Wednesday, May 27 2020

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

That’s a quote by Nobel-prize winning scientist Marie Curie, and it offers a powerful reminder at a time when fear has become our new normal. Fear makes us reach for a face mask and wash our hands. But it also makes us angry, paranoid and blinds us to the suffering of others. The virus, however, can only be conquered by knowledge. Illustration: Parth Savla

the big story

A biblical plague comes our way

TLDR: Last week, massive swarms of locusts entered Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, and Madhya Pradesh. Indian farmers now face the prospect of losing their recently sowed kharif or winter crops to this new calamity—adding to the already dire situation created by the pandemic. PS: Even Delhi is directly in harm’s way.


Er, what are locusts?

They are short-horned grasshoppers that feed on all kinds of flora, including leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, bark and green shoots. This particular variety is a desert locust—considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world. 


Here’s what’s interesting. Locusts are typically loners. They only become “gregarious”—i.e.form swarms—when the environmental conditions are warmer or wetter than usual. Vast numbers of young locusts find themselves crowded together, and start behaving in unison—moving across continents and oceans in search of food. And thanks to climate change, swarms have become more common. The warming oceans trigger cyclones which in turn create warm and wet conditions that are ideal for breeding.


Where are these locusts coming from?

These swarms actually originate in the Arabian Peninsula in a bit called the ‘Empty Quarter’. Starting in 2018, the usually arid area received unusual amounts of rainfall due to two big cyclones, making it nicely warm and wet. Voila! 


The locusts first moved to the Horn of Africa—where they have already devastated tens of thousands of hectares of agricultural land in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. They have since spread across the Red Sea into Pakistan, and now into India. And they were helped all the way by heavy and prolonged rain in various parts of the world—triggered again by climate change.


Where are they in India?

Swarms of locusts swarmed across Jaipur on Monday, and have since spread as far as Madhya Pradesh. Gujarat and Punjab are on high alert. And experts warn that shifting wind patterns may bring them to Delhi by May 28. 


Point to note: this isn't a new problem. India has been battling the locusts since late last year. As of February, the insects had destroyed 3.5 lakh hectares in Rajasthan and Gujarat. But officials thought they had successfully repelled the plague using pesticides, drones and sprayers. Also used: DJs and drums. But now fresh swarms are pouring over the border.


How bad can this be?

A one square kilometre swarm contains about 40 million locusts. A swarm can fly up to 150 km (90 miles) a day with the wind, and adult insects can consume roughly their own weight in fresh food per day. A swarm can eat as much food as 35,000 people in just one day. They also destroy crops by their sheer weight as they descend on them in massive numbers.


And the locust attack in Jaipur looked kinda like this (h/t @srinivasaiims). Or check out alarming photos here and here:

The bottomline: The Old Testament describes a plague of locusts as so:


“Never before had there been such a plague of locusts, nor will there ever be again. They covered all the ground until it was black. They devoured all that was left after the hail—everything growing in the fields and the fruit on the trees. Nothing green remained on tree or plant in all the land of Egypt.”


The good news is this: we have far more technology and pesticides than the Egyptians. And a well-coordinated effort—at home and across nations—can and will stem this pestilent tide.


Reading List

sanity break

Salman Khan has launched a line of personal grooming products called FRSH. We leave him to offer a (perfectly nonsensical) explanation for the lack of vowels in his brand name of choice.

headlines that matter

Gujarat is officially a shitshow

Low testing: The state has 14,000 Covid-19 cases, 888 are dead. And yet it is only conducting between 4,800 and 5,500 tests a day. Worse, there are dangerous delays in testing patients: 66% of those who test positive have died within two days. The big reason: even patients who are critically ill—i.e. on ventilators—have to wait for approval for tests at a private lab. See scary infographic charting the inverse relationship between the state’s Covid count and number of tests.


The High Court case: The state government received a tongue-lashing from judges looking into the dismal state of affairs at the Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad. They called the hospital “as good as a dungeon, maybe even worse than a dungeon”—pointing to the acute shortage of PPE, ventilators and isolation wards. Point to note: 351 of the 570 deaths recorded in Gujarat as of May 20 occurred in this one hospital. Indian Express has more details on the dire state of  Civil Hospital.


Fake ventilators: Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani rolled out his buddy Parakramsinh Jadeja’s cheap “ventilator” with great fanfare—touting Dhaman-1 as a “great achievement” that would “add a feather” in the PM’s ‘Make in India’ campaign. Awesome, except the damn things are actually Artificial manual breathing machines, or Ambu bags. Also: they require way too much oxygen and are near-useless, as hospitals in Ahmedabad are finding out. Now, the CM insists that he never claimed that the contraption was a ventilator. Ahmedabad Mirror has more details on this sordid story of crony capitalism.


An update of the latest Covid gyaan

Bad news about a second peak: The World Health Organisation has warned that countries where coronavirus infections are declining could face an “immediate second peak” if they come out of a lockdown too soon. A senior official said: “[We are] right in the middle of the first wave, globally… We're still very much in a phase where the disease is actually on the way up."


Good/bad news about minks: Dutch workers at mink farms may be the first known case of direct animal-human transmission—i.e. the first instances of where infected animals spread the disease directly to humans. Point to note: we still don’t know exactly how the virus jumped from animals to humans in China. The WHO says it is “collecting and reviewing more data [about the Dutch cases] to understand if animals and pets can spread the disease." The minks and anti-fur activists said: serves you effing right!


Good news about the vaccine: Monkeys were injected with a prototype vaccine—i.e. Infected with the virus. Then 35 days later, doctors sprayed a dose of the virus under their noses. The monkeys showed signs of having developed immunity. Why is this good news? If the monkeys had not produced antibodies immediately, “the implication would be that the entire vaccine effort would fail… That would have been really, really bad news for 7 billion people.


Good news about mutations: A new study shows that not one of the 31 mutations of the virus have proved more deadly than the other. In fact, some of these changes to its DNA have been actively harmful to the virus and its ability to spread. 


Bad news about masks: According to Japanese experts, children under two should not wear masks because it increases the risk of choking.


Google has a delete problem

Google deleted over five million negative TikTok reviews from its Playstore after the app's rating fell from 4.5 to 1.2 stars overnight. The reason: Tik Tok star Faizal Siddiqui posted an offensive spoof of an acid attack—sparking outrage and an anti-Tik Tok backlash. Also fuelling the rage and one-star reviews: a growing anti-China sentiment in India, according to Economic Times.


Also hitting delete: Google-owned YouTube which has been erasing Chinese phrases that are critical of the Chinese Communist Party. The two phrases—“共匪” (“communist bandit”) and “五毛” (“50-cent party”)—were automatically deleted within 15 seconds of posting. YouTube’s response: “This appears to be an error in our enforcement systems and we are investigating.”


Richard Branson’s not having a good year

First came his airline woes. Now his space company Virgin Orbit’s first attempt to launch a rocket from the wing of a Boeing 747 has failed miserably. Yes, you read that correctly. His company plans to use old Jumbo jets to launch satellites into space—making it way cheaper. Branson plans to try again in a few weeks. (BBC)


Signs of the end of lockdown

Metro trains are getting ready to start their engines in Delhi within the next two days. JNU is insisting that students in hostels take the next train home. And Akshay Kumar is shooting a movie—ok, a public service ad campaign offering post-lockdown guidelines. And far, far away, Wall Street has reopened the New York Stock Exchange trading floor—but with facemasks and plexiglass partitions.


Indian economy: Doom & gloom edition

sanity break

Here are seven heartwarming photos of migrants who refused to abandon their pets… unlike a lot of bade log we all know.

reading habit

The World Of Classic Bengali Literature

Editor’s note: Amitav Ghosh. Jhumpa Lahiri... Bengali authors who write in English loom large on the landscape of contemporary Indian literature. But the best Bengali writers wrote in their mother-tongue. This week, The Curious Reader opens the door to the rarely explored world of classic Bengali literature. Here are their favourites.


The Adventures Of Feluda (Vols. 1 & 2): While this one seems rather obvious, I absolutely loved both volumes of Satyajit Ray’s ‘The Adventures Of Feluda’.  Even though the books seem voluminous, the simple writing and inventive plots make these short stories a breeze to get through. If you love Sherlock Holmes, these stories of an intrepid sleuth and his trusty sidekick will be the perfect next step. 

Devanshi Jain, TCR Co-Founder


Mother Of 1084: Curious about the Naxalite revolution in the 70's, I set my sights on Mahasweta Devi's ‘Mother Of 1084’ and boy, did I get my money’s worth! This short read was instrumental in making me aware of my privilege and showed me that the truth is hidden behind the mainstream stories that circulate today. 

Rhea Pereira, TCR Community Manager


The Middleman: While Sankar is more popular for his novel Chowringhee, I’ve always been more intrigued by ‘The Middleman’. The author’s stark description of a teeming city ready to swallow the weak made it a haunting read. Whenever I am in doubt about my ability to survive in a metropolis, this book is my go-to guide on the choices to make (or not to make). 

—Oishani Mitra, TCR Editor


Want more options? Here’s an entire list of must-read classics by Bengali authors to add to your TBR.


Books releases this week 

  • You People: Nikita Lalwani’s moving novel is a beautifully heart-breaking story of undocumented immigrants working at a pizza parlour in London. (June 1 | Hardcover)
  • The Inugami Curse: The death of a rich clan leader, the reading of a will, and so, the murders begin. Seishi Yokomizo, one of Japan’s foremost classic mystery writers, brings us a book that is bound to satisfy all our mystery cravings. (June 1 | Paperback)
  • Upstream: Imagine working in a manner that allows us to predict potential problems and directly eradicate them from the root. Dan Heath’s book teaches us this and much more. (June 1 | Paperback)
  • Miss Iceland: Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s novel comes from the very heart of Iceland where a female writer is looking to carve a space from herself in a world that would rather have her become a wife and a mother. (June 1 | Paperback) 


Brought to you by The Curious Reader

smart & curious

A list of good reads


Day in the life of a doctor

This is a beautifully animated video that captures a single day in the life of Dr. Craig Spencer. He fought Ebola in West Africa as a part of Doctors Without Borders. Now he’s an ER physician in New York City. This is both beautiful and incredibly moving. We wish someone would do the same for our doctors—who are likely fighting the same battle but with far fewer resources.


life advisory

So you wanna jump in a pool...

Surprisingly, swimming isn’t a particularly risky activity. The reason: “[B]ecause chlorine and other common disinfectants, like bromine, ozone, or UV sanitizers, likely kill SARS-CoV-2 in treated water.” But sadly we don’t spend all our time in the water. And that’s when you have to be super careful. (Inverse)


So you want to go out to eat…

After the lockdown ends. Here’s a sensible guide that answers any questions you may have about staying safe at a restaurant. (The Conversation)


So you’re worried about that expiring DL…

Good news: All documents related to vehicle registration, permits and driver’s licences that expired on or after February 1 can now be renewed by July 31. (Quint)


So you’re craving a truly exotic cocktail…

Sure the bars are still closed, but liquor stores are open. So stop yearning and start mixing. Here are 11 recipes for famous cocktails from around the world. For example, Panther’s Milk from Barcelona that is a worryingly pink concoction of gin and condensed milk. Don’t worry, the others are far more palatable 😊 (Atlas Obscura)


the feel good place

This beluga whale at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is having a baby—right here in this clip!


Also a new mom: This tigress at the Sariska Reserve in Rajasthan recently had three little babies—taking the total count up to 20! 


Crawling baby + labradoodle = pure joy! And that’s what we felt watching this clip.


A Pakistani spy pigeon has been caught red-handed -winged (literally) by the Kashmir police. They are now working overtime to decipher the coded message attached to its leg with a ring—which was also red in colour!