weatherman. Things are getting real now. If you need protection from a storm, listen to the weatherman, but put your trust in nature and yourself. If you need protection from a contagion, viral or otherwise, listen to the health experts, but put your trust in the life itself.

Facing Zoonotic Diseases: Globalised world requires global code of conduct

A crisis does not emerge out of thin air; it has underlying causes. And most of the underlying causes, if not all, are in front of our eyes; it’s just that we refuse to see and act on them. The coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) crisis is not a black swan; it was predicted and could have been prevented.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, we have seen the emergence and outbreaks of multiple zoonotic diseases – infectious diseases caused by bacteria and viruses that jump from animals to humans. Some of them are new to humans, and hence we do not have immunity against them and some re-emergence of old diseases. Studies indicate that the frequency of these outbreaks has increased significantly in the last 20 years.

We have had three pandemics since 2000 – severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, H1N1 (swine flu) in 2009 and now Covid-19. SARS and Covid-19 spread from civet cats/ pangolin and bats in China and swine flu from an intensive pig farm in Mexico. In between, we have had regional outbreaks of bird flu from poultry, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) from camels, Ebola from monkeys and pigs, Rift Valley fever from livestock, West Nile fever from birds, Zika from monkey and Nipah from bats.

The root cause of all the above diseases can be broadly put under three baskets. First, environmental destruction. Due to deforestation and habitat loss, wild animals and humans are now nearby, leading to the spillover of animal diseases into humans. Ebola, West Nile virus, Nipah and Zika come under this category. Similarly, livestock is also coming in contact with wildlife and transmitting pathogens to people, like the Rift Valley virus.

Second, cultural practices. The practice of eating exotic wildlife, sometimes raw, is spreading novel pathogens to humans. Both SARS and Covid-19 have origin in the wildlife markets in China. But the practice of eating wild animals is not restricted to China; it exists in one form or another across the world.

Third, intensive animal farms. The industrial farming of animals, by keeping animals very close to each other and pumping them with growth promoters like antibiotics, is another cause. Bird flu and swine flu both have their origin in intensive animal farms.

The above causes are not hidden; they are widely known, and different countries have legislation in place to control them. Many countries, including India, have strong laws against deforestation and for curbing the trade and consumption of wildlife. Countries have also put in place regulations to improve practices in animal farms. But many have not acted on these issues. And, in a globalised world, we are only as strong as the weakest link. Weak regulations and poor implementation in one country have global ramifications. This is evident in the case of Covid-19.

Since the outbreak of SARS, it was widely recognised that the presence of a vast reservoir of coronaviruses in horseshoe bats and civet cats, together with the culture of eating exotic animals in China, is a time bomb. Under global pressure, in 2003, China did ban the consumption of civet cats, but it was poorly enforced. It was only in 2018 that China’s legislature passed nationwide laws to ban the farming and consumption of wildlife. These laws are now being rolled out in the wake of the Covid-19 epidemic. This is too late, and the global community is paying the price of China’s inaction.

But the fact is, the next novel coronavirus can emerge due to negligence in any country. The current social and economic practices around the world are just too poor to stop the next pandemic. To manage and prevent the next pandemic, the world needs to come together to address the underlying causes of zoonosis.

Zoonoses have killed millions of people in the 21st century (several times more than all the wars and terrorist attacks put together). Their economic cost has ranged from a few billion dollars in the case of regional outbreaks to several trillion dollars for pandemics. They are not a national issue; they are global and require a global response. Countries cannot hide behind sovereignty and not act. The world, therefore, needs a universal code of conduct to address zoonoses urgently. Nothing less will suffice.

Making Reading a Habit

 The best thing about books is that sometimes they have pictures.’ As children get used to powerful visuals on digital media, this statement rings even more true. Books simply do not have the kind of magnetic pull that fast-moving, colourful images on screen do. However, books do have the hidden treasure of depth of imagination and understanding that can only be uncovered by a curious child willing to experiment, explore and discover.

Children often get intimidated by the idea of ‘finishing’ a book. It would help if parents have a pre-reading discussion about the characters and what they look like, what they might be feeling and what is interesting about the story. Children need some hand-holding while navigating a book — this does not imply telling them the storyline; often all it requires is asking a host of questions that may enable the child to think deeply about the content. For fictional texts, making predictions about what might happen or changing the ending may be a fun activity, especially for younger children. For older ones, linking the story to personal experiences and posing questions such as ‘what would you have done in this situation?’ provides guidance for critical analysis.

Most non-fiction texts often appear boring unless the child is interested in that particular topic, such as the world of dinosaurs. However, it is important not only to expose a child to a wider range of texts and subjects but enable them to ask questions, draw from personal experience and create a wish-list. If it is a text about inventions in transport, they might be able to tell you what they wish they could invent, or imagine a new kind of vehicle that they would like to use. The essential prerequisite for reading is speaking skills, and once we focus on developing children’s capacity to construct and voice an opinion, they can weave their way through stories with greater ease. It is not the willingness to learn, but the curiosity to know what happens in a story that propels a child to read more.

Much like caviar, reading is an acquired taste.

In school, characters were often introduced to us in a blasé tone: ‘this is Peter’ followed by a description that leaves little room for imagination. Later, children are asked to write ‘character sketches’ that look more like cookie-cut answers fulfilling the teachers’ expectations rather than allowing a child to apply cognitive skills in drawing conclusions about the character. If we were to flip the mode of such instruction, children could be encouraged to explore by looking closely at the facial expressions of characters to decipher emotion, analyse their behaviour and use their own vocabulary bank to describe what the character might be thinking or feeling. Using a multi-sensory approach is significant in cultivating a sense of empathy and compassion through reading activities.

Once children learn to identify with characters’ emotions, they read with a keener interest in the evolution of behaviour and learn to make connections with real-life situations, predictions about how the story will unfold and understand the nuances and twists in the tale — all significant ingredients for inference and critical analysis. Curiosity leads to discovery, which is the other significant element in developing reading and comprehension skills.

Uncovering the layers of any genre of text becomes a Herculean task for children who have not been exposed to higher-order thinking skills — who do not quite learn how to dig deep into the context, description, characters and action. Much like caviar, reading is an acquired taste and until one learns to enjoy it, we don’t really know what we are missing. As children become accustomed to exploring books, they gradually develop a tendency towards inference — digging deep for hidden meanings. Through this skill, they begin to appreciate different perspectives, have an eye for depth and detail and analyse storylines and characters in innovative ways.

The skills acquired from fictional reading lend themselves to the building blocks of inquiry-based writing. Children who read a lot ask themselves questions about their own writing, helping themselves organise and give shape to their thoughts. Reading is a receptive skill while writing is expressive — reading therefore moulds perspective. Individuals at any age make meaning of information by linking it to personal experiences — if they read a book without processing or internalising the content, they will perhaps remain disconnected from its essence. It is only when they identify with what they read that they are able to critically analyse and use it as a stepping stone for ideas in their own writing. An in-depth involvement of thought and feeling poured into reading will necessarily reflect in the ways children ‘own’ their writing and are able to manipulate words, self-correct, consolidate and strengthen their compositions.

Coronavirus crisis is no turning point for globalisation

In the short term, there will be flight to safety of people worried about a pandemic, as there is of capital during a financial crisis. When normalcy returns, the globalised Indian will fly away once again.

As people return home from distant lands, global value chains get disrupted and cross-border movement comes to a grinding halt, new theories are being propounded about the end of globalisation and the return of the all-pervasive “nanny state”. This is not surprising, given that a commonplace watchword of the era of globalisation has always been that while “all economics is global, all politics is local”. Governments, democratic and authoritarian, can only act locally even against global threats, unless they cross borders to challenge such a threat. Even governments wedded to the ideology of laissez-faire have been forced to act in response to local pressures of one kind or another.

A public health crisis caused by a rapidly spreading virus has naturally sounded a “call to arms” for governments, just as in 2008-09 a financial crisis with global contagion effects also mobilised governments. In 2008-09 it was an essentially “Trans-Atlantic” financial crisis that forced governments around the world to act locally to insulate themselves. This time it is a “Eurasian” epidemic, so to speak, that is forcing governments around the world to act locally. The only difference, however, is that, in 2008-09, there was greater commitment to multilaterally deal with a financial crisis on the part of the Group of 20 nations than is as yet on display today. Hopefully, the initiative taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to mobilise the G-20 will encourage a more purposeful multilateral response. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, some in India have begun writing the obituary of India’s globalisation and hailing the virtues of inward-oriented nationalism.

Much of the “touch-me-not” and “social distancing” narrative encouraged by fear of pandemics plays into the ideology of inward-looking, sectarian nationalism that right-wing governments across the world have been promoting. Political movements that have been opposed to cross-border migration are using the scare generated by Covid-19 to seal borders and stop travel. Admittedly, this is needed as a short-term measure to arrest, or at least reduce, the pace of transmission of the virus. However, to imagine that the current episode marks a turning point for globalisation of people and economies is not just an historically ill-informed view but also a self-defeating one. Mankind has faced many such challenges posed by nature and other species but has continued to move, co-habit and populate around the world. Political and administrative barriers to the natural movement of people are creations of the 20th century.

Consider the example of the Indian state that has had the highest incidence of Covid-19 and the best response to it — Kerala. It is one of India’s most globalised economies that depends on services and commodity export, labour migration and tourism. Can Kerala afford to shut its borders to the world? Hardly. While Kerala has always had an enlightened and responsible political leadership, its present government has been quick to put in place a robust strategy to deal with Covid-19, acutely aware of the vital importance of links with the rest of the world for Kerala’s economy, indeed the Indian economy as a whole. Not only do millions of Malayalees working in the Gulf, one of the regions badly struck by Covid-19, bring in billions of dollars every year into India, but Kerala exports hundreds of thousands of trained nurses that staff hospitals around India and the Gulf.

Kerala’s is just one, if obvious, example of the importance of global links for India and Indians. It is not an accident that next to Kerala the most Covid-19 affected states have been Maharashtra, Telangana and Haryana — all homes to Indians living abroad. Recent arguments from “swadeshi” enthusiasts that Covid-19 will contribute to greater inward-orientation of the economy does not take into account the globalisation of the middle classes, ranging from working class families dependent on incomes from the Gulf, to peasants manning the agrarian and livestock economies of Canada and Italy and the millions of the technically qualified who live in the developed West, especially the United States.

A highly regarded supporter of the BJP recently tweeted that in hindsight it would be appreciated that the Narendra Modi government was very smart in walking out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement because its membership would have exposed India to dependence on Covid-hit China. The fallacy of this argument lies in the fact that India walked out of the RCEP precisely because China and other countries were not willing to allow more Indians to live and work in their countries! Indeed, for three decades now, India has sought a multilateral agreement for the movement of people, not just merchandise and capital, and the Indian diaspora is viewed as an asset. India cannot afford to enter a post-Covid world that reduces, rather than expands, opportunities for Indians to earn a living from the global economy.

In the short term, there will be flight to safety of people worried about a pandemic, as there is of capital during a financial crisis. Many Indians abroad will want to return home either for family or financial reasons. It remains to be seen how long such people choose to stay back in India given the fact that they have all been “voluntary migrants”, leaving India for greener pastures.

Unlike the millions of “distress migrants” who leave home under social, political and economic pressure and compulsion, India’s middle classes travelling to developed countries have all been voluntary migrants who had chosen to socially secede from their home country. Apart from the migration of middle-class workers, students and professionals, that of the elite is also not going to be reversed. Children of scores of well-placed business persons, political leaders, officials and diplomats have all migrated to the developed world — a phenomenon best described as a “secession of the successful”.

Wealthy businessmen who have been taking pride in their “non-resident” status, buying fancy property in Europe but minimising tax liability in India, are now desperately seeking permission to bring their globalised families home in search of more easily accessible healthcare. Influential people in government, business and other professions may like their children to migrate out of India in normal times, even use medical facilities abroad for normal procedures, but when there is a public health scare and millions queue up for help, they find accessing private hospitals and doctors easier at home than in Covid-hit West. When normalcy returns, the globalised Indian will fly away once again.

Could Covid-19 be a novel breed of a deadly Franken-gene: China’s Test-tube Pandemic

Whether you are a movie buff or not, the image of Boris Karloff in the 1931 horror movie dressed up as Frankenstein is probably burned into your memory. As a child, you might have seen that fictional image and recoiled in absolute horror and ducked your head into someone’s arms or into your pillow. As an adult, you might laugh the whole thing off. The thought of a scientist piecing together a monster that can terrorize society seems like a script only fit for the movies. In 1931, it was.

Fast-forward to 2020. What if this scenario isn’t so far-fetched? What if scientists are actually creating Frankenstein-type monsters in their laboratories with the potential to terrorize the world—monsters that are being wittingly or unwittingly unleashed on an unsuspecting public?

We no longer have to use our imaginations. It is happening before our eyes.

As the world continues to grapple with the covid-19 pandemic crisis, with over 14,000 deaths at the time of writing this, researchers have been trying to solve the question of its origins so they can understand how to stop such occurrences from happening again. They have delved beyond the headlines to study the virus’s unique infectious architecture. What they have found is alarming but not altogether surprising: covid-19 appears to be a designer virus, a new breed of Franken-gene unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

It appears to be a test-tube, made-in-lab pandemic.

No Animal-to-Human Transmission

The first evidence is its apparent lack of zoonotic transmission—when an infectious disease or virus jumps from an animal to a human—a process that usually takes months or years to develop and complete. The Chinese Wuhan wet market is where this jump is said to have occurred, completing the transmission from animals to human—from bat to pangolin to human.

The theory is plausible, even reasonable, until we learn a few things: Researchers have yet to discover a bat- or pangolin-based virus that shares 100 percent genetic material with covid-19 (coronavirus is a bat-based sars virus). And if the intermediate pangolins housed at the wet market are the source of the virus, then why aren’t people being infected in other areas or countries where the supposed pangolins were farmed or taken from?

Additionally, Foreign Policy reported on January 26 that the first three cases had no known contact with the Wuhan wet market. The Daily Mail Online reported on February 18 that the first patient (patient zero) had no connection to the market whatsoever. It further explained that 14 of the first 41 cases had no connection to the market, though the market did serve as a catalyst for later cases until it was closed on January 1.

A respected Chinese scientific report also suggested patient zero may have acquired the virus in mid-to-late November 2019. The Guardian said Chinese authorities knew about the virus as early as November 17. A February 17 Asia Times article even suggested that patient zero was a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology—a claim the institute rejects.

The same Chinese report concluded, “Genomic evidence did not support the Hua Nan market as the birthplace of sars-CoV-2.”

Patient zero with no connection to the Wuhan wet market? Patient zero possibly being a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology? The first three cases with no connection to the wet market? Fourteen of 41 cases with no connection to the wet market? Genomic evidence that doesn’t support the wet market as the birthplace of covid-19? A questionable zoonotic connection?

That is curious. What then is the answer to its origin?

Wuhan Institute of Virology

Perhaps the answer lies in China’s only biosafety level 4 (bsl-4) laboratory that studies, researches and conduct tests on the most virulent pathogenic diseases that can easily kill humans, like the Ebola virus and sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

By the way, this lab is only nine miles from Wuhan’s wet market, about a 30-minute drive. And it is housed in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the very institute the Asia Times said covid-19 patient zero came from. Isn’t that a wild coincidence? China wants you to think so.

Facilities like Wuhan’s bsl-4 are global holocausts waiting to happen. These facilities are meant to keep deadly pathogens under strict lock and key. Naturally, intensive quality training of staff is of paramount importance. Only a handful of labs worldwide meet the strict criteria to qualify as a biosafety level 4.

Some experts questioned China’s ability to maintain such a facility, especially after sars twice escaped from a Beijing lab. That failure to contain deadly pathogens was a humiliating setback for China. Yet authorities pressed ahead and awarded China one of these critical laboratories.

Some Western experts are also suggesting that the covid-19 virus escaped from the Wuhan virology laboratory—a fact they say Chinese authorities have fought to conceal by censuring doctors and suppressing research.

On January 2, Yanyi Wang, director of Wuhan Institute of Virology, published a memo forbidding anyone to release information about the Wuhan virus. On January 3, China’s National Health Commission ordered all testing to stop and all samples to be destroyed.

At this time, if not before, China should have called the international community for help. Instead it decided on secrecy, suppression and lies. What is there to hide if this was a naturally occurring zoonotic transmission? Why have the Chinese been so secretive, even trying to mislead the public and the world by blaming the United States for the pandemic?

According to Stephen Mosher of the Population Research Institute, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a meeting on February 14 where he explained that lab safety was a national safety issue and that biosafety measures needed to be put in place to minimize risks to the Chinese population.

The very next day, February 15, “Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology released a new directive entitled ‘Instructions on strengthening biosecurity management in microbiology labs that handle advanced viruses like the novel coronavirus,’” Mosher reported.

Did the covid-19 virus walk out of the lab in the form of an animal that researchers had tested on and later sold for cash on the black market? It’s happened before in China. Could it have walked out another way—perhaps in patient zero?

As a March 20, 2019, Vox article explained, when it comes to these types of labs, “scary accidents—caused by human error, software failures, maintenance problems and combinations of all of the above—are hardly a thing of the past.”

Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard, explained to Vox, “If an enhanced novel strain of flu escaped from a laboratory and then went on to cause a pandemic, then causing millions of deaths is a serious risk.”

So one little mistake can cause a global holocaust. That’s good to know—but who is paying attention?

Even if you have the best processes, mistakes are bound to happen. As an example, Vox reported that when moving to a new facility in 2014, Food and Drug Administration staff found a cardboard box of sample viruses dating back to the 1960s!

Multiple reports show breathtaking shortcomings across the global pathogen research and testing industry. Everybody has dirty laundry, except this dirty laundry has the potential to kill millions.

Should we really be surprised if a pandemic like covid-19 was started in a test tube? What is surprising is that it may have taken so long to happen.

Is the timing of Xi’s attention to biosafety concerns and risks and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology’s directive a coincidence? Mosher wrote: “It sure sounds as if China is conceding there may be a problem keeping dangerous pathogens in test tubes, doesn’t it?” Good question.

We know patient zero had no connection to the Wuhan wet market. The first three patients had no connection to the Wuhan wet market. Fourteen of the first 41 patients had no connection to the Wuhan wet market. This strongly suggests a zoonotic transmission did not occur, so another explanation is needed.

Could that explanation be a biosafety lab in Wuhan studying the deadliest pathogens known to man—including, as we shall see, the deadly sars pathogen? A biosafety lab that maybe wasn’t so safe, with two Chinese Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists that had completed previous research and modifications on the sars and coronavirus viruses?

Is it possible that covid-19 escaped from China’s first and only bsl-4 lab in Wuhan? Yes, it is possible.

Did it happen?

“The evidence, to me, points to sars-CoV-2 research being carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” Mosher concluded. “The virus may have been carried out of the lab by an infected worker or crossed over into humans who unknowingly consumed a lab animal.” Chinese lab animals have been sold for cash on the street instead of being cremated, meaning unsuspecting Chinese have eaten animals that have been, at best, exposed to a highly infectious environment and, at worse, infected with some disease.

“Whatever the vector,” Mosher wrote, “Beijing authorities are now clearly scrambling to correct serious problems with the way their labs handle deadly pathogens.”

Designer SARS-CoV-2

Could Covid-19 be a novel breed of a deadly Franken-gene? Is it a test-tube pandemic, bio-engineered in the Wuhan  BSL-4 Chinese laboratory? Along with the evidence we’ve already examined, researchers have found some interesting clues in the virus’s behavior and architecture that helps get us even closer to the answer, an answer that eventually takes us back to the University of North Carolina and to work that certain scientists perform in the shadows.

That scientists and researchers fiddle with deadly diseases is without question. As Vox explained, “Sometimes, researchers make pathogens even deadlier in the course of their research.” Are they fiddling with former flu viruses?

A report published in the American Society for Microbiology explains, “The 1977–1978 influenza epidemic was probably not a natural event, as the genetic sequence of the virus was nearly identical to the sequences of decades-old strains.”

That virus is known as H1N1, the technical name for the Spanish flu that caused 50 to 100 million deaths in 1918.

Whatever their purpose, scientists worked on a strain of the original virus and made a few changes here and there, and it was accidentally—one can only hope—reintroduced to the general population. The same report suggested it may have been a bio-weapon. It killed 750,000 people.

This is the world’s best and brightest hard at work.

Another variant of the flu is H5N1. It is an avian flu with a human mortality rate of 60 percent. To understand this flu variant, researchers went to work to decode its secrets. They then produced their own variant by passing the flu from mammal to mammal—ferrets to be exact—by adjusting the virus’s ability to attach to a ferret lung cell receptor. This altered the variant to make it airborne. In fear of it falling into the wrong hands, the U.S. government shut down the study and testing. As journalist Carl Zimmer explained, the Frankenstein test-tube H5N1 “could make the deadly 1918 pandemic look like a pesky cold.”

The zoonotic sequence for the development of a new strain of a virus begins with a non-human host that manages to pass on to another species. Sometimes this doesn’t occur and the virus “dead ends.” When a virus is able to sustain itself in multiple hosts, it becomes viable. Such a transformation, as stated previously, can take months or years to develop. It is a process of trial and error until sustained communal transmission can occur.

The working theory is that the covid-19 mutation between bats and another mammal and humans occurred within mere weeks at the Wuhan wet market and was instantaneously and highly contagious. This theory, if proved correct, will require the rewriting of scientific virology textbooks.

The wet market transmission theory is, well, a theory—and a theory with the motive to shift the public’s attention away from China’s bsl-4 laboratory.

The more plausible theory is that covid-19 is a scientific Franken-gene.

What follows is the closest thing to a smoking gun outside of the Chinese authorities’ admitting to problems stemming from its bsl-4 Wuhan Institute of Virology lab. In 2015, the University of North Carolina reported that it had manipulated the original sars virus protein gene to attach more readily and infect human cells through mice. The Scientist explained in November 2015 that “this virus—or other coronaviruses found in bat species—may be capable of making the leap to people without first evolving in an intermediate host.”

Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said, “If the [new] virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory.” Nature reported this novel change as having a “pandemic potential.”

This new test-tube coronavirus was a more intelligent, mutated, version of sars with a greater potential for infection due to certain design features in the “spokes” of the virus to bind to human cells. As Nature explained in November 2015, this new variant was “made up of a surface protein of SHC014 and the backbone of a sars virus that had been adapted to grow in mice and to mimic human disease. The chimaera infected human airway cells—proving that the surface protein of SHC014 has the necessary structure to bind to a key receptor on the cells and to infect them” (emphasis added).

What a coincidence that Covid-19 is also a SARS_Coronavirus, and the main feature is its victims suffocating to death.

Is SARS-CoV-2, engineered by researchers at the University of North Carolina, known as Covid-19 today? Maybe. Covid-19 patients are suffocating to death with pneumonia. The original sSARS virus also caused fatal pneumonia. The difference is that covid-19 is more contagious than SARS due to its ability to unlock human cells, an adaptation scientists believe strongly suggests that Covid-19 is a test-tube virus.

One of the prime researchers involved in the University of North Carolina “breakthrough” was Zheng-li Shi, who works at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. No doubt at the behest of the Chinese government, she recently published a February 3 scientific paper in Nature blaming Covid-19 on bats. For reasons explained above, this is an unbelievable claim. It demonstrates China’s desire to skew the debate around the virus’s origins and seed doubt in the scientific research community by blending lies with the truth.

Zheng-li’s colleague, Xing-Yi Ge, also works at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. In 2013, he isolated the sars virus in bats and adjusted it to make it more receptive to human transmission through a certain human cell receptor. How much like Covid-19 with a programmed ability to decode and enter human cells!

The upshot is that Chinese scientists were able to bioengineer sSARS to be much more contagious and virulent. Taken together, the evidence directly points away from animal-to-human transmission and directly toward Chinese scientists producing a novel Franken-gene that somehow escaped its bio-safety laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Covid-19 has all the hallmarks of being a test-tube pandemic.

Welcome to a post-Covid world

Those working for venture fund would find saw an interesting pattern emerge. Naturally, purely digital businesses, the ones that move ‘bits’ around, were doing well, such as edtech or content plays. But so were businesses that move ‘atoms’, such as grocery e-commerce sites that were having their best weeks ever. But there were some ‘atom’ businesses such as a real estate tech platform, or a wedding tech play that were clearly shook.

Given the above, how should we understand Covid-19’s impact on businesses? It clearly favours most digital businesses, though not all, and it also favours some physical or atom businesses, including e-commerce or even hand sanitisers. Given this, a simplistic digital vs physical or bits vs atoms framework isn’t a good lens to view Covid-19’s impact. Is there an alternative framework? Yes.

All businesses hit by Covid-19 have one factor in common: they bring people together in near proximity — such as travel hubs or airports, gyms, offline educational classes etc. Even if you are a purely digital firm, say online travel ticketing or a rideshare service, your customer will consume the service you are selling in proximity to another customer. And if there is hesitation to consume the product or service, then your sales take a hit too. Uber and Ola have seen rides drop over a third since the crisis.

There isn’t a word in English to describe such businesses — where the consumption of the product eventually happens in the physical presence of other people. I suggest ‘proximate’ as a moniker for such businesses — school education, restaurants, real estate services, travel and hospitality, and so on. Covid-19 has impacted proximate businesses most. Then there are businesses where the final product is consumed singularly — without other people being present physically. Online education, digital payments, video conferencing, e-commerce fit the bill. Let us call them singular businesses. Covid-19 has been extremely beneficial to such businesses, as there is no threat to safety while consuming these products or services.

In addition to singular businesses, Covid-19 has seen two broad categories of businesses boom — first, healthcare products and especially cleansing agents such as sanitisers; second, products that support remote working or living. Video conferencing is one. Zoom, the biggest beneficiary of the Covid crisis, saw its market capitalisation overtake Uber briefly. And it is not just Zoom: almost all players in the video conferencing space have seen massive jumps in usage. We are also beginning to see products which improve communication among remote workers. And of course, if you are stuck at home for long, then video streaming services such as Netflix are a big help.

How will online products evolve in a post-Covid world? First, we will see more social components sprinkled into ‘singular’ products. Take online education. By adding gamification elements such as leaderboards, or enabling interactions between users, you make the product more fun to use as well as drive better engagement. Or take netflixparty — an ‘unofficial’ chrome extension to watch Netflix with your friends. Second, there is the trend of proximate products moving to become singular. A great example of this is how gyms are using Facebook live or Zoom to livestream their classes, thereby helping fitness services, previously consumed physically in a group setting, become a solo activity, pursued through connected devices.

The fitness industry has been an innovator here, launching products such as Peloton (cycle), Tonal (weight training), Hydrow (rowing) etc. All of them are single-person use devices for the home that are internet connected and interactive. As we have seen with physical classes moving online, and gyms moving to connected devices, there is a framework for going virtual. Provide a product (app/device) for powering individual consumption, but make the experience social (leaderboards, messaging) and synchronous. Let us call it ‘singularisation’.

So, where all could such ‘singularisation’ apply? What other proximate activities could go singular and succeed in a post-Covid world? Apart from education and fitness, we could see religious worship and music or artistic performances, both presently consumed in group setting, getting singularised. Imagine a device — a screen or even an app that allowed you to join for worship while being aware of and being able to interact with fellow worshippers, or even to join them for group prayers.

Welcome to the post-Covid world. Where the products are singular (or single-serve), social and streamed.

China’s unchecked accountability From the Great Leap Forward to Wuhan Coronavirus

Popular Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu once said, “Strike where the enemy is not prepared, take him by surprise”. Two of China’s finest military strategists in the recent past, Col. Qiao Liang and Col. Wang Xiangsui, in their famous book ‘Unrestricted Warfare’ have alluded to warfare as having “no rules and nothing is forbidden”. World leaders are today taken by absolute surprise on the impact their respective countries and citizens have borne as a result of Wuhan Coronavirus.

China continues to aggressively control the narrative of first being affected by the Wuhan Coronavirus just a few months ago but now looking to support other countries, specifically European countries seeking help. It is important to recall and analyze that China has not learnt its lessons of cover up, damage and destruction that it inflicted on its own people during the Great Leap Forward. And possibly this could be a form of “unrestricted warfare” that the world must get used to and necessarily learn to combat in the days, months and years to come.

No, this blog is not intended to be racist or pinpoint blame on a specific country for the global pandemic that has arisen out of the Wuhan Coronavirus. But if historical case studies point to the country behaving in a way that it causes harm and annihilation of humanity at large, then it must be called out. The name Wuhan Coronavirus is not an invention of any Indian or American academic or analyst, but solely attributed to the China state owned media and commentators since the outbreak.

It is often said, if one wants to get a realistic picture of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution then one must read or watch perspectives from those affected, if possible, and if given access to. In today’s time and age, it does become difficult to get hold of such accounts but the book ‘Tombstone’ by noted Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng is an exhaustive account of the erroneous Great Leap Forward, also known as one of China’s disastrous famines, which took place between 1959 and 1961 under Mao Zedong. The reason the book is important is because the account is written by a mainland Chinese who was previously a member of the Communist Party of China as well as a journalist with the Xinhua News Agency. The book is of course banned in mainland China, as it gives a detailed insight into how the move by Mao took the lives of millions.

Yang himself lost members of his family to the famine that he estimates took the lives of nothing less than 36 million people in China. In addition, backed by in-depth research and analysis, he estimates that China’s population loss during the Great Famine during the period was 76 million. He says more people died in the Great Famine than in the First World War.

He minces no words in pinning the blame squarely on Mao and the entire Communist Party structure that caused devastation to Chinese families. Unequivocally, Yang also dismisses reports that the Great Famine in China was caused by the then Soviet Union. The most disturbing part of the book for me to read was how the famine forced people to turn to cannibalism in almost every province of China to meet their starvation.

Province by province, Yang gives out statistical evidence and research as to how many deaths were caused by the famine and how clueless the Communist Party leaders were, including Mao who did not fathom an iota of the damage caused. In the end, when Mao intended to course correct, the damage was already done. Yang details Peng Duhai and Liu Shaoqi as the only leaders in the Communist Party set up then who opposed Mao but needless to state were relegated and purged. In fact, Liu Shaoqi once said to Mao, “History will record the role you and I played in the starvation of so many, and the cannibalism will also be memorialized.”
Yang has titled his book ‘Tombstone’ because he wanted to erect a tombstone for his father who died of starvation in 1959. He also wanted to erect a tombstone for the thirty-six million Chinese who died of starvation. Thirdly, he wanted to erect a tombstone for the Chinese political system that brought about the Great Famine, and fourth, a tombstone for himself due to a temporary health scare, although his health concerns were subsequently put to rest.

During the Great Leap Forward, Chinese citizens everywhere were herded into giant collectives called peoples’ communes. This took the life of more than 30 million people of torture, exhaustion and fatigue. The Cultural Revolution followed the Great Leap Forward and that also took the lives of many millions in China; this too was under Mao Zedong.

Cut to today, the pertinent question is whether China has learnt any lesson at all from the two massacres that it unleashed on its own citizens in and through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The answer will be negative. Through the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus and the Wuhan Coronavirus, China is seeking to up its ante of unleashing what could be called in their own terms, “unrestricted warfare”. Several geo-political commentators have called out China’s authoritarian regime for inflicting the damage they caused on not just their own people but outside their borders this time as well. That the world has not learnt any lessons at all from the outbreak of SARS virus up to Wuhan Coronavirus is discernible in the response.

Democracy, China’s biggest threat, remains India’s biggest strength and soft power asset. This was discernible in the organic manner in which Indians responded to the voluntary Janata curfew leading upto the 21 day national lockdown. This is in stark contrast to authoritarian surveillance by Chinese authorities to curb the spread of the Wuhan Coronavirus, or for that matter the handling of Dr. Li Wenliang, the first whistleblower, the detention of Xu Zhiyong and the disappearance of Ren Zhiqiang.

While science battles to come up with a prospective antidote to fight this deadly virus, and while leading powers in the Indian Ocean region, like India, will no doubt rise after this uncertain scenario, it is important to seek accountability vis-a-vis the ‘middle kingdom’ and the ‘core leader’ Xi Jinping, in their pursuit of taking the world by surprise.

The anti-influencers who fail to sell

Social media influencers are the prophets and seers of our times — regular people who hawk product through the irresistible draw of their personalities. The Instagram teen who teaches you how to draw on eyebrows, and then starts a bestselling makeup line. The grandmother on YouTube whose recipes attract a huge audience, and then opens a restaurant. The beautiful people who start wearing tiny pointy sunglasses, and then make them appear in stores around the world.

They are sought after by companies and advertisers and political campaigns. They can divine what sells, and get everybody else to buy in. On social media, they know exactly how to hold our straying, skittering attention.

But this week, the New York Times flagged a new category of people — the anti-influencers. Marketing professors from Northwestern University stumbled upon this discovery when they were studying purchasing patterns, and those who bought products that were later pulled from the shelves. Turns out, these are not one-off whims — there is a whole class of people who are drawn like moths to a flame, to products that will never take off. Those who just loved Diet Crystal Pepsi and Frito Lay Lemonade, for instance, famous fails in the US market.

If social influencers have their finger on the pulse, a sense for what will work, these people have a nose for what is not monetisable and mass-marketable. And they pick it every time, they are systematically off-target.

When I read about the study, I knew I’d found my tribe. The marketing profs have named us “harbingers” (of doom, of failure). It sounds harsh, but I don’t mind. We are the group that any product launch team should consider, while they still have time to rethink their decisions. If we like it, it’s unlikely to make it big.

And there are lots of us anti-influencers or harbingers, apparently: a full quarter of the customers in the study “consistently took home products that bombed”. Even Tim Harford, who writes the column Undercover Economist, fessed up to being one, saying: “come study me, oh trendspotters and psephologists, for a glimpse into what the future does not hold.”

I was an early and enthusiastic adopter of Google Plus, shortly before it became a virtual graveyard. Through two decades, I never gave up on bootcut denim. Things I order get taken off the menu, magazines I subscribe to fold up. My go-to moisturiser has been recalled, though there are a handful of others who mourn the loss online. When everyone’s discussing Netflix shows, I pipe up for the random one no one seems to have seen, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Rahul Gandhi is my preferred political leader, and his prospects seem bleak. Now that I think about it, I must’ve hexed Elizabeth Warren too.
Occasionally, time and the judgements of posterity might vindicate us. Take the 1987 Hollywood movie Ishtar, famous for being the worst film ever made — an expensive fiasco, a commercial failure, a critical write-off. But some people — guess who — liked it. A few decades later, it was rehabilitated in the New Yorker as a masterwork, one of the “most original, audacious and inventive movies” of modern times. Same with the movie Andaz Apna Apna, which only became a cult watch many years after.

But this is not to congratulate anti-influencers for our foresight or eccentric flair. No size fits all, we’re all conventional and weird in different ways. No human really conforms to focus-group ideas of average. What makes us this way is probably that we don’t get the information signals, hear the calls of the herd as clearly. For instance, I am a social media wallflower, an isolate in a networked world — so people like me can’t possibly sniff out the trends or even keep up. Someone in high school or college, on the other hand, is intensely aware of their peers.

After all, the quality that makes social influencers so influential is the fact that they are naturally social. Their clout comes from connection. When they post something, the likes and engagements start totting up immediately. Other people are interested in their taste and validation. Social media creates cascades of opinion — so when people you trust say that a pair of sneakers or earphones is amazing, and then you find yourself getting it, and talking it up till others are also convinced of its value.

But anti-influencers are alright too, even if marketing mavens say mean things about us. After all, the other happy fact of our times is that niche preferences can also be catered to — so even if the big stores don’t stock bootcut jeans, somebody on the internet will ship it to you. The rushing mainstream may not care about us, but there’s plenty of life in the shallows and corners.

Rumors Factory Works Overtime hampering fight against coronavirus

As India and other South Asian nations brace for the spread of the coronavirus, they face another battle: misinformation. With the pandemic starting to gain a foothold in the region, social media are rife with bogus remedies, tales of magic cures and potentially hazardous medical advice. Experts are urging caution and say the “coronavirus infodemic” could have disastrous consequences.
With the pandemic starting to gain a foothold in the region, social media are rife with bogus remedies, tales of magic cures and potentially hazardous medical advice. Experts are urging caution and say the “coronavirus infodemic” could have disastrous consequences.
The message started with an outlandish claim: The coronavirus was retreating in India because of “cosmic-level sound waves” created by a collective cheer citizens had been asked to join.
Messages were pinging from phone to phone across this country of 1.3 billion saying the applause Prime Minister Narendra Modi had organized for health workers had been detected by a “bio-satellite” that confirmed the weakening of the virus.
Soon, Siddhart Sehgal’s family group chat on WhatsApp was buzzing with messages hailing Modi as India’s savior.
It of course wasn’t true.
As India and other South Asian nations work to stop the spread of the virus, they face another battle: reams of misinformation.
With the pandemic starting to gain a foothold in the region, social media sites are rife with bogus remedies, tales of magic cures and potentially hazardous medical advice. Experts are urging caution and warning that the “coronavirus infodemic” could have disastrous consequences.
Its a trend also seen elsewhere and governments around the world have been urging citizens not to listen to or spread rumors about the pandemic.
So far it hasn’t worked in South Asia, a region where online misinformation has in the past had deadly consequences such as lynchings, arson and communal riots where neighbors turn on one another.
On Tuesday, Indians were ordered to stay indoors for three weeks in the world’s biggest coronavirus lockdown. In announcing the move, Modi reiterated the danger of misinformation.
“I appeal to you to beware of any kind of rumors or superstitions,” the prime minister said.
Earlier appeals against virus rumors have yet to prove effective.
Poultry sales in India plunged following false claims that chickens were linked to the pandemic. Racial attacks against people from the country’s northeastern states increased after rumors spread that they carried the virus.
On Sunday, people in a remote village in Manipur state locked themselves inside their homes because of rumors that fumigants were being sprayed from the sky to kill the virus.
The government has asked social media companies to launch awareness campaigns about virus misinformation. It also set up a government WhastApp channel where people can ask questions about the virus and vet claims they hear.
Still the falsehoods spread.
On Monday, Amitabh Bachchan, a top Bollywood star who has more than 40 million Twitter followers, said clapping and blowing conch shells would “destroy virus potency.” He later deleted the tweet after facing criticism.
Elected representatives from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have also offered bizarre claims of cures for the virus, ranging from cow urine and cow dung to cloves “energized by mantras.”
Rumors have spawned concerns elsewhere in the region as well.
In Bangladesh, some clerics claimed Muslims would not be affected by the virus and exhorted tens of thousands of people to gather for a mass prayer last week despite concerns about the health risk.
One preacher claimed to have interviewed — in his dream — a man in Italy to obtain a cure for the virus.
When a journalist at a leading private television station reported about the misinformation, he received death threats.
“We are monitoring and doing our part, but it (misinformation) comes from various sources, one after another,” said Zakir Hossain, a spokesman for the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission. “This is a huge task.”
Pakistan too has had to fight against religious leaders urging the devout to attend prayers and promising their faith will protect them. A cleric in Lahore made a video saying it was impossible to catch the virus while praying and said he should be hanged if he were wrong. Police arrested him instead and he made another video urging people to take the pandemic seriously and wash their hands.
On the outskirts of Islamabad the army was called in to shut down a mosque after its prayer leader despite exhibiting symptoms kept his mosque open.
In Sri Lanka, authorities warned that legal action will be taken against people who spread false information over social media. Several people have been arrested.
Pakistan has been the worst hit South Asian nation with some 1,200 virus cases reported. India has reported more than 725.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in a few weeks. But for some it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
There are concerns that if cases were to surge in South Asia, it would overwhelm already strained health systems.
Sumaiya Shaikh, an editor for fact-checking website ALT News, has been tracking misinformation on messaging apps in India since before the pandemic.
In January, when the virus was still largely limited to China, Shaikh said India experienced a deluge of false WhatsApp messages claiming that Chinese police were shooting people suspected of having the disease.
When India started having cases, rumors about cures began, Shaikh said.
“This misinformation has reached a critical mass and is jeopardizing public health,” she said.
The search for accurate virus information in India is complicated by advice issued by a parallel health ministry, the Ministry of AYUSH, created in 2014 by Modi to promote alternative therapies such as yoga and traditional Ayurveda medicine.
The ministry has recommended herbs and homeopathy as cures for the virus, along with frequent sipping of water boiled with basil leaves, crushed ginger and turmeric.
P.C. Joshi, a medical anthropologist at the University of Delhi, said that advice “falls into the category of misinformation which can be hazardous for public health.”
The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
The messages spreading online, often shared among friends and relatives, have unnerved many Indians who don’t know whether to take them seriously.
When the messages claiming that the virus was retreating in India spread on WhatsApp, members of the Sehgal family wanted to leave their home and join others outside celebrating. But Siddhart stopped them.
“My family usually believes whatever they get on WhatsApp regarding the virus,” he said. “It’s hard to explain to them that most of it is fake.”

China and WHO, a new story

China has carefully calibrated its rise in UN system. World, including India, must deal with consequences. One of the casualties of the US-China wrangling over the coronavirus is the World Health Organisation, which is supposed to be at the very heart of the global effort to cope with the pandemic. The WHO leadership, especially its Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has been accused of serving China’s interests rather than preparing the world against the spread of the virus.

The basis for these charges is the WHO’s endorsement of the Chinese claim in mid-January that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus, consistent support for Beijing’s handling of the crisis and criticism of other nations for imposing travel restrictions to and from China. Critics also believe the WHO lulled the world into complacence by delaying the decision on calling it a global emergency. Whatever the merits of these arguments, they point to the new geopolitics of multilateralism, disprove the assumptions in both the West and India on China’s role in the UN, and underline Beijing’s success in the leveraging of international organisations for its national advantage.

On the face of it, the sentiment that nations must work together against common trans-national threats is an eminently sensible one. But it does not easily translate into concrete actions. Take climate change. Attempts at developing collective solutions to the problem over the last three decades have foundered. Most leaders agree on the problem and the solutions; but are not willing to accept the framework — either the domestic or international — for distributing the costs associated with the solutions.

The problem of the cost-benefit distribution is compounded by great power rivalries. The coronavirus has shown up at a moment of deepening tensions between the US and China. The grave collective challenge that the virus constitutes has only sharpened the conflict. The US blames Beijing for letting this virus become a global monster and Beijing is doing all it can to deny that the virus came out of China.

That brings us to the WHO, which is caught in the crossfire. The charge that the WHO leadership might have become a “tool of Chinese propaganda” shows how dramatically the relationship between Beijing and the world body has transformed in recent years. Nearly two decades ago, during the SARS crisis, WHO was at the front and centre of pressing China to come clean on the unfolding pandemic. In 2003, it had issued the organisation’s first travel advisory ever on travel to and from the epicentre of the pandemic in southern China. As the SARS crisis escalated, Beijing’s traditional arguments about the centrality of state sovereignty yielded place to a new policy of working with the WHO and taking proactive steps to reassure neighbours in South East Asia.

Some attribute the turnaround in the relationship between Beijing and WHO to China’s growing financial contributions. Others suggest that China’s political support was crucial in the election of Tadros in 2017. Observers of the UN point to something more fundamental — a conscious and consequential Chinese effort to expand its clout in the multilateral system. China, which was admitted to the UN system in the 1970s, was focused on finding its way in the 1980s, cautiously raised its profile in the 1990s, took on some political initiatives at the turn of the millennium and seized the leadership in the last few years.

Neither the West nor India have been prepared to deal with the impact of China’s rise on the UN system. The US and its allies bet that China will be a “responsible stakeholder”. Put another way, they hoped that China will play by the rules set by the West. China, of course, wants to set its own rules. Only the political innocents will be shocked by China’s natural ambition. India, which considered US dominance over the international institutions in the 1990s as a major threat, chose to align with China in promoting a “multipolar world”. Delhi convinced itself that despite differences over the boundary, Pakistan and other issues, there is huge room for cooperation with China. To their chagrin, the West and India are being compelled to respond to a very different environment at the UN. China wants to replace America as the dominant force in the UN. The US is now fighting back. Last month, Washington went all out to defeat the Chinese candidate for the leadership of an obscure UN agency called the World Intellectual Property Organisation.

Delhi discovered that Chinese global hegemony could be a lot more problematic than American primacy. After all, it is China that complicates India’s plans for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, protects Pakistan against international pressures on cross-border terrorism, and relentlessly pushes the UN Security Council to take up the Kashmir question. India now turns to the US and its allies to pursue some of its interests in the UN.

Political ironies apart, if there is one lesson that India could learn from China’s experience with WHO and the UN, it is that multilateralism is not an end in itself for major powers. It is an important means to secure one’s national interest and shape the international environment. As a nation battered by the Cultural Revolution, China used international cooperation and global institutions to rebuild itself in the last decades of the 20th century. Having developed its economy and advanced its scientific and technological base, China is now ready to reorder global governance and become a rule-maker.

The effects are visible in the arena of global health. China’s expanding global engagement with the WHO, its substantive international health assistance programmes, and an impressive domestic health technology sector are poised to boost China’s ambition to build a “Global Silk Road for Health’.

On its part, Delhi needs to intensify the recalibration of India’s multilateralism, rewrite its diplomatic lexicon at the UN, and build new political coalitions that will simultaneously contribute to India’s internal modernisation and enhance its international influence. The corona crisis is a good moment to start writing a new script for India’s own health diplomacy.

A Covid War on the way we lived

 My parents’ generation was shaped by not only the privations of World War II but also the ethos of the freedom struggle. They were hardwired to be frugal and hard-working; they had an urge to save and a horror of wastage that included ensuring their kids finish every last morsel on their plates. Sharing and hand-me downs were a given, holidays were annual and family celebrations modest.

Before COVID-19 began its rampage, it could be said with certainty that “things are different now”. The gig economy is cool and spending not saving is the ruling sentiment; wastage is not an issueif at all, it’s only a matter of putting it in correct bins. Hand-me-downs in the era of ‘fast fashion’ is laughable, holidays are preferably abroad, several times a year. And celebrations? Bigger the better.

No matter how much a scowling Greta Thunberg has thundered at older people about saving the Earth, the fact is that those closer to her age than most world leaders and older folks have also done precious little to moderate their own lifestyles. No one has willingly slowed down, taken stock of their own lives and habits much less of our planet, and pondered whether their choices were sustainable.

And now COVID-19 has triggered nothing less than World War III. It didn’t need our Prime Minister to tell us this grim fact. And it’s an enemy about whom no one knows much, so all are vulnerable. But one thing is for sure, it has people all over the world running for cover, stocking up for an uncertain future, fearing for their loved ones and themselves. It has forced us to finally get real.

It has produced heroes. And it has also revealed idiots. Those who are willfully, gleefully thwarting COVID-19 combat efforts, shamelessly hoarding, taking no precaution to avoid infection and recklessly venturing into hotspots lured by cheap deals. In short, behaving with all the short-sighted callousness and selfishness that has marked the 21st century so far. What about the rest of this century?

With this sudden emptying of public spaces, shutdown of offices and workplaces, stalling of economic and commercial activity and forced isolation and solitude—due to fear of infection—there has also been astounding evidence of the Earth benefiting from mankind slowing down. There’s far less pollution in the air, aquatic life is reclaiming its space in waterways, there’s less noise, less tumult.

It should be a matter of shame that it has taken a pestilence of Biblical proportions to force us to realise that we need to rethink our priorities. At the very least, World War III should shape us just as the previous one did our forebears. Our enforced isolation gives us time to take stock of who we really are, what we really need and what we can do reconfigure our lives in a more meaningful, mindful way.

When a deadly enemy lurks, the earlier attraction and satisfaction of endlessly buying ‘stuff’ ebbs dramatically. What people are now bulk-buying in anticipation of Armageddon (and I don’t mean toilet paper rolls but rice, atta, dal, potatoes, onions, oil, salt and masalas) tells us what we really need to live; all the rest is actually optional, not necessary. It certainly gives a new perspective on life.

Hopefully this hiatus in our normal routines will make us realise that technology need not only keep us connected or hooked even while flying around the globe for unending meetings and presentations, but allow us to work from home. It can enable us not only to surf the net for tempting vacay deals but reach out in situ to our most distant loved ones, cut off now because of travel restrictions.

It remains to be seen whether World War III sees a resurgence of the spirit of sacrifice, compassion and cooperation—basic humanity—that characterised those who fought and survived World War II. Will we have the guts to work together to beat this new enemy setting aside all other differences as our forebears did? Or are we too soft, self-centred and unwilling to inconvenience ourselves?

The effect post-pandemic, changed human priorities can have on pollution, emissions and carbon footprints, on consumption, wastage and sustainability is manifest. It will also, obviously, cause an economic disruption and reconfiguration that would need careful management and mitigation. But that has to be joint effort between governments and peoples of all nations.

How we react to this crisis will determine whether we are or can be a caring society. After all while ‘social distancing’ has a different context in this pandemic, the fact is we have already been doing so for years even while living among 1.3 billion Indians. We had cut ourselves off from the real world, become inward-looking and concerned only with ourselves. It simply had to end sometime.

The PM spoke on Thursday about coming out on Sunday at 5pm to thank all those unknown people risking their lives to do their work during this escalating World War III. It is meant, obviously, as a step towards doing away with the sort of social distancing and disconnect that has blunted our humanity, even as we practice another kind of social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID19.

We can never really go back to the modest, frugal world that our parents lived in, but we can at least use this opportunity to gather up our moral and physical strength to reprioritise. Every restriction and every shutdown actually tells us what we can do without and how we can improve. The trajectory of the rest of the 21st century should be guided by the lessons of 2020’s World War III.

Your Freedom Is More Fragile Than You Think

I’m writing to you today from what is almost a fascist state. The government dominates the economy, having placed huge numbers of workers on the government payroll. Public gatherings are banned. We’ve been told that we’re not allowed out of our houses except on specific conditions. The entire country is under house arrest.

Even in Putin’s Russia and socialist Cuba people can visit the park if they want. But not in the UK.

The only thing missing is ultranationalism and the UK would be a textbook example of fascism.

Even supporters of this state of affairs acknowledge how extreme it is. Member of Parliament Steve Baker said in the House of Commons yesterday, “We are implementing at least a dystopian society.”

The events of the last few days have taught me a huge lesson about how fragile our fundamental rights are and how vulnerable we are to tyranny.

I never thought world would respond this way. Yes, European countries have imposed draconian lockdowns. But this is Britain; we’re different. Europe’s parliaments have a history measured in decades; ours can be measured in centuries. France’s towering historical political figures are Napoleon Bonaparte and Maximilien Robespierre.

The idea that we have sacred ancient liberties is tightly bound to our national identity. We fought wars and executed kings to defend these principles. We sing about how we will “never, never, never” give up these freedoms. We are a nation that values liberty more than life itself. At least, that’s what we told ourselves—until this week.

We are now a nation under house arrest—saved from being a police state only by a shortage of police.

Our common law is meant to make this impossible. We’re the nation of the Magna Carta, habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights.

Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634) is considered one of the foremost warriors to uphold these freedoms—fighting against the Stewart kings as they tried to override these ancient liberties. “The ancient and excellent laws of England are the birthright and the most ancient and best inheritance that the subjects of this realm have,” he said. As part of this birthright, Englishmen inherited common law—which include “common rights,” explained Coke. He believed that no king, Parliament or government could take these rights away.

“The common law will control acts of Parliament, and sometimes adjudge them utterly void; for when an act of Parliament is against common right and reason, or repugnant, or impossible to be performed, the common law will control it and adjudge such act to be void,” he said, in a legal ruling that has been echoed down through the centuries and even played a role in the American Revolution.

Coke went on to push for the “Petition of Right,” a constitutional document detailing four of an Englishman’s basic rights, which were violated by King Charles i. Winston Churchill spoke highly of this petition. “We reach here,” wrote Churchill, “amid much confusion, the main foundation of English freedom. The right of the executive government to imprison a man, high or low, for reasons of state was denied; and that denial, made good in painful struggles, constitutes the charter of every self-respecting man at any time in any land.”

Yet now the government seeks to imprison the entire nation in their homes for reasons of state. On Monday, March 23, the government decided that it has unlimited power, that an Englishman’s “common right” is now null and void.

“From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction: You must stay at home,” declared Prime Minister Boris Johnson on March 23. Must? There is nothing in common law or precedent that says a British subject needs his government’s permission to leave his own house. There are public footpaths in England older than Parliament. There is no basis in the English constitution for the government claiming this kind of power. I thought I lived in a country where a government’s power was restricted by law.

And it gets worse. The government is pushing an Enabling Act, a new law that gives the government vast new powers.

Spiked Online wrote that this new bill “gives the government and the authorities unprecedented new powers, unheard of in a democracy during peacetime.” Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said that it “leaves us with the greatest loss of liberty that we have probably ever had in this country on the back of one piece of legislation in peacetime.”

Authorities have massive powers of arbitrary arrest, an abuse of power we’ve been fighting since before the Magna Carta. Any “potentially” infectious person can be detained. Not a sick person. Not an actually infectious person. I think there is some justification for giving the state the power to enforce a quarantine and to stop sick people going out. But a “potentially infectious person” is such a loose term it could include anyone.

“There is no explanation as to how the authorities will determine whether someone is potentially infected,” wrote Carlo. “For all intents and purposes, it allows for arbitrary and indefinite detention. Any member of the public, including children, could be forcibly detained, isolated, quarantined in an as yet unidentified location.”

Laws on the books already exist that allow the authorities to declare an emergency and use emergency powers. The Civil Contingencies Act, for example, was written for exactly this kind of emergency. It allows the government to ban mass gatherings. It doesn’t need a new law to do that. The Civil Contingencies Act has more restrictions to prevent abuse: Protests and political gatherings, for example, are exempt from its provisions, so that no government can use its powers as an excuse to clamp down on free speech and political protests. The new Enabling Act contains no such protections.

It also weakens safeguards on government surveillance. UK law allows for a shocking amount of surveillance on British citizens. The new law means there’s little, if any, safeguards on how that is used.

“The potential for abuse is extreme,” wrote Carlo. “In countries like China, Iran, Israel and Russia, authorities are already tracking individuals’ phones to make sure that they comply with quarantines. … The extraordinary thing about this is, in the UK, we wouldn’t even know about it if the government was doing this because our surveillance powers are so extreme—they are completely covert and completely secret. If someone working at a telco like O2 or another network were to disclose that they were tracking us, that person could go to prison for a year.”

One of the saddest parts of  current situation is how little people care about it. Seventy-six percent strongly support the new measures, with 17 percent somewhat supporting them. Only 4 percent stand with  liberty and oppose them.

But look at what we get excited about. Thousands will shut down London to protest climate change. But ending our freedom? They won’t protest that—they applaud it.

The authoritarianism is being rationalized the same way authoritarianism is always rationalized: The ends justify the means. Yes, we’re taking away your freedom, but we’re doing it to save lives!

Never mind that coronavirus has killed substantially fewer people than an ordinary flu. The latest forecast from the doom-mongering Imperial College is that coronavirus is “unlikely” to kill more than 20,000 in the UK and “it could be substantially lower than that.” The common flu kills 17,000 a year. We gave up our freedom for something no worse than the flu.

And even if it were to kill much more, what about our ancestors who believed freedom was worth life itself. We clearly don’t believe that today.

Initially, the government “advised” people to stay home. But grabbing the power to enforce that is very different and very dangerous.

“If we are honest with ourselves, these powers are going to be here to stay. … Crisis follows crisis,” wrote Carlo. “The slippery slope might be an overused term, but it is very, very difficult to reverse the handing over of such extraordinary powers.”

My fear isn’t that we’ll be under house arrest for the rest of our lives. I don’t think the freedoms taken during this crisis will ever fully be restored, but some of them will. But it will be far easier for the government to take our freedom in the future.

We’ve already shown that we don’t really care. That we won’t fight to defend our freedom. Instead, many journalists are openly calling for more authoritarianism, begging the government to be more draconian.

A taboo has been broken, and politicians everywhere will learn the lesson that freedom is easy to take.

Look at how so many in authority have relished using these powers. You see the same thing in United States governors, glorying in their new role with absolute power within their state.

So many in the media and in politics want to get rid of all these legal and constitutional restraints on power. So when coronavirus gave them an opportunity to throw off the restraints, they seized it eagerly.

Already some are calling for the government to grab similar powers in other areas (e.g. to fight climate change).

Before Monday, British freedom was sacred. After Monday, it wasn’t. No matter how much of our freedom the government restores, that will not change.

Before Monday, the police protected liberty. After Monday, they threaten it.

Before Monday, freedom was our birthright. After Monday, it is something the government gives him and could take away.

I didn’t think we would ever willingly hand over our liberty like this. I thought the hundreds of years of tradition had force and weight. That any government would respect law and precedent enough that they would never do something like this. I was wrong, and I realize I’m guilty of making a mistake we warn about in our own literature. Look, that is just getting in the way. We don’t need that old law. We know what justice is. You can trust us!  That reasoning paves the way for tyrants!

But government tyranny is routine in human history. Let’s not be naive and think something like that could never happen here. Our forefathers weren’t stupid. They wanted to guarantee our freedom.

I’ve read that. I’ve agreed with it. But now I realize that I still took freedom for granted. The idea that tyranny could actually happen in free world wasn’t real to me.

There’s a lot of evil in this world. It is full of tigers waiting to tear somebody apart. It has always been that way. As Winston Churchill said, the history of man is the history of war. Yet somehow we can’t come to grips with that today. Are you willing to face reality? Most people are not. A haze of deception enshrouds our world. It’s absolutely stunning how easily the people in this land today are duped. I have to admit that I wasn’t facing reality. Again, I agreed with all of this intellectually. But there was still part of me that thought, It couldn’t happen here. Now my most basic freedoms have been stripped away. The same thing is happening in many U.S. states. Tyranny is a very real threat.

Britain’s government threw off all restrictions against tyranny this week. Several states in America are going the same way. In Europe, leaders are setting themselves up as strongmen and putting the armies on the streets. In Hungary, the government is pushing through an emergency law that gives the government dictatorial powers for an unlimited amount of time. Left-wing academic Gaspar Miklos Tamas accused the government of “using the epidemic as a pretext to introduce an open, structural dictatorship.

Freedom is fragile. And it is under attack. Perhaps, like me, the idea of freedom being taken away wasn’t real to you. But this is a real threat, and one you need to understand. There is a war against freedom, and it’s one you must understand. There is not much time left. That freedom can be taken more quickly than you realize.

Understanding this war won’t just help you understand what’s going on in the world, it will also give you a true source of hope.

It’s easy to get distressed, frustrated and angry about this attack on freedom. I’ve certainly experienced my share of all those emotions this week. But understanding the reality behind this attack also contains a sure hope—individually and for our nations.

If life gives you plague, make lemonade

When the bubonic plague hit Britain in 1348, it killed well over a third of the human population, but spared cattle. This meant a surplus of milk, and the only way to prevent it from being wasted was to make cheese.

Ned Palmer notes in ‘A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles’ that the records for the manor of Farnham show they “made the usual amount of cheese – one hundred and forty-two cheeses across the summer and twenty-six in winter. Cheesemakers are tough”. Keeping rats, which carried the fleas that spread plague, away from the cheeses might have helped.

Most of this cheese would have been consumed at home, but now, with fewer people to feed, it went to market. There it had to compete against the products of many other cheesemakers. Palmer details how this post-plague cheese glut led to different types of cheese, to stand out in the market, and the growth of a wider cheese trade.

Without knowledge of germs, people’s response to plague often focussed on what they ate. Because plague came from abroad, often by ship, many people stopped eating fish or imported spices [some initial responses with Covid-19, of avoiding Chinese restaurants, show how these attitudes persist].

Medical science then theorised, as Ayurveda does, that illnesses upset a body’s balance of elements. Plague seemed to increase heat and moistness, so should be treated with cold and dry things. “By far the ultimate cold and dry ingredient was vinegar,” write Jeni Mitchell and Stephane Henaut in ‘A Bite Sized History of France’.

Vinegar is a mild disinfectant, so this might actually have been useful [it is not recommended against Covid-19 though]. People then started infusing herbs they hoped would increase its medicinal properties. A story grew of how four thieves were found plundering homes of plague victims. When threatened with execution, they confessed their secret: To avoid getting plague themselves, they rubbed their bodies with this vinegar.

Even today people make ‘Four Thieves Vinegar’ by infusing “everything from garlic and camphor to rosemary, lavender, and sage”, write Mitchell and Henaut. Many health benefits are claimed for it, but it can also be used in marinades for meats.

Plague would sweep the world again many times, and during one outbreak in France in the 17th century, Paris was largely spared the impact. In his book ‘Food Fights and Culture Wars’, Tom Nealon speculates that this was linked to a Parisian craze for lemonade.

Citrus fruits had been rare in northern climates, but by the mid-17th century, were being grown and imported in bulk to cities that could afford them, like Paris. A 1651 cookbook has a recipe for lemonade and its popularity would have left lemon peels, which contain limonene, a proven flea killer.

Nealon points out that plague kills victims so fast that fleas must keep moving, so when rats encountered peels, “limonene disrupted the spread of fleas from rats to people”. Making lemonade certainly sounds like a good way to survive a pandemic.

Quantum theory of ideas: Where two seemingly separate opinions can behave as an inseparable whole

It is quite normal to believe that ‘cold’ is the opposite state of ‘hot’. But the state of coldness is merely the absence of heat. Similarly, darkness is the absence of light. Death is the absence of life. And foolishness is the absence of wisdom.

Many ideas can only be described by what they are not rather than by what they are. Dig a little deeper into Hindu philosophy and we find that rishis were in the same dilemna as us. They wanted to define what they intuitively knew as Brahman, the unchanging, permanent, highest reality. But how were they to explain something as vast and all-encompassing as that? The Upanishads thus described Brahman as neti, neti, neti. Neither this, not this, nor this.

These seers also spoke of two fundamental characteristics of the world: shunyata (or nothingness) and maya (or illusion). Amazingly, researchers in quantum physics are now finding that our world is characterised by empty space. At the atomic and subatomic levels there is no rigidity. What we call ‘matter’ consists of fuzzy waves that can manifest as particles and switch back just as quickly. Energy and matter are interchangeable. The solidity of our world is illusory. The world is indeed characterised by shunyata and maya.

The classical physics establishment found these blurry notions of quantum theory a little difficult to digest. Newtonian physics thought of the world as composed of distinct objects, much like tennis balls or stone blocks. In this model, the universe is a giant machine of interlocking parts in which every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. Unfortunately the Newtonian world breaks down at the subatomic level.

In the quantum world, everything seems to be an ocean of interconnected possibilities. Every particle is just a wave function and could be anywhere at anytime; it could even be at several places simultaneously. This hazy view of the world fits almost perfectly with what our sages said about Brahman: ‘It moves; it moves not; it is far; it is near; it is within this; it is outside this.’ In fact, many early quantum researchers such as Schrodinger, Heisenberg and Bohr had been exposed to Vedic philosophy.

For a moment though, let us turn from the quantum world to the universe of opinions and ideas. Does every idea need to have definition? Much like the wave-particle quantum world, isn’t it possible that ideas could be fuzzy, unpredictable and dynamic? Does every idea need to be absolutely right or absolutely wrong? Does it need to be tightly classified as right- or left-wing? Secular or communal? Capitalist or socialist? Liberal or conservative?

For example, Galileo was condemned by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1633 for his view that the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun. Today we take his theories as fact. The notion of monarchy (the hereditary right to rule sanctioned by divine power) remained the norm until the 20th century. In the 21st century most of the world discarded that idea. But even today, in countries like Saudi Arabia a hereditary monarch is the accepted norm. In this instance the same idea is treated differently across geography. As the two examples show, space and time seem to have a substantial effect on ideas.

It was Einstein who fused the three dimensions of space and one dimension of time into a single four-dimensional construct called spacetime. His relativity theory was the second great disruptor to the world of physics. In essence, an event that occurs at a given time for one observer could occur at a different time for another observer. When we look at the sun, we are actually looking at the sun as it had existed eight minutes ago because that’s the amount of time it takes light to travel from the sun to Earth. But couldn’t the relativity principle apply to ideas too?

Isn’t it possible that the entire framework by which we judge ideas, thoughts and opinions needs a revamp? Just like classical physicists were willing to accept that classical laws could not be applied at subatomic level, maybe today’s thinkers need to stop judging ideas by outdated constructs. If Einstein saw time as relative, couldn’t we look at ideas in a non-absolutist way. Isn’t it possible that two individuals may perceive the same idea differently? Isn’t it possible that the same individual may perceive a given idea differently over time? While we may hold our opinions dear to us, can’t we still view other opinions as equally legitimate?

And if a wave can behave as a particle and manifest spooky action over distance, why can’t one hold views that are seemingly opposed? One may want free markets yet state intervention; individual liberties yet social order; modern technology yet respect for tradition; democracy yet a strong state; or soft power yet strong armed forces. Why can’t one be rational yet revere one’s myths? Why can’t one believe in secularism while continuing to appreciate the Hindu ethos that allowed secularism to flourish? Why can’t one be Catholic yet gay? Why can’t one believe in Allah yet disregard the hijab? Why can’t one be Hindu without a caste? Why can’t one expect economic progress alongside environmental consciousness?

In recent times, physicists have discovered a phenomenon called quantum entanglement. In an entangled system, two seemingly separate particles can behave as an inseparable whole. Theoretically, if one separates the two entangled particles, one would find that their velocity of spin would be identical but in opposite directions. They are quantum twins. Maybe it’s time we looked at opposing ideas as quantum twins?

Expanding Hegemonic Tendencies

The coronavirus crisis has shown vividly that we live today in one world which is linked so closely that events in one place can have profound impacts elsewhere. Earlier, it was said that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. Today, bad culinary choices in one Chinese city can create severe indigestion globally.

These linkages are created by the increasing flows of seven elements that cross borders: goods, services, money, people, power, ideas and ecology. Globalisation refers to these increasing flows and the consequent homogeneity they create in economic, political, social, psychological and ecological domains. When flows increase so much across a piece of land, it becomes crucial to have governance structures across it to manage those flows to ensure the public welfare.

This is the process that was witnessed in Europe with the emergence of modern states. Increasing exchanges in a region led to the creation of a single governance structure where earlier there were many competing local powerful lords using raw power to determine outcomes. The emergence of modern states based on the democratic idea of social justice for all replaced the rule of raw power with the rule of law to increase public welfare.

However, despite increasing connectivity, global governance structures to manage it are not strengthening, but weakening. Today, the global picture resembles that of the pre-modern-state world where powerful lords decided common matters according to their whims. In today’s global landscape, we have powerful states behaving similarly. And ironically, it is not just autocratic regimes like Russia and China. It is democratic states like America that behave whimsically in the global arena and undermine world institutions to achieve their own narrow interests.

Globalisation has unfolded at the whims of the US.

Greater interconnectedness, driven by a global governance structure that prioritises public welfare, can be beneficial. But actual globalisation over the last few decades has unfolded at the whims of the US and its allies to largely benefit its rich elites. The global flow of goods and services was for long controlled by Western corporations. Ultimately, the World Trade Organisation was formed to provide a rule-based global trading system. But it soon became controlled by the US to serve its interests and ignore those of developing states. And when developing states like China and India slightly increased their power in it, the WTO was discarded by the US in favour of bilateral and regional treaties that largely benefit it. The global flows of money are also largely controlled by the US. Even aid flows from the World Bank and IMF to developing states are subservient to US interests.

The strong control the US has on mainstream and social media and entertainment industries means that the global flows of ideas also help in perpetuating its cultural hegemony. In contrast to these four types of global flows, the flow of people to the US and other Western states is increasingly restricted. This makes the patterns of globalisation related to these five flows beneficial mainly to rich states. This situation in turn is underpinned by the global flows of American power, based on military and economic might.

But there are always limits to the powers of even the most powerful despot and the same is true for the US. While it is able to control the flows mentioned to serve its own interests, the wild cards are ecological flows, which it cannot control fully. In recent decades, these have included two flows which are creating enormous risks not only for developing states but also the US and other developed states. The first consists of flows of gases that cause ozone layer depletion and climate change. The second consists of biological flows that cause pandemics, such as the coronavirus. The first flows are mainly caused by rich states. China is rivalling them in this, but much of even its polluting manufacturing serves Western consumption and is produced by Western capital.

Such globalisation is creating high inequality, conflicts, diseases, nuclear war concerns and environmental pressures, pushing the world towards major catastrophes. One hopes the huge impact of the virus will push the world towards strengthening global governance. Yet an economically declining and xenophobic US is obstructing global cooperation and encouraging hyper-nationalism. Thus, the coronavirus impact may actually strengthen these urges. China is trying to fill the leadership gap. But a world dominated by autocratic China would be even worse than one dominated by the US, which is at least internally democratic. What is needed now is not another global hegemon but democratic global governance. The king is dead; long live democracy.

Killing softly with Tagore's song

Natural calamities (the best way to address it), have started coming un-announced. Before further comment, 10,000 passed away, and 1,00,000 at risk. The numbers have been dangerously predicted to escalate. Masks are short of supply, hand sanitizers from overnight manufactures alone are available, and as for soaps, the more potent clothes-washing ones may not be medically excluded.

Locked down for 21 days, Quarantine for 14 days, social distancing, outdoor eateries shut, travel bans, trains on the halt, transport running 50% capacity, and many more are in the long list of advisory. It only shows that not much is known of the “hows” and ‘what”, and it is stupid to imagine about the “cure”. Prevention is the word.

Speculations are rife, as is it Nature’s curse, surreptitious biological weapon gone awry. Pleading that these are just speculations, let some stories be glossed through.

The first case was reported from Wuhan in China, that hosts the “Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory”. It is internationally recognized, and certified as “Cellular Levels Bio-safety 4”. That means, although virus research is carried out, strict possible precautions are taken in collecting tissue, isolation, segregation, and culture. The bio-material through with the testing is destroyed to ash, and any retained, compulsorily comes on records. No more to it than a speculation.

Such happened with Ebola and SAARS. The world got together, preventive drugs and vaccines were discovered, and the world is peaceful at that front.

The story started with a man reporting with a “strange” illness, and died five days later. As the fatal symptoms are respiratory, and later multi-organ failure, technically, the medical terminology allotted was, “The acute respiratory syndrome, coronavirus 2 “as the viral symptoms were akin to SAARS. The WHO, in its wisdom, named it COVID-19, to avoid panic, and needless revival of memories of those that are prone to panic.

That Italy should cross China in mortality, and Spain be close to it, should give some clues to global epidemiologists. If, for instance sea-food was a possible source, considering Chinese varieties (and an innocent imbibed the infection, unawares), the Mediterranean is a different, semitropical sea. The Italians are flamboyant as such, and rather un-inhibited to different foods. Did they unawares switch to ocean and other sea food? All I know is that the Italian football team has a full meal of “pasta” for dinner, before a match. Starch is a ready source of energy!

The Spanish are not much different in culture, but being the later power that discovered the promised land, compared to Caesar’s Rome, feel more up to times, which actually does not concern economy so much as the supremacy of Real Madrid and Barcelona!

India, took the right steps, particularly a harmless public curfew on a Sunday. It has a well worked scientific tactic. Since the adjusted, extended lifetime of the virus is 14 days (given the 14, day period of quarantine), it may to an extent lead to a break in the transmission, and lessen the incidence.

At the moment, there is another pointer. Though publicity augurs celebrity reporting, still the reporting of virus incidence in the elite, is particularly notable. Do seven-star restaurants, have exceptional sea-food preparations that are whispered to the waiter, but not officially on the menu? Tom Hanks, the first couple of Canada, Indian celebrity singers.

My recollections tell me that this is an age-old tradition “to eat what is rare, even inedible”. An excerpt from an Aldous Huxley story, where as a young struggling author, he takes his lady friend to an elite restaurant to feign his material worth. She, even before picking up the menu, orders for “caviar”. Only Huxley can describe how he excuses himself to go to the rest room to pull out his pockets to measure the total cash! The rest of the dinner, he probably asks for soda, on the pretext of an upset (mind) and stomach!

This is Easter time, fasting for the followers of Christ. I am reminded of Noah, but the question is, will it come to quarantining the survivors? Also, “Passover” close by, and though with apologies for uninitiated understanding, I believe it is close to the times which God perpetrates, which one should just let “Passover”. I again plead apology in trying to interpret a great faith.

Just got an e-mail from a Prof in Puri. The annual Rath Yatra, is all about shifting Lord Jagannath to two places, including his aunt’s as he falls sick due to over-eating. If you remove the two days he is given a bath, which makes him ill, the total quarantine period of his going out of his palace, is 14 days!

Coming to steps taken by the Indian government, I believe they are about to catch protective speed, considering the world’s largest population.

Medical personnel and paramedical staff, are caring as a part of the culture in the subcontinent. Private, well attested companies can be given a tax rebate in preparing masks, and the petroleum sector can make more sanitizers available.

Urgent need of air proof canvas tents, hat can be set-up close to hospitals, even district centres, to set up quarantine wards.

The job lay-off, should get a minimum stipend contributed by the employer and the government!

Like many adversities, this one is going to reset our cultural habits, un-necessary customs. Will robots, AI, and digital communication take a larger share of our lives!

“jab tor daak shune keu na aashe…..
.tabe pathera kaanta teri, raktamaakha,
                    Charantale,

ekta chalo re’     Guru Tagore

(If they answer not your call………,
Then trample the thorn under thy tread,
And along the blood lined track,
Travel alone”

Conspiracies, Superstitions and pandemics

Pandemics test not only the immunity and mental strength of human beings, but also their power of imagination. Conspiracy theories and prophecies spread just as fast as pandemics and work in multiple ways, from heightening the fear of death to inspiring spiritual healing of human souls.

The quality of imagination or dreaming, however, depends on the self-belief of individuals and the consciousness of societies. Several videos and messages full of prophecies of pirs and clerics are circulating on social media in which they prescribe a wide range of protective measures against Covid-19. In one such video, a person recommends the soup of the inner layers of a pigeon’s stomach for those infected, while in another eating the dust in a shrine is prescribed.

But there is a difference between the motivations of the superstitious and the faithful even though their actions may be interpreted as similar by many. Some leading religious scholars are recommending offering prayers to seek divine help against the pandemic. Indeed, religion plays an important role in the lives of people in our country who use it to extract spiritual support to overcome fears. Some other religious scholars are advising people to take proper precautionary measures while also praying to God, which strengthens their faith and develops spiritual immunity. However, there are others who see such pandemics as divine punishment to curse others (they also believe that they have divine protection against all epidemics). There are dozens of videos making the rounds on social media cursing ‘infidels’, including China and the West, and advising the ‘faithful’ to not adopt any precautions as advised by experts. Interestingly, a former chief minister of Sindh also appeared in a video cursing China and the West.

Social scientists have recorded evidence that natural disasters develop empathy among humans. But pandemics affect the normal bonds of human affection and social distancing becomes a virtue. Pandemics force people to make difficult decisions to save themselves and others, but a sense of shame or guilt grows as the human consciousness tries to address the situation in multiple ways. Religion addresses one aspect of this situation and inspires people to develop a different approach to interaction and affection.

The stories coming from Wuhan — the Chinese city where the coronavirus outbreak originated but now has successfully been overcome — reveal how the citizens responded to the fear of pandemics. Their collective response greatly contributed towards defending themselves and each other against the deadly virus. The stories and videos of the victims and those quarantined circulating on social media were more about hope where people’s minds appeared set on thinking about life and future. A few websites dealing with psychology and spirituality are collecting such stories. A woman from Wuhan has shared the story of her 50-day-long quarantine on a website in which she explains how her family experienced new dimensions of life, empathy, compassion for neighbours, ­environment and animals.

However, individuals have varying tendencies of superstitious beliefs and sentiments that also nurture conspiracy theories. Every day, dozens of conspiracy theories surface about the virus. Keeping aside President Donald Trump’s insistence on labelling the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and Chinese suspicions that it was US ­soldiers who brought the virus into Wuhan, many conspiracy theories also hint at the involvement of aliens who wanted to create rifts among humans and destroy the Earth. Scientists of course insist that diseases have no agency and bacteria and viruses spread blindly. The Telegraph recently quoted a published study explaining that the ­coronavirus has evolved naturally and is not a ­laboratory construct.

But how many believe in scientific theories, especially in such critical times when minds are disturbed and need healing, is anyone’s guess. Many are also referring to some fictional works as proof of a well-designed and structural plot behind the pandemic. A novel The Eyes of Darkness by an American author Dean Koontz is very popular among such believers, who claims he had predicted the outbreak of coronavirus in 1981 with his reference to a killer virus called Wuhan-400. The wilderness of our imagination may provide some relief to us but sometimes it also diverts our attention from reality.

A similar situation has forced a famous screen writer and novelist Lawrence Wright to come up with a disclaimer before the publication of his new novel The End of October, saying it is a work of fiction. The novel, which has been constructed around a pandemic, may have quite a few similarities with the current global epidemic.

His article reminds me of a Facebook post mentioning a short story by one of the greatest fiction writers of the subcontinent, Rajinder Singh Bedi. The story is about a doctor and a sanitary worker. The doctor treats those quarantined and describes how the fear of quarantine was killing just as many as the disease itself. The sanitary worker named Bhago collects dead bodies and lines the streets with chalk to curb the spread of infection. He ends up saving one patient — who falls unconscious out of fear and is considered dead in the pile of bodies being burnt. Though Bhago badly burns his own arm in trying to save the man, the patient still dies a painful death. A few days later, Bhago’s own wife also dies of the plague because the doctor refuses to treat her in time. The story depicts the inner struggle of both characters. The doctor serves half-heartedly and is fearful of catching the plague. But Bhago, despite his wife’s death, is ­completely devoted to his work. When the ­pandemic ends, the municipality and citizens reward the doctor for his service. When he reaches home, he meets Bhago who has come to congratulate him. The doctor feels deep shame at his earlier behaviour. The pandemic is indeed a test of the self and our collective character.

Will Coronavirus Kill the Global Economy?

The final death toll of coronavirus is unknown. But it’s already clear it will have a massive economic toll. The globe has essentially shut down. Travel has ceased. Restaurants, cinemas, amusement parks—anywhere people gather in public—are closed. Retail sales are plummeting as no one ventures out.

With no money coming in, firms are at risk of going bust. Millions of people could soon be unemployed.

Into the breach steps government. Every major government has unveiled a massive spending plan. Right now, the United States government is working on a $2 trillion spending package. The United Kingdom has unveiled a $413 billion plan. That’s over 40 percent of typical annual government spending—all poured out on just one crisis.

This response could make a real difference in people’s lives and stop a lot of the immediate economic pain this virus could cause. But it could also fatally damage our economies, preparing the way for a future collapse.

Government, Help Us!

In past crises, people looked to their own resources. It wouldn’t have even occurred to Britons or Americans 100 years ago to expect the government to save them.

But now we’re used to the government taking care of us. They pay us when we’re unemployed, provide our health care, and bail out banks to keep the economy afloat.

In return, we pay heavy taxes. In the United Kingdom, over 40 percent of the national income goes to taxation. In the United States, it’s 30 percent. All that taxation makes it hard to save up for a rainy day—and makes us feel entitled to government handouts when our livelihoods are threatened.

In many cases governments are the ones forcing people to stay home. If the governments are destroying our livelihoods, it seems only fair that they help rebuild them.

The trouble is, our governments—even with their colossal levels of income—cannot afford to provide those handouts.

To survive the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S., UK and many other governments borrowed heavily. Prior to that, America’s national debt was 65 percent of its annual economic output. By 2011, it had jumped to 95 percent as it buoyed its economy by borrowing at the fastest rate since World War ii. Since then, instead of paying the debt off, America has continued to borrow. U.S. debt is now about 105 percent of its gross domestic product.

Harvard economics professors Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have concluded that any debt above 90 percent of annual economic output is dangerous.

The unprecedented response to the 2008 crisis broke more than the budget. It also broke a major taboo. Major government intervention became expected in any economic crisis. Imagine the public outcry if, when the coronavirus crisis hit, the government refused to help: You spent trillions bailing out the banks, what about ordinary Americans? You’ll help rich bankers, but not us?! With its extravagant response in 2008, the government effectively committed itself to similar measures in any subsequent crisis.

And that is exactly what it is doing in response to the coronavirus. America’s $2 trillion bailout package will have to be financed by debt; it alone will add another 5 percent to the national debt. By the time this ends, the U.S. will have taken a giant leap toward equaling its highest-ever level of debt: 121.7 percent, reached during World War ii.

The U.S. is talking about giving $1,000 a month to every adult. Japan is considering a smaller amount of $100 per citizen.

But borrowing will not be enough to meet these crises. If America borrows too much, creditors could become worried about the government’s ability to repay the debt. That fear could destroy the economy. So the government is looking at another source of income: the printing press.

Printing to the Rescue

The 2008 financial crisis began a great experiment with a new tool for central banks: quantitative easing. With this tool, central banks create money from nothing.

There is, rightly, a huge taboo on governments printing money and spending it. This type of money printing can be catastrophic, leading to hyperinflation that renders a currency basically worthless.

So central banks trod carefully on their quantitative easing experiment. They didn’t hand the newly created money directly to the government; instead, it bought government debt and other assets from banks. And central banks pledged to “wind down” this printing in the future: to sell the government bonds they had bought and then destroy the money they had created.

Twelve years later, it looks like the quantitative easing experiment worked. The extra money kept the financial system going. The central banks bought up government debt and kept interest rates on that debt at record lows, enabling governments to spend record amounts. But most central banks have destroyed only a fraction of the new money they had created. Yet the sky hasn’t fallen in. You don’t have to bring your money in a wheelbarrow to buy a loaf of bread.

So in reaction to the coronavirus, central banks are running the printing presses faster than ever.

The U.S. Federal Reserve announced today unlimited quantitative easing. After the 2008 crisis, the Fed has never done anything like this; instead, it announced quantitative easing within a huge, though specified, limit. The first round, from December 2008 to March 2010, for example, was capped at $1.5 trillion.

Previously the Fed also announced that it would inject $1.5 trillion into the repo market, essentially where banks go to get cash. “It is effectively underwriting U.S. Treasury bonds and ‘printing’ money for direct fiscal measures,” wrote the Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. The Bank of England also announced $236 billion in quantitative easing.

The central banks may also drop many more of the restrictions that were placed on quantitative easing in 2008. The thinking is: It worked, they got away with it, and so less caution is required this time.

Even right-wing economists are now talking about “helicopter money”—creating money using quantitative easing and more or less raining it down from the sky on ordinary citizens. We created money and gave it to the banks in 2008, the thinking goes, so why not create the money and give it to ordinary people?

“[W]e are certainly going to see some form of ‘helicopter money,’ the mechanism by which the state, via the central bank, simply prints money and hands it out to people,” wrote finance journalist Matthew Lyn in the Spectator.

“The next logical step in the chain of unconventional monetary policy is helicopter money and that is a direct liquidity injection into the heart of the real economy,” said Neil MacKinnon of VTBCapital.

These are just two of a great number of similar statements. Helicopter money used to be a fringe idea, something only crazies or socialists talked about. Now, your freshly printed money may reach you before our next Trumpet issue does.

Embracing Socialism

The response to coronavirus has led even people on the right to embrace socialism. “Boris Must Embrace Socialism Immediately to Save the Liberal Free Market,” blared a headline in the usually right-wing Telegraph. “Coronavirus Panic Buying Is Turning Tories Into Socialists,” declared the Spectator.

On March 20, the British government unveiled a radical new program that turns most Brits into government employees. If people are unable to work due to coronavirus, the government will pay 80 percent of their wages—up to a cap of £2,500 (us$2,900) a month.

In making this commitment, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak admitted that he had no idea what it would cost. “It is the most extensive intervention in the economy ever made by a supposedly free-market government anywhere in the world,” wrote the Spectator. “In effect, we will all soon be working for the government.”

The massive increase in spending globally is pushing all countries in the direction of socialism. Companies of all sizes are banging on the U.S. government’s door asking for a bailout. Government money could soon be flowing into more sectors of the U.S. economy than ever before.

The trouble is, it’s very hard to reverse on the road to socialism. With each new government intervention, voters expect more from their governments the next time. Once they receive handouts, they expect to keep receiving them. Anyone who tries to roll back the clock is taking something of theirs away. And once a government takes power over something, the bureaucracy and politicians are very reluctant to give it back.

“When the UK economy last went onto a war footing in 1939, we didn’t really shake it off until Mrs. Thatcher’s reforms of the 1980s,” wrote the Spectator. “It might take just as long this time. [I]t is a huge gamble—and it will be easier to start this rescue than to stop it.”

Even if we succeed and take a step back from socialism, what happens when the next crisis hits? The 2008 crisis broke taboos, but 2020 has smashed them beyond all repair. Once again, there will be massive borrowing. Once again, the printing presses will be fired up—with even fewer rules than before. How long before government finances, the currency and our whole economic system collapses entirely?

We’re not just on the road to socialism, but to economic ruin.

Preparing for Armageddon

This unprecedented response may stave off an immediate crisis, as it did in 2008, but what next? We never managed to pay off the debt or destroy the newly created money from that crisis. We may stave off the crisis for now, but we are setting ourselves up for catastrophe.

Britain, America and our whole financial system are in a tough position. Refusing to take these kinds of measures would mean a lot of immediate pain for a lot of people. But adopting them simply pushes the pain into the future, and guarantees that when it hits, it will be worse.

The problem isn’t the bailout. This isn’t about one bad decision destroying everything. It’s the whole system. We have built an entire economic system on a foundation of debt. The government manages the economy by encouraging people to borrow. When a crisis hits, it lowers interest rates, so people borrow more and spend more. With little savings, people cannot look after themselves in times of crisis and have to turn to the government. But the government can’t help without borrowing more. It’s a cycle that builds up more and more debt.

In the long run, it is unsustainable. Step by step, choice by choice, we are creating conditions that are guaranteed to produce an unprecedented, world-altering crash.

Beware of quacks!

I’m taking Covid-19 seriously, and doing all I can in terms of social distancing, personal hygiene and so on. People tend to underestimate the nature of exponential growth, and I worry that many of my fellow countrymen are still too complacent. But there is an ongoing epidemic I worry about just as much as Covid-19 — it is the epidemic of ignorance that causes people to believe in alternative medicine.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen all kinds of dubious assertions about Covid-19. Homoeopaths and Ayurvedic practitioners have suggested medications, bovine urine has been offered as a prophylactic, groups of people have chanted ‘Go Corona Go’ to the supposedly obedient virus, and there is even a suggestion that clapping hands drives bacteria away. These alleged remedies, and the belief systems they are based on, are wrong. They are also dangerous, which is why it is necessary to fight them with the same commitment with which we need to fight literal viruses.

To begin with, I have a visceral objection to the term ‘alternative medicine’. Most of the quackery we put in that category is not medicine at all. There are only two kinds of treatment: those that work, and those that don’t. Real medicine on one hand — and quackery on the other. The term ‘alternative medicine’ dignifies quackery, and implies an equivalence that does not exist.

And here you say, but so much of what I call quackery seems to work. Why so? Let me offer two reasons. The first, as is commonly known, is the placebo effect. Basically, merely believing that a medicine will work can sometimes make the patient better. A classic example of this comes from World War II, when Henry Beecher, an American anaesthetist, ran out of morphine and was forced to use salt water instead for an operation. The patient did not know this, and the salt water worked. Or rather, the placebo effect worked.

For this reason, when scientific trials are carried out to determine whether a medicine works or not, the standard is not whether the patients get better. Instead, the medicine being tested has to perform better than placebo. This is done through what is called a double-blind placebo-controlled test. Patients are divided into two groups, one of which is given a placebo and the other is given the medication being tested. Neither the patients nor the doctors know which is which. If the medication outperforms the placebo, we know it works. No homoeopathic medicine has ever passed such a test.

A second reason why quackery seems to work is regression to the mean. Many illnesses, like the common cold and some migraines, function in a cycle and get better on their own. Patients often ascribe credit for this to the medication they took. This is especially likely if they already believe in it, in which case the confirmation bias kicks in – the tendency to see only evidence that confirms our biases.

But homoeopathy is harmless, right? Only sugar pills? So what is the problem? There are two problems with using alternative medicines. One, what economists would call the opportunity cost: you are not using medicine that actually works, and that could kill the patient. A famous example of this is the Australian couple who insisted on treating their daughter’s eczema with homoeopathy. The girl died, and the parents were correctly convicted of manslaughter.

Two, people who believe in such treatments can become complacent about the danger they are facing. Watch the viral video of those gentlemen chanting ‘Go Corona Go’, and it is clear that they are standing too close to one another. My favourite app TikTok is full of videos from people claiming that religion, the oldest form of fake news, will protect them. These false beliefs are dangerous not just to them but to others around them as well.

Even when the horrors of Covid-19 are behind us, this epidemic of ignorance will continue to take lives. This is especially when the Indian state itself spends taxes coerced from us on this nonsense — the ministry of AYUSH should be abolished. It is not just believers at risk, but those around them.

What can you do about it, you ask? Well, first, be a sceptic. Examine every assertion, read up on any subject on which you have an opinion. Two great books I recommend on this subject are ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre and ‘Trick or Treatment’ by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. Fact-checking websites also do a great job of debunking nonsense. Use them to correct those pesky uncles in your WhatsApp groups and housing societies. It is your civic duty to speak up.

Switzerland as utopia

As people living in Switzerland, we were taken aback by the opinion piece of Economist Ruchir Sharma, who recently described Switzerland as a „paradise“. Sharma, working as an Investment Banker at Morgan Stanley in New York City, advised to the global liberal left to admire Switzerland instead of Scandinavia. He praised the competitiveness and the steady growth of the Swiss economy and concludes that the base of this success was a combination of a business-friendly environment and social equality. First, his analysis is flawed. And second, this is good advice only if one believes in building wealth on the back of the global poor. 

Let us start with getting one major number right. Sharma claims that the “typical swiss family has a net worth around 5.4 lakh USD”. Using the average net worth to describe a “typical” family is highly misleading because Switzerland is not at all as equal as Sharma seems to believe. Nearly 25% of Swiss inhabitants report zero wealth, 55% have a net worth between 0 and 50’000 USD, nearly 75% between 0 and 2 lakh USD. A typical Swiss inhabitant, therefore, has a net worth of around 50’000 USD. While income equality is indeed slightly better than the European average, the wealth inequality is globally among the worst with a Gini index of 0.86 – and it is increasing.

The 300 richest people of Switzerland own 70’200 crore USD. This is nearly three times the GDP of Bangladesh. Last year, these 300 people earned 270 crore – just as much as the bottom 55% own together. They now own 234 crores per capita, more than ever before. Even if there is hardly any severe poverty in Switzerland (nor Scandinavia, for that matter), the poverty rate in Switzerland is increasing steadily. One out of 12 Persons in Switzerland lives below the poverty line and cannot participate in this seemingly equal capitalist paradise of Sharma’s. Mostly this concerns women and foreigners – and here we do not even begin to talk about the 0.9-2.5 lakh undocumented people living in Switzerland. 

Switzerland, according to Sharma, is “worldly to the extreme” and he states that the country’s immigration rates are among the highest in the developed world. About half of the Swiss population are foreigners and Sharma asserts that nearly half of them were non-European. Official numbers, however, state that 80% come from European countries – almost half of the latter from France, Germany, Italy and Portugal. Because Switzerland has a tough system of naturalization, about one fifth of the population considered foreign is born in Switzerland but did not get citizenship, sometimes even in the third generation. Also considering recent political developments, it is hard to understand Sharma’s assessment of “worldly to the extreme”. As an example, in 2014 Swiss voters have accepted a xenophobic popular initiative called “Against Mass Immigration”. The party behind this initiative was the anti-immigrant and right-wing Swiss People’s Party, that is the biggest one in the country. And, as another example, Switzerland continues to ignore its own National Commission for the Prevention of Torture and keeps incarcerating minor refugees in “administrative detention” in order to expel them.

Sharma claims that Switzerland is among the happiest countries in the world according to the World Happiness Report – it shares the top 7 places with the Scandinavian countries. One of the factors is the comparably high social security system or access to health care. In this line, Sharma rightly praises Switzerland’s public education that does not force students into such high educational debts. This is made possible by public money. At the same time though and in a contradiction typical for neoliberal economists, he praises the low government spending ratio. 

This leads to the second point. Switzerland’s enormous wealth is mainly built on resources of others. Sharma correctly describes improvements in the tax transparency of Swiss banks. India for example now has an automatic exchange of information with Switzerland on Indian citizens’ money stored in Swiss banks, making it easier to stop tax evasion. But many countries still do not have such automatic exchange of information. Therefore, these improvements should not divert from the fact that Switzerland is still by far the biggest offshore financial centre for very rich people from all around the world. From the 720 crore USD lying in Swiss bank accounts, around 350 crores are from abroad. For a big share of these crores, still only the banks themselves know where this money comes from. This is particularly true for poor countries whose public sector would need this money urgently.

Sharma writes that Switzerland has a very successful industry and is home to many companies. The doubt here lies in the reasons for this. While Sharma assumes that this is due to Switzerland’s favourable overall conditions, the favourable tax regime might play a bigger role. Economists around the Californian professor Gabriel Zucman lately calculated that 28% of the Swiss tax revenues from corporations come from profits made elsewhere and being channeled into Switzerland. While Switzerland gains around 600 crore USD in tax out of corporate profits, the rest of the world loses around 7200 crore USD due the various methods of dumping taxes, profit shifting or transfer pricing manipulations and so on. This is more than the GDP of a country like Kenya with over 5 crore inhabitants – a lot compared to Switzerland’s 85 lakh people.

Switzerland has one of the most globalized economies in the world. Trying to measure its success without considering the basis of the wealth outside Switzerland necessarily leads to a flawed analysis. Such an analysis will feed the popular myth of Switzerland as a blessed country, independent and self-ruled by proud citizens, inhabiting an arcadia of mountains, rivers and lakes, pristine of the troubled world around it. It is this myth, misconceiving the realities of global exploitation, that the right-wing parties are cultivating carefully to strengthen their aggressively neoliberal and racist politics. 

Facing the Dilemma of Pandemic Induced loneliness

Social distancing may help us slow the spread of COVID-19, but such isolation can exact a hefty toll on our emotional and physical health. Loneliness can be just as taxing on our health as smoking, and it is a stronger predictor of mortality than obesity. Thankfully, even during these challenging times, there are plenty of things we can do to keep such feelings at bay. My recipe: Get exercise if you can, pick up the phone and call a friend or family member, give meditation a try and do what you can to help others.

Loneliness, we know from the research, can be as bad for your health as smoking. It’s more predictive of mortality than obesity.

And loneliness itself was a pandemic long before covid-19 got its name. (Between 1990 and 2010, there was a threefold increase in the number of Americans who said they had no one in whom they could confide. So canceling church, school, work and sports means we are doing something that can be hazardous to our health — in order to save lives.

It sounds like a trap. But it’s more like a balancing act — a seesaw we all have to ride now. You can alter one side and stay in balance, but only if you change what’s on the other. Today, we have been made to force-quit most of our activities and sent into isolation. No exceptions. Fewer distractions.

In this time, let us look at how to take stock of our Inner Self and work out a way of being that brings us our happiness every day. Not at another date or time or place, but here, in the thick of our lives, replete with chores on our to-do lists!

Let us, therefore, get a crash course in Self-Exploration.

We are not taught how to identify what exactly is our Inner Self? Or what our core is? Or who we are authentically? Or what makes our soul sing? This is because there is confusion on how to navigate these questions, if at all, and even though they impact every sphere of our life, we get to these questions, if we do, late in life, almost when we get to a point where we desire to re-boot.

Simply put, when we feel nourished in our own selves and do not need the validation of society or spouse or peer or anyone outside of us, then we have discovered a version of us that is safe, secure and stable. We have found our Inner Self. This leads further inward to planes of consciousness where we eliminate more and more of the things and emotions and attachments considered necessary. I will dwell on a first and basic level of this self-discovery journey and urge you all to answer one question only:

Are you completely happy right now?

In order to answer that question honestly you have to dive into the core of you and find that rawest form of you that has always been there, somewhere, buried by time, our own fears, conditionings and insecurities. You have to do that by analyzing the ways in which you reprimand yourself or talk down to yourself and also look at the areas in which you have the highest turmoil in your life. That is the area that presents to you clearly how you have overridden your truest identity due to parental, social or any other conditioning. Looking at these areas of conflict you will see the parts of you that you feel are defective or weak and those are the traits about yourself you dislike.

In being so overzealous in correcting those and achieving the best version of us, sometimes, we focus on how much we are disappointed, either in ourselves or others, for not providing us with the things we have always wanted – love, attention, courage, time, conversation, companionship, money. The end result of this is that after perfecting the art of distancing ourselves from our own self – the answer to “How can I be happier?” lies in the way we can identify how in wanting it we inadvertently didn’t know how to provide us with it ourselves, and hence, now we need to re-connect with it.

So, no matter how organic it was, we distanced from us and now to be authentic and find that core of us that always was, our journey of self-exploration involves, connecting with our original self. Understanding our motivations, our weaknesses as well as our strengths. Loving all of our own self and every bit of defect to feel the power of the true, raw, original, unapologetic self. When we can connect to our fears and insecurities and walk in kind acceptance and approval of all those, using them to re-align our script and connection with the Universal Energy, then, we feel at home in our own self.

If we find that doing this is hard, connecting with our defects or weakness is difficult, then we need to work on developing the safety of the belief that we are safe and looked after in our Universal Energy System. That there is a Supreme Energy Force that we are connected to that knows the core of us and supports that core and every tiny defect is made whole and right and it is this faith and beauty and love that we need to reflect and feel too. For we are only as good as our last thought and if that thought is of fear and trepidation and stress and worry then that is our reality.

We need to let the shower of that energy cleanse us and spur us. It is the axis that connects us to our whole and we have to recognize and see that and revel and dance and sing in that. In the middle of our life, here and now.

When we can connect with this energy and feel the beauty of our weakness in the way this energy does, then we have connected to our inner most core that resonates with sheer bliss and happiness and answers resoundingly, “Yes I am happy now!”

It is a connection that is ours for the taking.

It is ours and when we have asked to be connected, so shall we be and all of the energy of all of this universe will light up our way and show us how to walk and where to go and what to do and who we are and all of our questions will be answered and then we would have journeyed our own true self, during this isolation, sitting on our sofa in our living room.

We’ve heard a lot about what not to do. Now it’s time to talk about what we can do. “Look, I wash my hands a lot,” says Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “But if that’s all people are told to do, it only takes you so far.” There are at least four specific activities that can help compensate for all the things we are not doing, according to the research and my conversations with disaster experts, psychologists and epidemiologists.

Loneliness creates a kind of toxic chain reaction in our body: It produces stress, and the chronic release of stress hormones suppresses our immune response and triggers inflammation. And the elderly, who are most at-risk of dying from covid-19, are more likely to say they are lonely.

Fear also causes the release of stress hormones. And a pandemic involves massive amounts of uncertainty: by definition, the kind that won’t go away quickly. That kind of ongoing stress is hard for anyone to handle.

So what is the antidote? First, anyone who can exercise should do more of it now, every day. Physical exercise reduces stress and boosts immune functioning. “Outdoor activities are good. Going for a walk, riding a bike, those are all great,” says Caitlin M. Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins. You can even do this with a friend, assuming you both feel healthy and are not in high-risk groups (and assuming you stay six feet apart in places such as San Francisco, where public health officials have so ordered). “Our overall goal is to reduce the number of contacts we have with other people, but you have to strike a balance.” And there’s never been an easier time to exercise without going outside or to the gym.

Second, social closening. (Yes, that’s a word, it turns out.) Relationships are as good for the immune system as exercise. In a meta-analysis of 148 studies that followed more than 300,000 people for an average of eight years, researchers found that positive social relationships gave people a 50 percent greater chance of surviving over time compared with people with weak social ties. This connectedness had a bigger impact on mortality than quitting smoking.

To keep your relationships active, the phone is your lifeline. I’ve set a personal goal to talk (actually talk, not text) with one or two friends, elderly neighbors or family members by phone every day until this pandemic ends.

The one upside of every disaster I’ve covered over the past two decades is that people feel a strong impulse to come together and help each other. So far, I’ve seen that same tendency play out among friends and neighbors, despite social distancing, and we all have to work to keep that going. The coronavirus gives us an excuse to check in with each other

The third antidote is mindfulness. If you have resisted this trend so far, now may be the time to reconsider. Meditation reduces inflammation and enhances our immune functions, literally undoing the damage of self-isolation. There is evidence that prayer can have a similar effect.

Fourth, do something small for someone else. In surveys, people say volunteering gives them a sense of purpose and reduces anxiety.

Wherever they strike, disasters have a way of revealing our preexisting weaknesses. But they also open up opportunities. I’ve seen this again and again, from communities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina to families devastated by 9/11. There is a golden hour after disaster strikes, a chance to come together and build resilience.

But this doesn’t happen automatically. We have to seize the opportunity, without fear. Viruses may be contagious, but so is courage.

If I could ever ask entity called God about his supposed favs

 “Why is he beating around the bush and trying to put his label on the copied words?”, I mused while I did my utmost to pay heed to the supposed wise words articulated by a preacher that seemed like flowers blooming in spring to the rest of the bhakts, who had joined the life-changing course of a spiritual guru aka Baba. “If he is not God then his teachings are a result of his knowledge honed with a hard diamond called books/Vedas/religious inscriptions or probably, his own experiences. So, if he can comprehend all that then why can’t I or any of these mortals sitting around me?”, I mulled over. ‘Crack’! My mind fired a bullet and I doused in the ocean of premonitions. My sanity came to my rescue and I left the course midway to discover myself, my own way, and the only thing I learned was that I was never lost!

“I never opened the door to that baba when I grew up”, a friend loathed a Swami Ji’s visits to her home during her childhood as she never approved of his mighty cuddles. Though the heinous intents remain intact till the present day, the mien of these demigods has undergone a transformation. Wipe that ancient portrait of long beards and saffron attire as these days you can bump into them at the most unexpected places, garbed in mediocre outfits. “How can he click a selfie?” Of course, taking selfies is not a sin but a self-attested spiritual healer clicking one with eyes closed while traveling around a Sphatik mala in his hand indeed made a friend question the concentration of this mini baba. Was it really on the Jaap? Not only this, arms wrapped around females, private conversations about ‘natural needs of the body’ and taking up the cudgels for everything that is an anathema to normal people were beyond any connect with God and spirituality.

Healers/ chiromancers /fortune-tellers, who in the name of being a help to you, try to breach in your intimate space by convincing you that you are emotionally and physically deprived and you start looking at your hardships as a curse that can only be lifted by the therapies/relaxation methods/meditation techniques/chants and other unimaginable pathways prescribed by these con men. The name of God and prayers are used whenever appropriate, of course. The intensity of your insecurities will define the influence they hold over you. The immediate relief/personalized reassurance and a fake sense of security create a smog of gross credulity blurring your insights.

Nobody knows you better than you know yourself. Why do you need these masqueraders to give you a brief respite with their spiritual argots dunked in venomous honey? Your prayers, however simple, have the same power as begotten by any yagna or mantra recitation. Perhaps, not all are bamboozlers but a handful of them have really tarnished the virtuous portrait of spirituality and soiled the name and existence of pious saints and ‘Gurus’, in real sense. They discern your Achilles heel, give you their magic potion of empathizing words and there you are, a stranger some time ago now share the space with your deities!

If I could ever ask God about these folks who claim to be the apple of his eye!

Living in the Golden Age of Social Distancing

Today is Janta Curfew- Self imposed public curfew- in India and life comes to a standstill. Cities and states in US and Canada are witnessing lockdown. I’ve been described – well, accused of– being a professional homebody, preferring to work from home, rather than working from a place where there are urinals instead of just a commode, and more elbows in the vicinity than I would care for.

It turns out that because of my experience, I have become somewhat of an expert, dare I say a guru, on working from home. My penchant for not stepping out of my comfort rekha even after work is done and dusted has also, perhaps inadvertently, put me in a position to impart good gyan on ‘social distancing’ and its so-called deleterious side-effects.

For starters, it isn’t deleterious if you can make hay regardless of whether the sun is shining or not. And two, ‘deleterious’ means ‘anything that causes harm or damage’ — something that, in these times of coronavirus, you should jolly well have looked up in the dictionary (if you didn’t know its meaning) since you now have oodles of spare time.

Well, of course, you’ll have a distinct advantage if, like Count Dracula, you don’t like stepping outdoors – except, unlike misunderstood lad Vlad, both daylight and nightshine will need to be injurious to your mental health. But far too many people have already started howling at the moon as they settle into self-quarantine more than a month after St Valentine’s. ‘What will I do?’ ‘How will I spend my time at home (that I would otherwise spend in joyful commuting)?’ ‘Will I go bonkers seeing the same people cooped up at home every single day? (As opposed to not getting bonkers seeing the same people at the workplace every single day.)

As someone way ahead of the Covid-19-induced ‘social distancing’ curve – I am waiting for some underemployed economist-turned-historian to write a book about how the caste system was a result of a Vedic-era virus triggering ‘social distancing’ of folks who didn’t wash their hands quite as frequently enough as the OCD-ridden savarnas – let me provide some tips on how to ride out these apocalyptic times.

Five of these tips will be for the supply side — that is, to help you, oh sudden Man or Woman of the Great Indoors, to measure out your lives with more than coffee spoons; and five tips will be for the demand side, where HR, dominatrix and majordomo types won’t feel empty, listless and powerless (not necessarily in that order) for not finding folks clocking in and out of work, or making voluntarily compulsory (read: healthy) social engagements involving ‘other people’ – who are defined by that smart socialite Jean-Paul Sartre, as ‘hell’.

5 TIPS FOR THOSE SOCIAL DISTANCING:

* Remember, you spoilt twits, you live in the golden age for pandemics. You have entertainment being streamed into your homes without having to step out to cinemas, which you hardly stepped out to anyway. Music, reading material, food… ditto, via an app over the Internet. So, you can watch Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 ‘Contagion’ on Amazon Prime, David M Rosenthal’s 2018 ‘How It Ends’ on Netflix, and Rajkumar Kohli’s 1979 ‘Jaani Dushman’ on YouTube, all in between or after work on a Wednesday.

* Reading self-help and motivational books, I know, were very trendy… until this point. Once you drastically cut down on real human contact, you’ll realise that books like Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Make Friends and Influence People’ are as useful as a pile of bitcoins for Bilbo Baggins. In fact, ‘usefulness’ — and not just for books or YouTube videos — will give way to ‘pleasurable’. And after two weeks of solid ‘social distancing,’ you’ll stop feeling guilty about valuing pleasurable options over useful ones.

* This is, the last time I looked at this newspaper, still a family daily. So, let me just lead off from the earlier point by saying that working from home provides ample time — otherwise used up in office banter, ‘water cooler’ moments, pointless meetings that you will discover soon enough are emailable or phoneable, and transit to and fro one’s workplace – for *******, and other ********** activities. Inventive, smart readers of this paper can stare into those asterisks and catch words that have been pixelated.

* Even if travel broadens your mind – and you’ll be surprised how little it does – the joys of staring out of one of your home windows, or even at the walls of your home, have been underrated. Let mass media (present company excluded) not fool you. Man is a sucker for routine, and travelling has its own travails that people are too embarrassed to talk about. If coronavirus has brought tourism (fancy word for travelism) to a standstill, then this, honestly, is the perfect time for you to learn to enjoy the pleasures of the sofa, the Preston wing armchair, the cane mora/mudda, and, of course, the horizontal heights of the bed.

* Human contact, which many of you may be so fond of, is far more valuable when you have what GoI sources call a ‘Fortress Mentality’ – letting the right ones in (at the times it suits you). God has invented social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook for a reason. Your over-romanticisation of ‘socialising’ — one of the silliest verbs invented by man — is nothing but a grand design by the military-industrial-mass media (present company excluded) to keep up value-added appearances.

5 TIPS FOR THE SOCIAL DISTANCED:

* If you’re company HR, pinch yourself and remind yourself that this is 2020 and there is email, video messaging, conference calling/videoing, mobile apps, online servicing… Essentially, things have moved on since the insect-roar of the fax machine and the short grassy sound to paper of short-hand. Sure, as I explained to my uncle still sitting in the 20th century awaiting a peaceful resolution to the Cuban missile crisis, the window-cleaner does need to be close to windows, the taxi driver will, perforce, have to drive that taxi. Working from home, however, isn’t what it was in 1995. But then, barring space travel, nothing is.

* For all the lip-service paid to things like ‘disruption’ and ‘new economy,’ managementals are still terrified of folks working from home lest they became meth-addicts or Arijit Singh songs-loving alcoholics. The same logic holds for family members finding the ‘social distancer’ opening the door in his or her boxers and with a whiff of gin-smelling aftershave/perfume. Fun fact: most people prefer working regardless of where they work from, rather than being found to be unproductive – a side-effect of meth-addiction as well as Arijit Singh songs-fuelled alcoholism. Clue: the unemployed are usually unhappy.

* Great innovations, inventions, creations happen not in places earmarked for great innovations, inventions and creations, but in familiar, comfortable places that fertile minds are fond of. Ensure that your golden (or otherwise) goose is in a nice, comfy place rather in a box with a suction hose attached, and you’re liable to get more and/or better golden (or otherwise) eggs from it.

* It’s cheaper to have a work-at-homer, even after one compensates her or him monetarily for working from home for air-conditioning, water, a chair etc. Being a slave to biometrics makes you on the demand side just a neurotic nanny.

* Count by output, not by input. In other words, if it takes 19 hours of studying for someone to top an exam, and it takes three hours of studying for someone to come a close second, value the second student. Similarly, if someone produces quality work sitting under a tree – away from potential Covid-19-affected morning walkers – in half the time someone doing the same in a cubicle, do the maths.

Quite honestly, for people wondering how to spend their days and nights – and those ‘dreaded long afternoons’ (siesta time, automorons!) — as they keep to themselves until ‘the aliens leave,’ get a life. With or without the coronavirus scare, the world outside is largely and overwhelmingly a crummy, boring, hostile place filled with people you’d rather show your palm than your face. Especially when you have WiFi whirring at home, something you can put your legs up on while working, and select company you can choose to be close to — till that asteroid crashes through your roof only a few days after you’ve turned into a zombie for washing your hands with mutated coronavirus-infected soap.

Despite Corona, be hopeful and spread peace

Friends earlier when you got up in the morning, your WhatsApp feed used to show umpteen number of good morning messages. No more now. Today right from morning till the end of the day, most of the posts on social media speak of the dangerous coronavirus. Definitely, this pandemic is significant havoc and poses a major challenge for human species across the globe. What concerns me is the constant hammering of these threat inducing messages every next moment on the mindset of a common man.

I am reminded of the 26/11 tragedy in Mumbai. People who were directly / indirectly exposed to the terror attacks and its aftermath had to go through an extended psycho traumatic phase. There was a widespread prevalence of mental health diseases like anxiety disorders, mood disorders, sleep disorders, addictions, and alterations in social, family setups etc. The scenario today is very much similar to those days. There is a massive impact on the mindset of people across the length and breadth of the nation. Many have already started experiencing stress and depression. 

Yesterday some children on the streets were discussing. One of them raised a concern, I am not sure if we will be able to survive for long because of this coronavirus? I overheard the replies made by others. I was astonished to know the variety of opinions these kids had. To be specific, I found that most of them had inappropriate, half-cocked and far-fetched ideas. One of them even said that a student died in the examination hall and that’s the reason why board examinations have been postponed! Immediately. I took my turn to address those guys and told them about the ways they can protect themselves from getting affected by this virus. I appraised them about the need for social distancing, hygiene etc.

Friends, this pandemic has already fired a tornado of scare across the world. No one is sure about the situation, and each one is carrying a bouquet of confusions. The biggest challenge is the lack of answer to the question about the end of Corona! Uncertainty is a great killer. It breeds negative vibrations in the society.

The team of medical practitioners, health workers and administrators are doing their best to curtail the virus. Let us believe in those efforts. However, without the active interference and support of the common man, in terms of taking all the necessary precautions, the solution might not be achieved. As our honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi Ji said, “We all have to fight out as a team”.

It’s time to take some concrete steps to prevent the wave of negativity, scare and ambiguity from damaging the mental peace. Here I propose a few vital measures, which, if strictly followed by each one of us shall definitely ensure a positive mental balance in the society.

  1. Stop the mindless and useless forwards on social media. While we all do forward messages in good intent, but the reality is that most of the time, we are not sure of the authenticity of the content. I suggest that we resist the urge to forward messages. As it is, we are overexposed with confusing interpretations about Corona and the associated risks. It is better to delete and quarantine all Corona related forward messages. This will be a big step in restricting the spread of scare in society.
  2. If at all, you must share messages, ensure that you do share only the optimistic and/or realistic and authenticated content. It would be purposeful to tell how many Corona effected people have survived in place of forwarding the number of deaths. It is essential to find the silver lining in the Corona cloud. Let statistics be studied by experts, not the common man!
  3.  Get out of the advisory role. Suggesting people to wash hands, use sanitizers is okay. Alternatively, why not we all make it a point to offer free sanitizers to a few people from the lower economic strata of our society! Find out such people in your neighbourhood, the beggars, the small vendors and gift them life-saving kits.
  4. This is an excellent opportunity for all of us to realign the imbalanced work-life equation. It’s a golden opportunity to be with family. Take initiatives and discuss pleasing memoirs, watch a movie at home, run through the photo albums and cherish your relationships. A friend informed me that he is experimenting with his cooking skills during the quarantine period! You may also take turns to crack jokes, laugh and spread smiles at home.
  5. The first reaction of pandemic across humankind was the imagery of death and scarcity. It is vital to believe that God has provided enough for all of us. Please refrain from overstocking of essentials. Let us understand that the Corona Virus is a social disease. If our fellow living beings are infected, we are at substantial risk of getting into the trap. As such, storing a pile of sanitizers at home will be of no use for us. Share it. People have been stocking groceries, toothpaste, tissues, chillies and what not! It’s must to get over the temptation of overstocking.

Do not forget: “this shall also pass away”. I am sure these wise words hold good for the current situation of distress as well. I am sure things will definitely change and that too for good. Very soon, medicines would be available, or an idea or antidote for Corona will surface. Be hopeful and spread peace.  

Why was Europe so unprepared for the corona pandemic?

Over 100 million Europeans are now living under lockdown, confined to their homes and gardens, with occasional walks with their dogs or for buying essential groceries or medicine.

Italy and France have imposed strict sanctions for those loitering purposelessly in the streets while countries up in the north like Denmark and Norway have asked people to stay inside voluntarily. Italy is among the hardest hit countries, with a reported death of 475 people yesterday, succumbing to the coronavirus. This is the highest death toll in a single day from the coronavirus infection in a European country. France, which is its immediate neighbour, follows the development closely and has now imposed draconian lockdown measures, which will be implemented with the help of military personnel on the streets. The question now is if Europe can restrict the utter devastation to life, property and economy to Italy, or are we going to see larger death tolls in other densely populated countries whose health facilities are similar to those of Italy?

I may be asking the question impishly, but the pandemic disaster scenario looms large as most countries in Europe are so unprepared that they do not even have enough respirators to treat their patients with severe symptoms. Patients in Denmark are told to stay at home and self-isolate unless they have severe problems in breathing or can see their condition worsen. Even respirators from veterinarians will be brought to use in coming days to save lives. Such is the level of unpreparedness. Denmark is not even testing patients who claim that they have all the symptoms of the coronavirus. Most patients are asked to stay inside for two weeks, without a test.

Elderly people are asked not to use public transport in Denmark, and gatherings, both public and private, of more than 10 people are now illegal in Denmark. The borders between most Schengen countries are closed, resulting in long queues of cars at every border in EU, and we are all living in a state of emergency, waiting literally every single day to see even more unprecedented strict measures being adopted. After the Second World War, this is the first time when sweeping powers are allotted to the states without reservations.

In an extraordinary rare nationwide TV address, Angela Merkel, who is the German Chancellor and one of the strongest leaders of Europe, pleaded its citizens to act responsibly and to overcome the challenge of a pandemic outbreak. She appealed for national unity and stated that Germany is facing the greatest challenge since World War II.

The European governments are demanding that people limit their social life, and hence most of us are living either involuntary or imposed isolation. We are being lectured daily on social distancing and it is expected that in shops and supermarkets we keep a distance of six feet to the next customer.

Do these strict measures suffice? Would the population voluntarily follow the guidelines as the weather starts getting nicer? In the initial stages when the numbers of those infected with the virus were limited, people who were returning from ski resorts in Italy were asked to stay voluntarily in quarantine. But Europeans have got used to their freedom and usually get bored after a few days. Those who were supposed to stay in self-isolation started going to gyms and shopping-centers, thereby spreading the disease to others very speedily.

Quarantine can be effective and essential for tackling the coronavirus pandemic, if people know that they are the carriers. Up to 80 per cent of those infected have only experienced mild symptoms, and since there is no extensive testing for Covid-19, some of those Europeans who had some suspicion are now socializing and spreading the disease even further.

The cause of the blunder in Europe which resulted in the continent being designated as the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic is that the continent was totally unprepared and did not learn lessons from South Korea or China. In the last two months rapid and extensive testing of any suspected case should have been carried out with great speed and those infected should have been kept under some kind of compulsory quarantine, monitoring their movements.

It would have been cheaper for European countries to house these initial few patients in four star hotels than now when most countries are experiencing a total lockdown with just essential services like trains and hospitals working, while schools and colleges have been closed for several weeks.

Even those who are optimistic do not expect schools to reopen in two weeks’ time. Historically speaking, the Europeans were the first to champion human rights and freedom. In the present context they will have to reconsider those values and willingly, in the interest of the common good, voluntarily and temporarily suspend the right to assemble in whatever numbers possible. Those political freedoms like the right to assemble in large numbers is being compromised.

It is a lesson for India. No matter however upset one is with the present government, it is time for countries like India to impose restrictions on large gatherings, as well. It could get a whole lot worse in Asia. Iran is already hit hard and according to some estimates millions of people could lose their lives if people do not follow quarantine rules.

Asia can derive a simple lesson from the European experience. Make rapid and extensive tests and impose quarantine and do not expect people to obey voluntarily. Therefore all gatherings of more than 10 people except in public transportation and at work, should not be encouraged at all and, if possible, made illegal. People in quarantine should be monitored 24 hours a day.

As Angela Merkel appropriately said, it is time for national unity. It is definitely not the time to sit and protests in large numbers where no social distancing is practiced. Asia cannot afford to make the same mistakes as Europe.