Tuesday, January 19 2021

The UP police has left for Mumbaithat too in a car. The charges in the FIR are serious. Be ready to pay the price for hurting religious sentiments.

That’s the chilling tweet of CM Adityanath’s media advisor, referencing a new case filed in Uttar Pradesh against the ‘Tandav’ team—including Amazon India content head Aparna Purohit. This comes on the heels of a BJP MLA in Maharashtra who kicked off the controversy by expressing outrage at its references to Shiva’s trident and damru. Then the Information & Broadcasting Ministry asked Amazon to respond to the charges. The result: An unconditional apology from the director. But it is unlikely to satisfy the Hindutva leaders who are demanding a total ban. FYI: gangster Vikas Dubey was killed in an ‘encounter’ as he was being brought back to UP in a car.

Big Story

A stuttering start to the great vaccine rollout

The TLDR: The government’s ambitious first phase plan to vaccinate 30 million Indians has got off to an unsteady start. The reasons include: low turnout, malfunctioning vaccine app and, in some cases, open rebellion. Here’s a quick overview of where we are at the end of Day 3.


First, some numbers

The government plans to inoculate around 300 million Indians over the coming months. The first in line: healthcare and frontline workers. The campaign kicked off on Saturday, and here’s how it went: 


  • On Day 1, of the targeted 300,000, only 207,000 received the first dose of the vaccine.
  • The next day, i.e. Sunday, the number dropped to 17,072.
  • On Monday, it spiked back up to roughly 148,000. 
  • The overall total so far: 381,305—which is less than 100K above the first day target.


Point to note: Other countries like the US, UK and Russia—which had a head start—have vaccinated 14.3 million, 3.8 million and 1.5 million respectively. The US rollout—which kicked off mid-December—has been mired with delays and glitches as well.


The no-show problem

A lot of people who were registered to receive the vaccine simply didn’t show up. 


  • In New Delhi, only 53% of them came forward for jabs. 
  • In Tamil Nadu, the turnout was even lower: 16%.
  • At one community centre in Rohtak, only 29 out of the expected 100 turned up.
  • And the no-shows are creating a far more serious problem: In Nagpur, 51 vaccine doses went waste on Day 1. In Chennai at least 192 doses were wasted.
  • At a Kolkata centre—where only 19 out of 100 came to get their shot—authorities gave six staff members the Covaxin vaccination instead.


A possible reason: A recent survey found that 69% of the respondents are not in a hurry to get a shot—up from 59% in November when no vaccine had been approved. More notably for this first stage, a December survey of healthcare professionals found that a whopping 55% are hesitant either because they’re worried about side-effects, or not sure about its efficacy. Also this: Only 26% of parents will allow their children to be inoculated.  


Not helping matters: The controversy over the efficacy of Covaxin—whose trial data is still incomplete (explained at length here). At this stage, healthcare workers do not have a choice as to which vaccine they receive. This has led to open rebellion in some places like RML Hospital in New Delhi. When the resident doctors association realised that the hospital had only received Covaxin doses, they simply refused to take the shot. In a letter to authorities:


"We would like to bring to your notice that the residents are a bit apprehensive about the lack of complete trial in case of Covaxin vaccine and might not participate in huge numbers thus defeating the purpose of vaccination. We request you to vaccinate us with Covishield which has completed all stages of the trial before its rollout."

Adding to the resentment: A double standard about who receives which vaccine. In Delhi, state and private hospitals administered Covishield, while the Union government-run hospitals received Covaxin. As one doctor in AIIMS said: “We are being told that if we don’t volunteer in the drive, we won’t get the shots later on. This is nothing but a pressure-building tactic.”


A glitch-ridden app

The Co-Win app: Given the government’s obsession with going digital, it unsurprisingly decided that the entire vaccination process is managed via an app called Co-Win—for Covid Vaccine Intelligence Network (yup, the W for the ‘Win’ is entirely arbitrary). To get the vaccine, recipients must register on the app—which sends them a message telling them when to show up at the centre. After the person receives the jab, the app is supposed to automatically update their information—and send a confirmation message. 


Glitches galore: But the app performed very poorly starting Day 1:

  • Across the country, healthcare workers did not receive the alert telling them to show up. On Friday night—when 4000 registrants didn’t get the alert—Mumbai authorities had to make frantic calls instead.
  • In many cases, workers received the alert the day after their assigned date.
  • At other centres, staff was not able to record who had received the first jab due to data lags and system failures.
  • As a result, a number of states like Punjab and Haryana cobbled together their own process—using individual phone calls and manual data entry to sidestep the app.
  • Maharashtra delayed the vaccination rollout to today until the tech issues were resolved.


The safety record

For all the fears about the vaccines, the number of adverse reactions—580 in total—have not been alarming. There were only seven cases of hospitalisations—of which only one is still in hospital under observation.


Number of deaths: There have only been two so far. Authorities have ruled out the vaccine as a cause of death in one case in Uttar Pradesh—citing cardiopulmonary disease (pockets of pus in lungs, enlarged heart). The post-mortem is still awaited on the other but Karnataka authorities say it was likely a heart attack.


Important point to note: Last week, the health ministry’s guidance offered this advice:


“A set of instructions circulated by the health ministry to all states last week had said a history of chronic diseases or underlying disorders such as cardiac, neurological, pulmonary, renal or malignancies are ‘not contraindications’ for Covid-19 vaccines—in other words, people with such health disorders can receive the vaccines.”


OTOH, Bharat Biotech has now released a detailed factsheet strongly advising people with a variety of underlying conditions to avoid taking Covaxin. These include those who are acutely ill, with autoimmune disorders, cancer patients, or have bleeding disorders or are on blood thinners.

The bottomline: All big initiatives tend to stumble at the outset. The big question is whether the government will help fix these bottlenecks—or leave the states to sort it out by themselves. Also: in hindsight, waiting to rollout Covaxin would have been a far wiser choice.


Reading List

Times of India has the most on the Co-Win app issues. The Telegraph has the most details on the deaths. South China Morning Post and Times Top10 have details of the glitches. Read: our explainers on the Covaxin trial data and the great challenges of distributing the vaccines in India. A related good read: The Atlantic offers a balanced and knowledgeable take on the rising panic over mutations.


Sanity Break #1

Blue is the rarest color in nature. French illustrator and author Isabelle Simler’s coffee table book ‘The Blue Hour’ offers a stunning ode to its many shimmering hues. The video above offers the best view of her gorgeous artwork. A must read: Maria Popova on Simler’s book. It is intended for young adults, but also recommended for adults who are forever young (i.e. all of us).

Headlines that matter

Worries about the Arunachal border

Satellite images accessed by NDTV show that China has constructed a brand-new village with 100-odd homes within Indian territory. Now, Beijing always controlled this area (despite what the official maps say), but had maintained a minimal presence until now. Since late last year, the local BJP MLA has been warning of Chinese incursions in the area:


''Construction is still going on. China has entered more than 60-70 kms inside the upper Subansiri district if you follow the path along the river. They are constructing a road along the river known locally as the Lensi as it flows in the direction of the Subansiri river.''


The government responded to the NDTV exclusive, saying:


“In response, our government too has stepped up border infrastructure, including the construction of roads, bridges, etc, which has provided much-needed connectivity to the local population along the border.” 


Point to note: Experts have been sounding the alarm about Beijing’s plans for months:


“China has been using a strategy of settling Han Chinese and Tibetan members of the Communist Party along the India border to strengthen its territorial claims and escalate border intrusions. Like it used fishermen in the South China Sea, China uses civilian resources—herders and grazers—as the tip of the spear to intrude into Indian-patrolled Himalayan areas.”


Supreme Court ducks on farmer rally

The union government asked the Court to issue an order banning the kisan rally in Delhi planned for Republic Day. The justices—who eagerly stepped in to suspend the laws, and form a mediation committee—decided instead to pass: 


“Mr Attorney-General, you must understand that intervention of this court has unfortunately been misunderstood. Who will come to the city and who will be allowed is not something for us to see… Invoke all your powers to see whether farmers can be allowed in the city. Who can be allowed and who cannot be allowed are matters of law and order which is to be dealt by police.”


The Telegraph has more.


Inauguration Day: A quick update

  • The thousands of military troops who will guard the ceremony and its attendees are being vetted by the FBI. The reason: there are serious fears of an “insider attack”: “We’re continually going through the process, and taking second, third looks at every one of the individuals assigned to this operation.”
  • An NGO is suing Apple to force it to remove Telegram from its App Store. The reason: The platform is hugely popular among rightwing groups—and even more so since Apple took down the rightwing platform Parler after the riots in Washington. The lawsuit may not succeed but it signals the consequences of the precedent set by the tech ban on Parler. The Washington Post has more.
  • The New Yorker has an excellent essay on what lessons India and Gandhi can offer Americans in the wake of the insurrection.


Phones are gonna get pricier

The government is planning to hike import duties by 5-10% on more than 50 items in the upcoming union budget. The aim of this atmanirbhar plan: additional revenue of about $2.8 billion. On the list of items: phones, electronic components—but also furniture and electric vehicles. So yeah, Ikea may not be quite so affordable either. (The Telegraph)


Indians heart Instagram

Move over, Facebook. Indians of all ages—and across the country—are flocking to its hipper cousin. A new survey measuring how we spend time online shows:


  • More of us watch videos (51%) and we do it more often—spending six hours more a week watching videos compared to 2018.
  • Everyone loves social media, especially post-millennials who spend the most time on it.
  • The biggest hit is Instagram: “The share of those who visit the site regularly rose 10 percentage points over the past two years to 72%, driven largely by users from Tier-3 cities and towns.”
  • And the greatest rise is amongst the olds: 54% pre-millennials are now active on Instagram compared to 36% in 2018.


But Indians don’t heart Hike: The ‘made in India’ messaging app has shut shop, and the company will instead focus on its two other products: the gaming platform Rush and social media app Vibe. (Mint)


In other social media news: Women selling second-hand clothes online—on Facebook, Insta, eBay etc.—are being harassed with requests for sex and "worn" garments. According to one seller: “During lockdown, the messages have gotten really creepy… They always want to know how many times it has been worn and if it is dirty." Worse: many women didn’t report such incidents because they were "embarrassed", "ashamed" or "didn't want to risk losing their accounts.” (BBC News)


Nepal sets a new record

A team of Sherpas has become the first to climb the 8000-metre K2—the world’s second tallest mountain—in the height of winter. Point to note: the peak is only 200 metres shorter than Mt Everest, and was considered impossible to climb during the colder months. Also this:


“In the world of high altitude climbing, so long dominated by western climbers and expeditions who have relied on Sherpas to assist them, the ascent—and by such a large team—marks an extraordinary achievement for Nepali mountaineering.”


All of which makes this photo shared by Nirmal Purja—a former Gurkha and UK special forces member—really special:


Why do women quit work?

The ‘leaky pipeline’ among affluent, educated Indian women—i.e. the decision to abandon their careers—has long been a subject of research and debate. There have been plenty of theories, but here’s a new one that makes a lot of sense: educated mothers quit in order to rear children for success:


“[M]any graduate and postgraduate women stay home to concentrate on preparing their children for competitive exams and professional courses. Many mothers routinely accompany their children to Kota or other hubs of coaching centres, and many working women in government service take the so-called two-year “childcare leave" during children’s class 10 and 12 exams. Thus, it is the social goal of family mobility that seems to be the driving factor for educated married women staying out of the labour force.”


A related good read: Should women be compensated for “unpaid domestic and care work”? According to this fascinating Hindustan Times op-ed, Indian courts certainly think so, and have been far ahead on this issue than most of us may know.


Who’s a smart monkey?

Researchers have discovered that monkeys deliberately steal high-value items from humans—to hold them hostage and barter them for food. And the older they are, the better they are at differentiating between how much you value a hat versus a camera or a phone. Also, this:


"Finally, the researchers decided to take a look at the 'most skilful [sic] and selective individuals,' or the subadult and adult monkeys. In terms of quantity, both groups of monkeys waited to be offered more food rewards before giving back the item when they deemed it to have high value. Adult monkeys were even pickier when it came to quality though, and rejected more of their least-preferred types of food rewards when holding a higher-valued item."


A passenger in hiding

Aditya Singh flew from Los Angeles into Chicago’s O’Hare airport—and promptly went into hiding in its security zone. And he lived there for three months without being detected—until Saturday. He has now been arrested, and is facing charges. The reason for this bizarre airport Airbnb maneuver: He was “scared to go home due to COVID.” Home, FYI, is in California where the numbers are skyrocketing. (Chicago Tribune)

Sanity Break #2

This painting by Sudhir Patwardhan is titled ‘Lockdown Couple’. At first glance, it appears to be a comment on the tedium of pandemic life. But we gained new appreciation of the artworkand its details including the colours of the carpetafter we read his interview. This is, in fact, a powerful comment on the ‘love jihad’ laws. The interviewer Benita Fernando pulled together a fabulous thread of his paintings.

Smart & Curious

A list of curious facts

One: This rare cover illustration for a Tintin comic‘The Blue Lotus’sold for a record-setting $3.84 million last week. Smithsonian has more on why this Hergé creation is so highly valued.


Two: There is a right way to stroke a catand in all likelihood, you are doing it entirely wrong. No, they do not like belly rubs! BBC Science Focus has all the cat-cuddling dope you need.

Three: Acclaimed novelist Patricia Highsmith (of ‘Talented Mr Ripley’ fame) was a self-professed ‘Jew-hater’who had her most significant love affairs with Jewish women! The Guardian has more in this review of a new biography.


Four: The happiest years of a human being’s life are 23 and 69as per scientific research. The reason: “Young people strongly overestimate their future life satisfaction while the elderly tend to underestimate it.” Mel Magazine has more.


Five: In 2016, Mike Tyson went to Suriname to participate in a birdsong competition, and brought his own bird. See, we saved the best for last.


Feel good place

One: Best music vid for ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’.


Two: Best music vid for ‘Hit the Road, Jack!’


Three: A good reminder to self: ‘You Are the Sun’ by Georgia O'Keeffe.


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