‘We Haven’t Learnt Our Lessons From Covid Waves’

Yogendra Chaudhary, 30, a chemist shop owner in Moradabad (Uttar Pradesh), is scared of the looming third wave and urges people for Covid-appropriate behaviour in public places

I am a pharmacist and opened a medicine shop about the same time when the dread of Covid-19 was setting in. In a matter of a few months, the number of people visiting our pharmacy increased by nearly 50% which meant coming in contact with more and more strangers with every passing hour and day. Moreover, we had no idea about the immunity levels of these individuals that we were coming in contact with.

Needless to say, I caught the dreaded virus around April 2020, when everyone was just flailing around for solutions. Even though mine was a mild case and I escaped with only a mild fever, the uncertainty about when the infection might flare up, can leave people agonised. I resumed work after the required quarantine period and only after I ensured I had tested negative. One may recover from Covid, but the immunity isn’t as robust as before.

Back then, there was not even a murmur of vaccines being developed. Apart from the usual masks, gloves and sanitizers we had no protection at all. Even when all other services were halted amid strict lockdown, ours was the most essential service of it all, which meant we have been open throughout the pandemic. Day in and day out. There might have been days where hospitals and chemists must have been the only ones functioning. It’s an eerie feeling to be the only businesses open when everything else is shut down.

While people were scared when the first wave struck, the fear vanished as the cases began to subside. The Covid-appropriate behaviour went for a toss and quite a few of them would come to our pharmacy without masks. Then there were people who were following the protocols for the sake of it. If you ask me, what I feared the most was every time people would take out their phones (to make or receive calls) in between the purchases and after that directly take out cash to pay us. Phones are anyway considered dirty as few take the time to clean them properly.

Online transactions were cool though, but in small towns not everyone does online transactions. If you remember, Moradabad was declared a hotspot during the first wave, with so many people even refusing to get tested.

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Indeed, it did not take long for the second wave to knock in. And what a wave it turned out to be. No hospital beds, no oxygen, dead bodies flowing in the Ganga. But yet, we haven’t learnt our lessons. The tragedies are all but forgotten, and we are back to our Covid-inappropriate selves. Experts say the third wave is upon us, sooner or later. And being in the middle of it all being a chemist, I am scared. But if you look around, the public behaviour seems as if we care a hoot.

Prevention is definitely better than cure when it comes to the coronavirus. When people don’t take precautions, it is frontline workers like us chemists and our families who are at a major risk of infection and reinfection. I had never expected the pandemic to go on for so long and I wish I seen the end of it for good. The spectre of ill-health looming over people day in and day out is too much. The second wave was so heart-breaking as well as scary. The mutated virus was even more deadly, and to think it can be kept at bay (mostly) using the simple measures of masks, sanitisers and social distancing.

Vaccines have come as a much-needed relief but people still need to be careful. We should do everything in our might to keep the third wave at bay and we can’t fully be at rest until the virus is defeated altogether. After all our own lives and that of our loved ones are at stake.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

Is India Prepared For 3rd Covid Wave?

Indonesia now is in exactly the same terrible and tragic situation as India was during the peak of the second surge. Australia is going for a lockdown, and even New Zealand, hitherto totally safe, is on high alert. With cases rising in thousands every day, Boris Johnson might once again take the UK down the drain if he opens up the lockdown on July 19, even while all is not well in Catalonia/Barcelona in Spain, among other EU nations.

Vice President Kamala Harris led a ‘pride rally’ recently without a mask. Americans in many parts are allowed to come out in the open without masks. However, with 50 per cent fully vaccinated, is the virus really “on the run”, as President Joe Biden so proudly claimed on Independence Day, 4th of July?

There is reportedly a ‘silent surge’ in many parts of America and it is worrisome. It is being largely attributed to clusters of unvaccinated people, including Trump-supporters ‘in denial’. A Georgetown University study reportedly found 30 clusters of counties, of which five are across the Southeast and Midwest, from Georgia to Texas, across Missouri, and parts of Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas, where the threat is real and looming large.

So how well is the Indian State with a new health minister at the helm prepared for the ‘third surge’, even as the second wave lingers on, and thousands care a damn in tourist spots, without masks or physical distancing?

Listen to the Covid Task Force head, Dr VK Paul, as reported by the Indian Express: “It is right that the graph (of the decline in the number of cases) has slowed down. It was earlier declining at a faster pace. It only shows that we cannot take the situation for granted. If it is around 35,000-37,000 cases per day, this is almost one-third the number of cases we saw during the first wave peak. The war is not over; the second wave is not over. It is perhaps more visible in some districts and two particular states and the Northeast, but it is still there. As long as this is still rising there, the nation is not safe…With a lot of effort and difficulty, we have reached a situation where cases are on the decline. The situation is bad only in a few districts. But all this can be snatched away from us because we have not contained the virus completely. If we give the virus an opportunity, and chains of transmission are launched…this is something we cannot afford…”

Indians banged thalis, frying pans, pressure cookers at 5 pm on March 22, 2021, following the call of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even when the virus was just about spreading its wings. Indians followed dutifully with no questions asked, the sudden, draconian and unplanned lockdown last March, which led to the exodus of lakhs of migrant workers. Indians even believed the PM when he said that all will be well in 21 days.

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Meanwhile, the states fought their own battles without any tangible help from the Center. Millions were rendered jobless, the poor were left to their helpless fate, the economy tanked and continues to tank, hunger, starvation, anxiety and depression stalked the unhappy landscape, there was ‘no vaccine policy’ worth its name, and people hoped against hope that 2021 will start with a flicker of hope. Remember the PM’s cathartic speech at the World Economic Forum’s Davos Dialogue in January 2021?

“Today, Covid cases are declining rapidly in India… India’s stats cannot be compared with one country as 18 per cent of the world’s population lives here and yet we not only solved our problems but also helped the world fight the pandemic… In these tough times, India has been undertaking its global responsibility from the beginning. When airspace was closed in many countries, India took more than 1 lakh citizens to their countries and delivered essential medicines to more than 150 countries…” 

Significantly, the PM said India’s role will increase with the rollout of more ‘Made in India’ Covid-19 vaccines. Clearly, this was chest-thumping in its most glorious form at the world stage.

Then arrived the deadly second surge, even as the PM and his Union home minster were obsessed with capturing Bengal at any cost, while welcoming millions at the super-spreader Kumbh. The PM was delighted to see huge crowds in one of his last rallies in Bengal. While sections of the stooge media played along, the international media published front page pictures of mass cremations, accompanied with highly critical text putting the entire blame on Modi. And they were on the spot, on the dot. Surely, the mass tragedy was a public spectacle for the world to see!

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Lest we forget, there were tens of thousands dying due to the acute scarcity of hospital beds, oxygen, life-saving drugs, with cremation and burial grounds unable to find space for the dead bodies, while parking lots, pavements, open spaces and public parks in some places were converted into cremation grounds. Some electric crematoriums refused to work because their ‘internal organs’ had melted due to the relentless heat, huge make-shift walls were created to block journalists to report on the relentless mass cremations (in Lucknow), and the data of deaths were allegedly fudged or censored, even while the obituary pages were full of tributes to the dead (as in Gujarat). 

So, is India prepared for the third wave?

On June 19, said Dr Randeep Guleria, Director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi:  “We don’t seem to have learnt from what happened between the first and the second wave. Again crowds are building up… people are gathering. It will take some time for the number of cases to start rising at the national level. But it could happen within the next six to eight weeks… maybe a little longer.” He said that unless the population is vaccinated, the country will remain vulnerable in the coming months.

The Hindu reported in early May that that the principal scientific adviser to the government of India has warned that the third wave of Covid-19 is inevitable. “There is, however, no clear time-line on when this third phase will occur. We should be prepared for new waves, and Covid-appropriate behaviour and vaccine upgrades is the way forward,” he said.

Modi has made the promise on live television of total and free vaccination in India after June 21. Hoardings have come up with the PM’s mug shot profusely thanking him for free vaccines. If Rahul Gandhi as much as tweets: ‘July has come. Where are the vaccines?’ some central ministers suddenly emerge from the shadows and Rahul gets a good tongue-lashing.

The situation is as fuzzy as it gets. Noida apparently stopped vaccination from June 30 for a week – reasons not known. Gujarat suspended vaccination recently for unknown reasons – there were no vaccines, according to sources, it was reported. Vaccination was stopped in Mumbai due to lack of vaccines, but restarted again. Almost all the big states reportedly have vaccination shortfalls; Bihar has a shortfall of 71 per cent, while West Bengal, Jharkhand and UP are not far away. Even Kerala and Delhi, who have done the best, will not be able to achieve a 60 per cent target by December.

Is the current scenario optimistic? Not really.

Apparently, about 20 per cent plus have got their first dose, and 5 per cent plus have been fully vaccinated. Surely, at this rate, no one knows when a country of India’s size will ever get ‘fully vaccinated’. And the bitter truth is that less the level of vaccination in the population, the more there are fears of multiple mutations of this killer virus. India, therefore, is as vulnerable as ever.

Virus Isn’t Going Away, Prevention Is Our Best Bet

Coronavirus has turned our lives upside down in more ways than one and even after a year of the pandemic being officially announced, the world is not in the green. As a community medicine practitioner in Epidemiology, I have been studying the behaviour of the novel Coronavirus and its host, us, the humans. Yet, no matter how much I study things in detail, I always come to the same conclusion about the Coronavirus: This virus can change forms (mutate) and come up with new strains faster than we can figure out its cure or vaccine. So, our best bet right now is to avoid the virus! The prevention is easy; the cure may not be.

Our best preventive tools – masks, hand-wash and sanitisers are now easily available. What is not easily available is the will in most people to co-operate and use these tools both for individual safety as well as public health. Even as the number of infected cases and resultant fatalities rise, there is a certain nonchalance in public behaviour regarding the risks. On March 27, more than 62,000 new cases were registered across the country, with over 300 deaths. The first time that the number of people infected in a single day went above 50,000 was July 27, 2020. The last time that the number of new cases went above 50,000 was November 6, 2020.

Even though the number of new infected cases is going up, the ratio of the number of people losing their lives to the infection, is so far less in 2021, than it was in 2020. However, those suffering with manifestations are showing somewhat severe symptoms than before. Though panic is never a way forward, but we should not definitely let our guards down yet as well.

We are seeing a renewed, fresh wave of the virus because the virus has mutated (changed its basic genetic structure and developed newer, more dangerous strains) to survive in its human hosts. We have learnt some strategies to cope with them and the virus too has gained new skills to dodge the human immune system! The influenza virus mutates almost every year and develops new strains. We will have to see which way the wind blows for the novel coronavirus. It definitely has mutated within a year.

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With newer mutations coming up globally we are faced with the threat of the new strains, the UK strain, the South African strain, and the Brazilian strain. It is the antigens that are responsible for stimulating the production of antibodies by the immune system. Even minor mutations depending on the area of the virus they have occurred in, can play in a big way with our immune systems, and are known as ‘variants of concern’. These new variants are identified using a process known as genome sequencing, which reads and then interprets the genetic information found in the RNA- Ribonucleic acid (in this case) of the virus. We need to study the virus to be able to fight it better.

India, through genome sequencing has also detected what is known as a new “double mutant” COVID-19 variant. This means that two important changes are coming together in the same virus. The mutations are basically affecting key areas in the spike protein (the crown-like area which helps the virus to latch on to human cells) of the coronavirus and thus helping them skip or escape the resistance offered by our immune system. This is mostly affecting states like Maharashtra and Delhi the most. Other states closer to these two are also reporting increased number of cases. This is probably because these two states have the maximum international travel (both inward and outward) and thus the maximum exposure to the virus, both by way of the original strain (from Wuhan, China) and the 3 newer strains. At least 18 states and Union Territories in India now have different strains of coronavirus running amok: the UK strain, the South African strain and the Indian strain, so to speak. The threat of infection is high.

What all this means is we are taking one step forward and two steps back in terms of handling the pan-world health crisis. We were all thinking that with the vaccine we would now be saved, but the virus is changing in ways that render the vaccines weak. We cannot say that a person who has been infected once and has received the vaccine as well, won’t be re-infected, though it depends upon an individual’s immune strength as to how his/her body will react and to what level they would be affected.

However, the scientists suggest that the severity of the disease will be bit lesser among the vaccinated individuals – a ray of hope, but still the battle against spread of infection, is on. During the first wave of coronavirus in March 2020 what saved us was the lockdown; it helped in more ways than one to trace and isolate and further treat infected people. However, for all purposes, a second nationwide lockdown doesn’t look feasible, because it affects the people financially when they are not able to earn their livelihood.

What we need right now to handle the second wave is a really strong execution of the plan we already have in place. Public health awareness was already achieved during the first wave; almost the whole population is aware of the crisis as well as the solution, but what is missing is a respect for solutions and the motivation to enact those simple behaviours.

We need strong public health advocacy. Everyday we need to educate, organize and mobilise to change the reluctant and seemingly over-confident attitude among the mass as a whole.  We need people at the grassroots level to reinforce for good the safety measures. So many people have let their guards down after one year of the pandemic. The various state elections, the many political rallies, the many religious festivals (we have the upcoming Kumbh Mela) have all contributed to the pandemic still holding fort really strong. We need strong community level leadership at every possible level. Anyone with a voice that is heard and respected should advocate for the use of masks, regular handwashing and social distancing. I wish some religious leaders across faiths weren’t so dismissive of the severity of the pandemic; since many people listen to them.

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We need to reach out to these leaders so that they can influence their followers. Faith must meet science if we want to overcome the pandemic. Political leaders at centre and state levels need to reach out to every kind of leaders possible, to bring about behaviour changes among the people to eliminate the virus from amidst us. To use a sociological concept, we need to the diffuse ideas of public well-being and precautions so that they become culturally acceptable and thus practiced among large parts of the population. The media plays an important role here.

The onus this second time around is truly on the public. We will keep losing the race to the virus until we follow the basic measures stringently. Lockdowns can only stop inter-cluster exchange or two areas with infection from interacting with each other and thus ceasing a larger spillage, but it may not stop intra-location infections. Nowadays, we have a huge number of people living in societies and apartments. Even if they go out only to buy essential items, but don’t follow basic precautionary measures like masks etc. they can still infect or be infected.

All of us depend on each of us this time. It’s kind of “One for all, all for one” idea! As a Community Medicine expert, I once again want to emphasise that it is the community spirit which will keep us safe and alive. Each one for another! The virus alone is not the real enemy, but our relaxed approach to the virus certainly is! We can weaken it in some time if we strictly follow the rules. The so called herd immunity has not shown promising results in this case, so individual immunity is all we have to turn our communities healthy. If we don’t want another lockdown, let’s bring out masks, sanitisers and the will to keep fighting the contagion – by respecting the social distancing norms. Let us put all efforts to develop a “behavioural herd immunity” this time.

The writer is an epidemiologist at College of Medicine & Sagor Dutta Hospital in Kolkata)

India’s Vaccine Victory Carries A Parsi Punch

Smarting at China for long over several issues – border tensions that have compelled, among other things, minimizing of economic ties, boosting of “all-weather friend” Pakistan, being opposed at diplomatic forums and being surrounded in the region south of the Himalayas – India has found a sure and significant counter in the shape of vaccine against Coronavirus.

Even if small and short-term, it is smart, and has the world taking note – a world that is suffering from the pandemic. The Narendra Modi Government deserves full marks for launching “vaccine diplomacy” when confronted by a myriad issues. That includes being among the top five nations among the Corona-hit.

Its aspirations to become vishwa guru – teacher to the world – may seem tall and are contentious, even at home. But this one, emerging as vishwa chikitsak – doctor to the world, at least a good part of it, and partly, is eminently achievable and is already underway.

Beginning January 16, countries far and near are benefitting on something they direly need. That brings goodwill – hopefully, also blessings from individuals and families those who get cured. A vaccine is tika or teeka. It also carries several other connotations. The one that fits in here is tilak, the mark on Indian forehead to depict success, with humility. And why not, when India has already been the wold’s largest vaccine-maker?

Five million doses of Oxford University-invented Astra Zeneca vaccine, produced by Serum Institute of India (SII) are being gifted to Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Cambodia and Seychelles. Each of them is in dire need of the vaccine due to high incidence, and each one is hit economically by the pandemic. Inoculation began within three days of the vaccine being flown by special flights.

This has been India’s traditional area of regional influence where China, with its deep pockets and offers of huge projects has grabbed in the recent years.

Predictably, given perennially adversarial relations, India has ignored Pakistan that has yet to get a firm Chinese commitment of Sinovac. It is in queue for free doses while awaiting Astra Zeneca and Russia’s Sputnik for “emergency use.”

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India has raced ahead when China has yet to begin because of the uncertainties attached to its vaccine trials. Indeed, there is also the psychological factor about China being accused – real or propaganda – of causing Covid-19 at Wuhan and as it spread, not informing the world.

This is India’s defining moment. Besides goodwill and prestige, it is good business also, coming when its economy is struggling to recover from the lows experienced long before Covid-19 struck last year. Seven Indian companies are racing to produce vaccines and Covaxin of the state sector Bharat Biotech is already being administered.

Thanks to the virus, the Indian pharmaceutical sector, slated to export worth USD 25 billion by end-March, can expect to export much more.

To some of the neighbours, including Bangladesh that is to get three million doses for free as a goodwill gesture, commercial exports are scheduled to let the SII recover its investment and effort.  

India has contracted to sell SII-made Covishield to Brazil, Morocco, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia. Flights carrying the precious cargo took off to these countries on January 22. Order books are full to conduct exports to more nations.

India plans to export vaccines to the other poor and middle-income countries of Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia as part of an arrangement with GAVI, the vaccine alliance. This should boost its and soft-power on even a larger scale than yoga.

It has not been easy, however. A major pharma producer, despite its growing strength, India has faced an undercurrent of propaganda in the global market about the reliability of its medicines after the US Food and Drugs regulator sent out adverse notices.

Emerging as the pharmaceutical powerhouse of the region has increased the reliability of India’s healthcare sector on which its neighbours are heavily dependent. This could further bolster medical tourism.

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The least-talked part of this vaccine story is the role of the tiny Parsi community of fire-worshipping Zoroastrians, to which SII’s owner, Cyrus Poonawala and his CEO son Adar belong.

A story on social media that remains unconfirmed is that of Cyrus offering the Bombay Parsi Panchayat to reserve over 60,000 doses of Covishield for the community. Ratan Tata, head of the house of Tata, politely declined: “we are Indian first, then Parsis. We will wait our turn in line.”

This is the modesty for which the Parsis are well-known. But there is no escaping some details, even allowing for an element of exaggeration.

+ SII’s Covishield is stored in glass vials produced by a Parsi firm Schott Kaisha, owned by Rishad Dadachanji.

+ They are transported with dry ice manufactured by another Parsi, Farokh Dadabhoy.

+ They are delivered by Tata Motors Trucks.

+ Vaccine batches transported by GoAir of Jeh Wadia and stored in refrigerators made by Godrej, both renowned Parsi family enterprises.

Despite being a miniscule fraction of the 1.3 billion Indian population, the Parsis have never asked for Minority benefits. They have always punched above their class and the numbers.

Literate, industrious and not averse to leaving shores unlike the traditional Hindus, they became indispensable to Britain’s global reach. One of their tasks was carrying opium to China. But they also fought the British: Dadabhai Naoroji, Dinshaw Mehta, Bhicaiji Cama were among them.

They responded to overtures from the Mughal kings and later to the early British settlers, taking up shipping, banking, construction and brokerage. They were the pioneers who built a half of Mumbai.

It would take several pages to list only the names of Parsis who have made an outstanding contribution to independent India’s economy, defence, atomic energy, music, literature, science, sports and cinema. Their reach is now global.

Way back in 2012, a top community official told the Mumbai High Court that its definition of a poor Parsi was one who earned less than Rs 90,000 per month. This is many times more than India’s per capita annual income of $1,876.53 or Rupees 136,794.

Is the community India’s richest? It does have poor members. But then think of India’s Tata, Godrej, Pallonji, Wadia, Avari and Bhandara of Pakistan, Lord Karan Bilimoria of Britain – to name only the industrialists and businessmen.

Almost all of them have institutionalised philanthropy giving billions away. Although all faiths preach piety and charity, the Parsis (“thy name is charity”) lead. It is riches well earned, well spent. It will be tragic if their population dwindles to almost zero by the end of this century.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Virus Is There, Fear Is Gone

In social sciences and critical theory this would be called a kind of epistemological rupture. A break in time, in self consciousness, collective understanding and individual and public perception. A certain paradigm shift.

By all accounts, in terms of human behavior in public places, especially by the poor in the margins, the widespread fear, phobia and terror of the deadly and killer Coronavirus seems to have passed. In simpler terms it can be stated that the fear has gone, even though the virus remains alive, and blooming. And it is both good and bad news at the same time.

Good news because the hustle and bustle in public places seem to have come back with a fervour and passion which seems to have reaffirmed the strong human will to survive and live and perhaps enjoy, even in the worst case scenario. Large parts of urban settlements, be it bustling tier two towns in north India, or metros like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, thousands seem to be stalking colourful market places, savouring street, including ‘Chinese momos & chowmein’, cooked on roadside carts, smoking and hanging out. Apparently, there is nothing like a mass killer pandemic on the loose lurking in god knows which nook and corner. All izz well!

The fatigue of the lockdown, the slow despair of the extended quarantine, the holed-up compulsion of the four walls, the prevalence of distress, disease and death everywhere as visible and invisible ‘atmospherics’, the ring tone warnings about the virus on phones, the imposed isolation and fear of travel and movement, has recoiled. The closed borders and markets, the shut offices, malls, the Metro or local trains not running anymore, has all deeply impacted the social consciousness of communities in urban centres. Especially of the working class.

The dark irony is that this just might not end in 2020, which has been largely a bad year, and might extend up to the next year also. This seems to be the universally depressing public perception.

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Already, around 29 lakh people are infected in India, with over 60,000 dead. This might touch many more thousands and lakhs by the end of September. The health infrastructure has not really showed signs of radical improvement, especially in terms of affordable healthcare, and the vaccine still seems elusive. Media reports say at least 18 million salaried employees lost jobs in India till July. The curve has certainly not flattened and is rising exponentially and dangerously.

In rural India, for instance, especially in the Hindi heartland where millions of workers migrated from urban cities due to lockdown and the near absence of affordable health infrastructure, there might be a volcanic explosion one day. With no ground reporting, and now floods in several states, it will a sad situation.

Even the most optimistic supporters of the current regime cannot claim that the Indian government, with its huge population, is anywhere close to declare that, okay, hereto, be safe and cautious, but there is nothing to fear. We have controlled the pandemic. Now we will shift focus to the economy and charge full steam ahead to turn the graph of the collapse around and mark a decisive paradigm shift. Nothing of that sort seems to be in the cards in the near future or later.

Surely, India will not be able to declare a Covid-free society as many Scandinavian countries, France, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, even many parts of China and Europe, have declared. India will continue to do what it knows best – fudge, flounder, hesitate, remain trapped in forebodings, and generally lacking the strong will or structure to stop and control the pandemic once and for all, despite our brave and resilient doctors, nurses and healthworkers, especially in the government sector. Many of them have fallen in the line of their duty.

In this context, people seem to be braving it out. The small carts, paan-cigarette shops, the man on a cycle selling fried snacks, the man selling vegetables, the painter, the plumber, the electrician, all seem to be turning the corner. Or else they will just die, if not by the disease, then by hunger and helplessness.

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So people are thronging the markets, not just the small town markets but also the crowded hubs of large cities, shopping and window-shopping. Indians love melas and there is one in every locality now. The youth are sitting inside closed air-conditioned restaurants. Some are smoking out in the open, sitting close to each other, happy in their defiant and dreamy youth. It is infectious, this sudden collective joy to be out in the open, the smells and flavours of the old life. Social distancing and masks have disappeared from fatigue.

Indeed, you can’t but smile in appreciation when you realise that the lethargy and isolation have really got to the people, and they want a break. Life and bonhomie is as normal as before, on the streets and in tea shops. For all you know, the pandemic was just a hoax.

But that is not the truth. Tens of thousands of migrant workers have reached their stagnating villages and small towns, and with no economic or health infrastructure, how will they cope with their daily lives, remains a conjecture. In large cities and their suburbs, the thousands who would throng to the mahanagar for work daily, are stuck in their homes with no work because the local trains and buses are not running.

In this terrible and relentless scenario, indeed the fear may have gone, but the virus remains out there as a silent and stated killer. In the life of a country, this is both a happy and a tragic dilemma.

Covid-19 Unlocks Human Creativity

The human will is insatiable, irrepressible and difficult to defeat. Even in a lockdown, infinite quarantine with no definite deadline or dateline, as in contemporary India, unfortunately, surrounded and overwhelmed by dying, disease and tragedy, full of suppressed angst and anger at the mindless repression on young people, students and academics, and an 80-plus great revolutionary poet, now inflicted with Covid-19, imprisoned in jail for months in this heat and pandemic, ‘people’ just can’t allow themselves to be defeated. This has been most reflected in the social media and also outside, as people in India and elsewhere strive to find a life outside the compulsory depression and ritualism of daily despair.

Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian of London, Katherine Viner, in a seminal lecture six years ago, described the role of the journalist in an overwhelming scenario of the flowering of the social media. She said: “What if we were to embrace the ecosystem of the web and combined established journalistic techniques with new ways of finding, telling and communicating stories? Opened ourselves up? Put the people formerly known as the audience at the heart of everything? Combined the elite and the street… and the tweet?”

Well, not everyone is tweeting in India, and not everyone is a ‘citizen journalist’, and considering Indian population, only the participants in the social media are microscopic, despite the kitschy Tik Tok, a grassroots app involving millions in the most invisible bylane of our vast countryside, now banned for ‘nationalist reasons’ despite their Rs 30 crore donation to the inscrutable ‘PM Cares’.  And, yet, during this repressive and depressive lockdown, a new flourishing culture of sound, visuals, text, art and craft, meaning and meaninglessness, knowledge systems, film, literature, science and social sciences, and critical commentary on politics, ecology and society has flourished.

This is the new aesthetic of the new normal of the post-truth society, a new folk and oral tradition, and it makes sense, and could possibly signal the future of the cultural life of an online quarantined generation post Covid-19 – because this pandemic, at least in India with its crumbling health structure, is bound to stay for a long, long time.

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So what should the people – thinkers, artists, students, academics, ordinary citizens, even housewives, and now house-husbands – do? They shall innovate and they will make the best out of it. Here’s how, and this article only gives a few illustrations.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh is the author of a path-breaking political graphic novel located in the turbulent India of the 1970s, in the backdrop of the authoritarian imposition of the Emergency. His out-of-the box book, among others, ‘Delhi Calm’, a visual journey of post cards, is a brilliant narrative. So what is this young and restless soul doing, having quit his job with a top publishing house recently, amidst mass unemployment?

Ghosh started a no-profit, no-money, fully entertaining, and driven with black humour podcast with Spotify, called ‘Kissa Stories’, with a catchy slogan: ‘Thora local, pura vocal’ (A bit local, a lot of vocal). It is the rediscovery of sound, old radio, forgotten neon signs of signature tunes, including from Bollywood, nostalgia of the 1970, a bit political, a lot social, homely, replete with neighbourhood stories, clichés rediscovered as sweet and bitter landmarks, and  the pure joy of living in those times in mofussil localities in Delhi. Especially for a small-town guy who comes from the Hindi heartland and wants to become a writer in the big city. So typically clichéd and so lovely, truly.

Chasing  good luck, finding bad luck, and many shared travellers of similar journeys, ‘Vishwa’ tells us in impeccable Hindi, the little stories of his youth with an uncanny and spoofy political and social backdrop, so that history is neither rewritten nor buried in ‘pseudo nationalism’. For instance, his Mamu comes from Soviet Russia and brings a toy airplane for him. So he is the star of the neighbourhood, and his Mamu becomes his missing dad. In a tea shop cum library run by, who else but a Bengali revolutionary, on eternal ‘udhaar’, they discover a new and creative language. When the Emergency comes, so, how do they hide the books: Marx, Lenin, and Bhagat Singh?

On their dangerous night journey in a curfewed city, to hide the books, the rendezvous becomes a Ramsay Brothers’ horror clip as cops catch them. So a genius among them flashes out an ‘old joint from the grassroots level’ story, and the cops are convinced that these young boys are apolitical and harmless, simply going for a spin to Pahargunj to score ‘stuff’.

In the ‘Encounter’, the latest podcast, a clueless middle-aged vice president of a corporate company is just not able to square up with  upstart, drop-out, young eclectic geniuses who are now into millions with their the mad start-ups. Indeed, listeners of this short revelation of nostalgia as fast-forward realism are now going to contribute to the next episodes. They seem to be promising with their tempting titles: ‘Gurgaon ka Romeo, Shimla ki Kulfi, Purani Dilli ke Purane Kisse, Lucknow ki Barish, Kalkata ki Mausi, Manali ki Raate’, among others.

Said Vishwajyoti Ghosh to Lokmarg: “Kissa Stories’ is made up of the stories we live, the kissas we make up beyond our lives, that are even better than original, everyday. ‘Kissa Stories’ has emerged as a form of micro-stories, of incidents, epiphanies and anecdotes. Emerging mostly from conversations, or memories of conversations, the idea is to bring together a varied collection of stories through people across the spectrum who are separated by six stories of separation. The podcast is working with only original content both from the audience and its podcaster.” 

This podcast, with all the archival sounds and atmospherics of radio, is available on all major platforms like Apple, Google, Spotify. Free!

ALSO READ: Covid A Crisis, But Also An Opportunity

Young theatre person, Parshathy Nath of Thrissur in Kerala, active performer across borders, felt that it was time to do something. So with other friends she started a play-reading session online. It’s a starting point for these talented people with unsurpassed energy. And they seem to be crossing the threshold. Said Parshathy to Lokmarg: “The lockdown and the uncertainty that followed put me into a confused state of mind like anyone else. More because I am a performer and I was working with a theatre group in Bangalore when lockdown was declared. Initially, it was a shock. There was also anxiety. But, gradually, we had to ease into the new reality. In this regard, all I could resort to was to the virtual space. Although, I still feel theatre is about that live presence of the actor in flesh and blood before you, I had to reach out to fellow artistes for some creative respite. Along with a few artistes in Kerala, we got together on Google Hangouts to read a play. Just practicing enunciation, observing beat changes and emoting, felt like catharsis for me. I didn’t mind that we were reduced to square sizes on our laptops and mobile screens. All that mattered was we kept the camaraderie of theatre going. Just seeing my co-actor’s faces was a relief. I would thank technology for bringing me a little closer to my tribe to vent out our woes, sing songs together and rehearse our lines, even when the possibility of going on stage felt so far away.”

Jazz, folk, blues, Spanish guitar, classical, Indian and western, short films, amateur films with a hand camera, poetry and recitations, stories and games of children, grandmothers’ tales, webinars, monologues and discussions on current affairs, including hard topics like fake encounters and Galwan Valley, long distance classical music and opera, old paintings and old film posters, pictures of yesteryears like the premier of Guru Dutt’s Kagaz ke Phool, biographies of great actors, filmmakers, singers and musicians, and their songs and film clips,  including  how to cope with depression and mental health issues,  and, of course, political resistance, peacefully and non-violently, inspired by archival icons: Che Guevara, Gandhi, Frida Kahlo, Charlie Chaplin, Lenin.

Every step in social media etc these days is a step into archival and contemporary innovations, some brilliant some totally banal, but that is life, isn’t it? 

The icing on the cake has been a Cat Stevens’ new song, sung with the old man oozing grace and lyricism. Also Martin Scorsese giving lectures on filmmaking, starting with ‘Battleshop Potemkin’ of Sergie Eisenstein and ‘Taxi Driver’ with Robert De Niro, as a teaser. That’s cool and tempting too, but the hitch is that it costs a packet.

A Humble Cookie Can Crumble The Virus

One thing India needs most amidst the persisting Covid-19 pandemic, besides the still-elusive vaccine, and the equipment and health infrastructure, which it has succeeded in producing, is the ubiquitous biscuit.

Making and marketing this humble ready-to-eat item that is also most accessible and affordable, has posed as big a challenge as fighting the pandemic itself.  Both, urban India and the rural poor have over the last three months virtually lived on it.

In initial weeks after the lockdown, one of the world’s strictest, stores in richer neighborhoods of Mumbai, Delhi, and elsewhere, ran out of it. For working-class citizens forced out of the cities for want of work, a glucose-enriched biscuit was the most easily digestible antidote to hunger as they headed home, miles away, many of them on foot.

Luckily, this sector – one of the very few – rose to the challenge. Indeed, it is on a roll. Companies have worked overtime and registered flourishing sales.

The big and small producers all experienced initial setback in April. Production was hit by abrupt lock-down when workers either could not report to work or had left for their villages. Yet, it was mainly the biscuit that the migrant labour walking back home under extremely trying conditions, found handy to carry, to feed self and the children.

ALSO READ: Misery And Hope Amid Covid-19

As the world witnessed this heart-rending mass movement, the worst since the 1947 Partition, there were also soothing pictures of biscuit packets being tossed on to the moving trains and buses.

To feed these millions on the move, government agencies, the NGOs, and buyers across the country rushed to get this packaged staple. Biscuit thus fulfilled the original role for which it was conceived: nutritious, easy-to-store, easy-to-carry, and long-lasting food for long journey.

For the pious, their conscience troubled by what was happening around it is also the easiest and the cheapest give-away. The smallest pack of five sells for as little as Rupees two. They prefer the little biscuit packets over perishable sweets for distribution to the poor and the children outside the shrines. Biscuit has become charity-favourite.

For the record, biscuit industry having Rs 12,000 crore annual turn-over is one of the largest food industries in India. It produces 5,000 tons daily. Biscuit is also a job-giver. The industry employs 3,50,000 directly and indirectly, over three million. Forty percent of the manufacture is with the small and medium-scale factories. Growing at 15 per cent pre-Covid-19, the industry as a whole has registered 50 percent higher production during the lockdown.

However, the situation is iffy in that the factory attendance is only around 66 percent, industry association says. This is mainly because companies are currently running on limited staff. It’s still partial production as there are not enough trucks to transport the product.

Covid-19 constraints may impact export and import too. Globally, India is the third largest producer after the US and China. It is also among the top five exporters. It imports biscuit as well to cater to the elite consumer, a growing market what with more and more people emerging with disposable incomes.

The per capita domestic consumption of 2.1 kilogram is, however, low for a simple reason. Indians get a variety of staples, affordable and available round the year. Biscuit goes with tea/coffee, not food.

ALSO READ: ‘Creating Jobs And Making Profit’

To clarify, the focus here is on the humble biscuit with wheat flour, sugar and glucose and claimed nutrients and not on the exotic variety that has nuts, butter, raisins, chocolates, colours and aromas added artificially with use of intelligent technology.

There is a vast market for biscuit in India that is growing in rural areas. Large population base which majorly comprises rural population creates a huge demand for an affordable biscuit. Unsurprisingly, non-premium biscuits dominate the market in the industry’s forecast period 2019-2025.

Premium biscuits were also projected to exhibit the fastest growth rate what with increasing awareness among consumers, widening of distribution channels coupled with advertising campaigns, high visibility and accessibility of biscuits in retail outlets. However, Covid-19 may change the producers’ priorities. So, wishing them luck, this is best left for happier times.   

Why this bonding over biscuit? Why is it so popular? To be sure, it is one of the most universally consumed foods. Across India’s complex and varied culinary landscape where food habits (remember the vegetarian-non-vegetarian divide?) often determine social relationships, biscuit is neutral. It is consumed by people of all class, caste, religion, ethnicity, and income. Wealthier Indians dip them in milky tea/coffee and poorer ones in spiced tea or just water.

Biscuit can be found at luxury hotels, in an urban ghetto as well as in the make-shift wooden kiosks along the farms of rural India. Wax paper packaging gives it long shelf-life and salty or sugary taste is welcome to those engaged in physical labour.

ALSO READ: Migrant Crisis Will Haunt Modi 2.0

Biscuit has long history in South Asia having evolved with the Muslim rule. Even today, old parts of Delhi, Hyderabad or Agra cities have the producer/hawker armed with an iron slab on coal-fire making sugary, ghee-rich ‘nankhatai’.

The art of confectioning thrived with Europeans’ arrival, be it British French, Portuguese or the Dutch colonizing different parts of India. Modern-day biscuit first became popular among Muslims when the British introduced it in Sylhet in the present-day Bangladesh. The Hindu elite took a while to emulate. What was elite food once has now been embraced as comfort food by the common man. Think of the sweeper who, having cleaned the road outside, taking the first sip of tea with biscuit.

There are social contexts galore if you use Bollywood down the decades as a yardstick. One of the most telling, perhaps, is Shubh Mangal Savadhan (2017). The young protagonist subtly conveys to the eager heroine of his erectile dysfunction (ED) problem. He dips a biscuit in tea and lets it crumble. Enamoured of him still, the girl, confesses to her best friend: “I will never be able to have biscuit and tea!”

Over three months after Prime Minister Modi’s first announcement, although the pandemic is not, India’s lockdown is beginning to ease. For workers, the village-to-city reverse journey has begun. As they travel back, not on foot this time and with hope in their hearts, biscuit is there on the trains, at railway stations and awaiting them in factory canteens.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

‘Reopening Our Restaurant Needed Courage & Caution’

Saurabh Jalan (36), a restaurateur in Kolkata, used the lockdown period to set new safety and hygiene standards in place. When Unlock 1.0 came, Jalan was ready to reboot

I own three restaurants in Kolkata and have been in this business for last five years. The business was running smoothly till Coronavirus pandemic struck. People in Kolkata love adda (loosely, a hangout buzzing with debates and discussion), and long social meetings are an inherent part of the city’s culture. Coronavirus and the ensuing lockdown brought an abrupt end to this.

The hospitality sector has been the worst hit and we didn’t know what the future would hold for all of us. The first lockdown had been announced so suddenly that many of our employees were not able to go back to their home towns in other states, especially our housekeeping staff and chefs etc. on duty that night. The first thing we did was to tell them not to panic and keep their morale high. We provided them shelter in the restaurant itself and took care of their needs to make them feel they were not alone in this crisis.

Realising that the pandemic will change the way we would socialise in future, we trained our staff to set new hygiene and sanitation standards in place.

ALSO READ: ‘How I Turned (Dining) Tables On Lockdown’

I then sat with my partners to draw a plan to provide food to the needy. It had twin purpose: we served our society and also kept our employees engaged in work. Every day, we sent out around 1,000-1,500 food packets. We thus we got better equipped against Covid-19. When the Unlock 1.0 was announced, we were cautious but ready to be back in business.

Our patrons’ safety was paramount. So we kept only one of the three restaurants fully functional while other two were turned into take-away or home delivery setups. The dining in facility was kept limited to our veg multi-cuisine restaurant called Fly Kouzina (Kolkata’s first airline-themed restaurant in Salt Lake area).

I would be lying if I said we are not scared. But we have a solid team which brainstorms every morning about how to make things safer, more hygienic and yet enjoyable for both customers and employees.

Saurabh Jalan (middle) at his restaurant

There are paper envelopes for guests to keep their masks while they are eating. We share the menu via WhatsApp so there is minimum need to touch anything except the food we eat. If customers want to order food from their cars parked outside, we make sure we provide them with as good a service as we do inside the restaurant.

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The surfaces are regularly sanitized. Excessive care is taken in keeping the washrooms sanitized after every single use. We also take out the time to address each and every query the guests might have related to our preparation against Covid-19.

Based on our experience on Fly Kouzina, we hope to open our other two restaurants pretty soon. Both the public as well as restaurant owners are showing courage with caution. Each day brings with itself new challenges and newer solutions to keep the fight against Covid-19 going.

We have only about 30-40 people coming in to our restaurant every day but we hope things will begin to pick up slowly. Flying is still very risky but people can get a little feel of travel at our airline-themed restaurant.

‘Class 10 & 12 Students Staring At Uncertain Future’

Swapnil Pal, who gave Class 10 board exams in March, is anxious about his future but lauds the role of teachers for continuing to take (online) classes. Pal says these teachers are also Corona warriors

I just gave my Class 10 Boards and what a year it has been. Everyone except Class 10 and Class 12 students have their regular online classes going on and yet the students of these two classes are staring at an uncertain future. Our education is on hold for the time being. The only semblance of certainty and structure in our education right now comes from the online Engineering coaching classes conducted by an institute called Scholar’s Den.

Even though we have adapted to online classes now, there’s a certain feeling of learning in classroom. One learns while having fun with friends. The engineering entrance syllabus is quite a handful and friends help one break the monotony. Also, there is a sense of camaraderie. Now we are all studying alone in our homes.

ALSO READ: ‘Anxiety In Students, But Online Mischiefs Continue’

We are around 60 students in one class and classes are conducted through Zoom. Every day around 1.5 GB data gets used to attend the classes and the rest for assignments. Only a little data is left if one wants to play games or watch videos. Our classes are conducted between 3 pm to 8 pm and in the mornings we are supposed to complete our assignments given in these classes.

The teachers are also getting used to new ways of teaching. Many of them are still themselves learning about handling technology perfectly. A few days ago our one and half hours Inorganic Chemistry class got cancelled because of a technical glitch. One didn’t when the glitch would be solved so we didn’t really know what to do. Then other problems occur too, like user id and password not matching when tests are about to happen. I was locked out of a test recently because it happened with me. I wish I had been able to take that test, but it is ok, one needs to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances and glitches in these times.

ALSO READ: ‘Few Smartphones, So We Used SMS, Voice Data’

The group feeling isn’t there, that we are all preparing for these exams together, but we make up for it by sometimes calling each other when we get time between classes and assignments. I divide my time between topics wisely and make sure to ask questions if we don’t understand anything. We have something known as DCC (Doubt Clearing Classes) everyday in breaks between online classes and we are encouraged to clarify the minutest of our doubts before moving on to the next chapter or topic. That’s something that has helped us students a lot. While studying on my own also I ask myself if I have really understood the topic and can explain it to someone else easily.

I don’t know when schools will reopen and we will be able to get admissions in Class 11, but I am sure of one thing that our education won’t stop. There are so many people working to set things straight, especially we see news of so many teachers working dedicatedly. Teachers can also be called corona warriors. They are fighting to keep ignorance at bay and are fighting to keep hope in the future alive.

‘Few Smartphones, So We Used Voice Data For e-Class’

Anuj Agarwal, the principal of a government inter college in Uttar Pradesh, says not all his students had smartphones at home. So, he devised new ways to conduct e-classes

I have been in the teaching profession for nearly 12 years now and I wish to take education to the outermost fringes of society. I teach Social Sciences and English, and I want to impart knowledge to anyone who is curious and dedicated. However, when the Coronavirus struck and schools, colleges were shut down, it acted as a sudden dampener to my purpose.

Our government college, at Manpur in Moradabad, was established recently as the first inter college in the area. We were in the middle of fine-tuning paraphernalia when the virus outbreak happened. Since it was such an unprecedented crisis, it took us some time to figure things out.

Most of our students come from underprivileged background who either do not have smartphones or cannot buy expensive data plans. Nor could we allow them to huddle around a single smartphone for classes because of social distancing norms. We therefore realised we needed to innovate to be able to continue teaching them via distance learning methods.

ALSO READ: ‘Teaching My Daughter In Lockdown’

You will be surprised with what solutions small-town India can come up with to overcome hurdles. Video calls hog data. So we decided to break down school curriculum chapters into smaller topics, and then converted them into voice data.

Next, we disseminated the same chapters via various mediums. To explain some subjects, we made videos on the topic and put them up on public platform like YouTube. We ensured these videos were of short-duration. Those who had access to a basic smartphone and a basic data plan, could opt for the video format.

For those who could not access videos on their phone, we made small audio clips of a few minutes each. These audio clips were sent through both WhatsApp and as normal voice recordings. We also used standard SMS services to send written material. This didn’t require any internet connection or downloading.

Plus, we told our students that we were available on call to clarify any doubt they might have on a particular topic. It’s ok if a student can’t see us, at least they can hear us and learn. So basically we prepared the same knowledge into different formats.

Agarwal believes teachers also learn from students.

What prepared me for this was the fact that I had been a part of both Skill India and Digital India programmes of the government. Thus, I understood the technical aspects of e-learning.

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Our students have classes from 8 am to 2 pm. We have around 60 students in our college and seven-eight teachers, and we keep brainstorming about how we can make learning more accessible. Since I serve as both the Principal as well as the Social Sciences teacher, I ensure that the children can come up to me regarding any query they have about the subject. I have kept some time aside to answer their queries related to Coronavirus or any other important social issues. Many a time students surprise me with their ideas. Some of them who have access to smart phones at times send us some interesting links and we learn from them.

Thankfully the electricity situation in UP has improved so the students face no problem in keeping their phones charged for classes.

A lot of people are currently praising the Kerala government’s idea of taking education to children who don’t have access to internet through television, but very few know that the HRD ministry had already taken this initiative like SWAYAM Prabha.

For many years (2008-2014), I was involved in teaching children of manual scavengers. Teaching is a deeply fulfilling task and Coronavirus has taught us the importance of being well-informed and adaptive in the face of uncertainty.