Friday, October 16 2020

But there are two types of women I shun—because both types bore me to death… One is the placid Indian housewife—you know, the bovine, contented type who shouldn’t be seen outside her kitchen. And the other is the other extreme—the too liberated, too sophisticated, chain-smoking, career-oriented westernised type.

That’s none other than Sharmila Tagore in a 1974 interview with Star & Style magazine. The entire interview (both questions and answers) is a jarring trip to some Indian version of ‘Mad Men’—and totally worth the funhouse ride. Yes, this is Throwback Friday, the meaner cousin of TBT.

Big Story

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The Covid vaccine’s big delivery challenge

The TLDR: This is the second installment of our two-part series that looks at the immense challenge of actually vaccinating a country of 1.38 billion people. The first part examined whether India can acquire the required number of doses, pay that steep bill, and identify who needs to be vaccinated first. You can read it here.


In this final part, we look at logistics—an innocuous word that hides just how difficult it will be to deliver that precious injection to millions. Vaccines have to be stored at the right temperature, require additional equipment—vials and syringes—and need trained personnel to administer the dose.


Can we store the vaccine?

Freezing temperatures: Of the three leading candidates, Moderna and Pfizer have to be stored in deep-freeze conditions. Temperatures have to be as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius from the moment they are bottled to the time they are ready to be injected into the patients’ arms. The Oxford vaccine is the only one that is fine at minus 20 degrees—which can be achieved by most available freezers.


The freezer problem: 


  • We only have 80,000 cold storage units—and will need twice as many to vaccinate the targeted 250 million. 
  • Each of the ice-lined refrigerators recommended by the WHO cost thousands of dollars. And the solar-driven variety—needed where there is no electrical supply—are even more expensive. 
  • Planes and trucks will have to be fitted with the right freezers to transport the vaccines.
  • Once removed from deep-freeze, these vaccines have a very short shelf life. Moderna can be kept in a normal fridge for two weeks. Pfizer will last only 48 hours. 
  • At room temperature, most vaccines will deteriorate very quickly. 


Point to note: If the winning vaccine requires deep-freeze conditions, it will be very difficult to administer them in smaller clinics. Rather, we will have to arrange mass vaccinations in large venues. As Mint notes:


“Camps in schools and stadiums—similar to election time—have to be set up.

Also in the primary health centres (PHC), established to cover a population of 30,000 in rural areas. While India has over 30,000 PHCs, many of them don’t function too well. The next few months is a good time to fix them.”


The dry ice problem: Now, dry ice—which is minus 79 degrees Celsius—can help lower the temperature in a typical freezer. And it will be critical in planes and trucks. But there is a significant shortage thanks to the virus. 


  • Dry ice is a solid form of carbon dioxide—and is a byproduct of the production of ethanol. 
  • But ethanol production—which is a key ingredient in petrol—is tied to the demand for gasoline. 
  • When people stopped driving during the pandemic, ethanol production came to a standstill. 
  • This in turn created a huge shortage in carbon dioxide, and therefore dry ice.
  • The other issue: dry ice has to be replenished with religious precision for some of these vaccines—which is a big ask. One US immunisation expert says: “To actually train providers to use dry ice—to get them dry ice—you’re really going down a path that’s not feasible.”

Point to note: Delivery giant DHL recently estimated that delivering the vaccine across the world will require 15,000 flights carrying 200,000 bulk consignments—which then will have to be distributed in 15 million deliveries in cooling boxes.

What about vials, syringes etc.?

Cold-resistant glass: If the vaccine has to be stored in deep-freeze, so do the vials that contain them—and these are in short supply. In the US, Corning is developing a new kind of glass that can withstand the lowest temperatures—and is built to resist contamination. Again, none of this is cheap. The US government has shelled out $204 million to fund this special project.


Syringes: Most Covid vaccines require two doses per person. And if the government plans to vaccinate 250 million in the first phase, we will need half a billion syringes. But on this point, there is good news: India is one of the largest syringe makers in the world with a production capacity of over 1 billion a year. By the middle of 2021, we can ramp that up to 1.4 billion.


Human expertise: In India, only doctors and nurses can administer an injectable vaccine—and that won’t be sufficient to get the job done. We will have to train other staff such as pharmacists. The government is already working on “online training modules” for skilled staff who can both administer vaccinations and report any side effects. 

The big plan: The government will release its plan for distribution in the coming weeks—based on the assumption that it will have a vaccine by early 2021. These include a digital monitoring platform that will track the vaccines at each stage of the supply chain, and a cold storage supply chain that taps into private companies.

When will I be vaccinated?

The entire immunization programme will unfold over years. As one virologist points out: “One of the country’s largest vaccination campaigns so far—delivery of the measles–rubella vaccine to 405 million children, starting in 2017—has taken 3 years.”  And as we noted last week, the first priority are those most at risk: frontline workers, the elderly and those with underlying conditions. WHO has already said that the average young, healthy person will have to wait until 2022.


The bottomline: The first vaccines aren’t likely to offer some kind of golden shield—and there will be greater confusion because there are so many different kinds. The New York Times emphasizes: 


The first vaccines may provide only moderate protection, low enough to make it prudent to keep wearing a mask. By next spring or summer, there may be several of these so-so vaccines, without a clear sense of how to choose from among them. Because of this array of options, makers of a superior vaccine in early stages of development may struggle to finish clinical testing. And some vaccines may be abruptly withdrawn from the market because they turn out not to be safe.”


So which vaccine’s requirements should the government plan for?

Reading list

  • ICMYI: Be sure to check out part one of our explainer.
  • New York Times (via ET) looks at the deep freeze challenge. 
  • Times of India has a more India-specific overview of the delivery chain. 
  • The Print focuses on the issue of cold storage. 
  • StatNews raises seven key questions about delivery. 
  • Also in New York Times: The chaos that will be triggered by multiple companies pursuing different vaccine candidates. 
  • Reupped from our previous installment: Mint’s deep dive on delivering the vaccine in India.
  • Bloomberg News looks at the pressure to develop a vaccine asap—and its perils. 
  • Frontline takes a detailed look at the Indian vaccines.
  • Healthline explains all the unexpected ways the vaccine could be delayed.


Sanity Break #1

Oh look, twinsies! Ok, so they’re not quite the same species, but the effect of this series of photographs—taken by Gerrard Gethings—is still quite remarkable. The Guardian has a lot more of these delightful pairings.

Headlines that matter

Centre does a (partial) U-turn on GST

To understand this story, we unfortunately have to start at the very beginning. Our GST-savvy readers can feel free to skip to the end:)


  • It all started when the government decided to implement the Goods and Services Tax—that annoying 5-18% you pay every time you buy anything—back in 2017. 
  • These taxes—levied on stuff like groceries, hotel stays etc.—used to be collected by states. But now all of it goes directly to the Union government—except for petrol, alcohol, and stamp duty. 
  • At the time, then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley promised that every state government will be compensated for the loss of revenue. 
  • But this year, the Union government refused to pay the money owed to the states: A whopping sum of Rs 3 trillion. 
  • Point to note: this owed amount accounts for 42% of states’ own tax revenues. And that money in turn represents 60% of the states’ total revenues. 
  • Instead, it told the state governments to borrow the money owed to them, giving them two options. One: Either borrow Rs 970 billion from the RBI. Two: borrow the entire amount from the market at a higher interest rate.
  • The states were very unhappy—especially those ruled by the Opposition. Of the lot, 21 states and two Union Territories ( Delhi and Jammu) decided to go for Option #1. 
  • But the others continued to resist—insisting that the Centre borrow money to pay the money owed to states. On Thursday, the Kerala government threatened to approach the Supreme Court—saying the Centre’s proposal is unconstitutional (explained by LiveLaw).
  • The Centre has now given in and agreed to borrow Rs 1.1 trillion and loan that amount to the states. 
  • How this works: “So instead of states taking small loans, one big loan will be taken by the Centre and distributed to states on the exact same terms. Whatever interest rate the Centre borrows on, the same rate will be passed on to the states."
  • The upside for the Union government: the amount will not show up as a debt in its books—but those of the state government.
  • How does this affect you: The state governments are dangerously cash-strapped in the midst of a pandemic that has already strained local resources. This is a much-needed and overdue breakthrough. 
  • The Telegraph has a slanted take on the decision. Indian Express offers a more neutral report. Also in Express, a report on how the RBI influenced the government’s decision.


Thais rebel against their king

Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters filled the streets in defiance of a ban on demonstrations. This is the most significant uprising against the establishment—especially the king. And that matters in a country where criticising royalty attracts long prison sentences. Here’s some quick background:


  • The protests started last year after a national election. It was the first since Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha—a former army chief—came to power thanks to a coup in 2014. 
  • The pro-democracy Future Forward Party (FFP), with its popular leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, garnered the third-largest share of seats. 
  • But a court soon banned the party on corruption charges—that sparked immediate protests among young Thais who are FFP loyalists.
  • The rallies receded due to the pandemic, and have now returned in greater force. 
  • Now, the protesters are calling for the resignation of the PM plus 10 significant reforms that include: “the King being answerable to the constitution, revoking the laws against defaming the monarchy, a new constitution, abolishing royal offices, ousting the military-led government and disbanding the King's royal guards.”
  • BBC News and CNN have good primers on the protests. Reuters has photos.
  • Economist has an excellent profile on the playboy King Maha Vajiralongkorn (sign up required).

Television news ratings suspended

The Broadcast Audience Research Council—which is the official source of  weekly TV ratings—has suspended the same for all news channels for three months. This is in response to the fracas over Republic’s allegedly fake TRPs (explained here). BARC will “review and augment” the current standards of measuring and reporting data and improve “statistical robustness and to significantly hamper the potential attempts of infiltrating the panel homes.” Translation: We just realised that we need a system that can’t be rigged by bribing a few households. Doh! (The Hindu)

In related news: The Supreme Court turned down Republic TV’s petition challenging the Mumbai police investigation—and told it to approach the far closer High Court instead: “Your office is at Worli. Worli to Flora Fountain is closer.”

The great pandemic: A quick update

  • All data points to a coming third peak in the US. Europe is now adding an average of 100,000 cases each day. Paris is under night curfew, and the Czech Republic has shut its schools. Netherlands is in a partial shutdown. NPR has more details.
  • Chinese researchers have found new evidence that a person who has the seasonal flu is far more vulnerable to a Covid infection—and may experience greater lung damage as a result.
  • So-called ‘long haul’ Covid—where recovered patients suffer symptoms for months—may have four different causes, and therefore need to be treated differently. BBC News explains.
  • Oxford University scientists have developed a rapid test that delivers results in less than five minutes. But it won’t be available until middle of next year.


In lighter pandemic news: Two mask-related images are making news.


One: Berlin launched an ad campaign featuring an elderly woman telling everyone to mask up. It looked, er, like this. But it was dropped when people complained it was mean to children and people with health conditions that prevent them from wearing masks.


Two: An Insta photo of a newborn baby pulling off the mask from a gynaecologist’s face in Dubai is making everyone smile. Gulf News has the story. (h/t subscriber Indrani Chakraverty)


World is oyster for India Inc

Until now, Indian companies seeking to be listed on a foreign stock exchange first had to go public in India. Now, the government has dropped that requirement for seven key markets—including the US, UK and Japan. Notedly not on the list: Hong Kong. Times of India has more details.

In less happy news: The Sensex dropped 1,066 points due to global anxiety over rising Covid cases in Europe and the US. Also ruining its mood: credit agency Moody’s declared that India’s economy “remains very weak”—and dismissed the government’s recent fiscal package as “small scale.”


Celeb drug bust’s new target: Vivek Oberoi

The actor’s brother-in-law, Aditya Alva has been AWOL ever since he was named in the Sandalwood drug bust in Karnataka (explained here). So the cops raided Oberoi’s home instead: “Vivek Oberoi is his relative and we got some information that Alva is there. So we wanted to check.” NDTV has more.


Rightwing outrage at Twitter/Facebook

For a change, the two big social media platforms are not in trouble with liberals, but the other side. The trigger: A New York Post article that cited materials taken from the laptop of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter—apparently, taken when he gave it for repairs back in 2019. Twitter didn’t allow users to share links to the story, saying it violated its “Hacked Materials Policy.” Facebook limited sharing options by questioning its content—saying it is “part of our standard process to reduce the spread of misinformation.” The Guardian has more details on the controversy. The Verge explains why Post’s reporting is problematic. Since you may not want to support disinformation by searching for the Post story, you can read the Associated Press recap instead.


An appalling gender gap in ‘Time Use’ survey

In 2019, the government conducted the first Time Use Survey in 20 years. The results are depressing:


  • Women spend 84% of their working hours on unpaid work. Men spend 80% of their working hours on paid work. 
  • The worst of the lot: Haryana where men aged 15-59 in Haryana do just 15 minutes of housework a day. The number of daily minutes Haryanvi women spend on unpaid work: 269 minutes.
  • The best-performing states: Telangana and Tamil Nadu, where women spend over 30% of their working hours on paid work.
  • Just 6% of men participate in cooking in any manner, and just 8% do any house cleaning. 
  • Point to note: Upper caste women spend the least time on paid work. 
  • Not surprisingly, upper caste men and women spend far more time on leisure and ‘self care’. 
  • This is because lower caste Indians rely on casual labour to survive: “What this means is that however much time you have, you must work! Of course there is no time for leisure. The upper caste men who employ scheduled caste people as wage labour in their farms and enterprises will naturally have time freed up for leisure."
  • Mint has lots more charts and data on this eye-opening survey.


LA has a jetpack problem

An unidentified person was spotted flying in a jetpack near LA airport—the second such sighting in two months. This genius was flying at the height of 6,000 feet! The FBI is now on the case. (BBC)


The perfect goddess for Durga Pujo

The Barisha Club in Kolkata is replacing Durga with a migrant mother this festive season. She will be in a pale sari, holding a toddler—accompanied by her two young daughters and the perfect fourth sibling: a pot-bellied Ganesha. The Telegraph has more photos and the story.


Sanity Break #2

Can a PSA about sexual assault ever be funny? The answer: Yes. (A big shout-out to founding member Ameya Nagarajan for this gem)

Weekend Advisory

Everyone’s talking about…

Blackpink: If you are a fan of KPop, then this is definitely the biggest Netflix drop of this week. LA Times calls it “surprisingly intimate” for a film that is primarily intended as a marketing tool.


Halal Love Story: The highly anticipated Malayalam film dropped on Amazon Prime on Thursday to mixed reviews. The plot is promising: A filmmaking crew tasked with making a romcom that is ‘halal’—i.e. meets Islamic strictures. The Hindu says it meanders tamely despite great performances. Indian Express calls it a “charming movie about love, faith and heartbreak.”
American Murder: This is a very different kind of true crime documentary—or as Jezebel describes it “the stillest, most bone-chilling found footage horror movie”—that tells the story of Chris Watts, who killed his pregnant wife Shanann and their two young daughters, Bella and Celeste. Not everyone will want to spend their weekend watching this grim story on Netflix, but it's gained rave reviews (here and here) and a huge audience.

A long list of weekend reads

  • Can Indian Americans swing the US election? Yes, if it is a very close one. Quartz explains why.
  • Fast Company looks at the future of Electric Vehicles design. An Israeli company is building the equivalent of giant motorised skateboards—on top of which you can build any form or configuration imaginable.
  • Technology Review takes you into the strange world of a ‘deep fake’ actor—yes, the person who is the actual face behind the fake celeb one.
  • The Swaddle explains why it’s okay to brag about yourself.
  • Mint has a long read on why India’s ‘vocal for local’ won’t bother Google.
  • CNN offers a lovely profile on Jacinda Ardern, the take-out store worker who became a beloved prime minister.
  • Indian Express has a fun read on Pune’s famous Shrewsbury biscuit that has nothing to do with Shrewsbury.
  • Rest of World profiles Preeti Nair, the woman who is challenging Singapore’s racial stereotypes.
  • Stan the 39-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex was auctioned off for an absurd $31.8 million. National Geographic explains why scientists are furious.
Feel good place

One: Pandas on a slide. Enuf said.


Two: Shaadi plot mein perfect twist.


Three: Every parent’s story (whether the kid is human or not)


Four: Shashi Tharoor plays Anthony to Mira Nair’s Cleopatra. Aren’t you glad you scrolled to the very end?


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