Splainer
Tuesday, March 23 2021

She has come to Oxford from Karnataka, which is a bastion of Islamaphobic far right forces… Far right desi forces… want to reinstate sanatan Hindutva culture… Oxford students are still not ready for ‘Sanatani’ president.

That’s an Instagram post shared by Dr Abhijit Sarkar, a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford University—taking aim at Rashmi Samant, who was ousted as president of the Oxford Student’s Union for past anti-Asian remarks on social media. Her cause has been taken up by both BJP MPs and Hindu organisations in the UK—who claim she is being targeted for being a Hindu. And the global Hindu Federation has now filed a police complaint against Sarkar accusing him of inciting religious hatred and bullying. The UK police has opened an investigation. Times of India has the rest of the story.

Big Story

India’s surging ‘R’ number

The TLDR: The number of Covid cases are surging, and both the government and experts are warning of a second wave. Now all attention is focused on that dreaded ‘R’ or reproduction number—which often determines whether or not we go back into a lockdown. But what is this number, and why does it matter?

 

First, the numbers

The big tally: India added 46,951 new cases yesterday, bringing our total number of active infections to 11,646,081. We have added 131,750 over the space of just 72 hours! Maharashtra—which logged 24,645 new cases—accounts for over 60%. And six states account for a whopping 84.5%. These include Maharashtra, Punjab, Kerala, Karnataka, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Among the cities, the big worry is Mumbai which reported the highest daily spike of 3,775—and 316 buildings in the city have now been sealed. Pune with 2,978 cases and Nagpur (2,747) are not far behind.

 

A second wave? While the word is often used to describe any sudden spike, ‘wave’ has a specific meaning in epidemiology. The WHO executive director Mike Ryan defines it so: “There’s a period of time in which there’s very low or no activity, and then the disease returns in a large way.” So the great flu pandemic of 1918 had three distinct waves and looked like this in the UK:

 

India’s pattern: is fairly similar. We were adding a stratospheric 97,800 cases in mid September. The numbers went steadily down until we hit a low of 9,110 on February 9. Soon after, we started to climb again—hitting 14,264 on February 21, then 17,407 cases on March 4 and finally 46,951 cases on Monday.

 

Point to note: Maharashtra is especially worrying. The reason: In the last wave, it was only adding around 23,000 cases a day. Now that number is 30K-plus.

  

What’s with that R number?

The R-nought: R in itself just refers to the reproduction rate of a virus. If one person has Covid, say, how many people will she infect? One version of this number is R0 (Or R-nought). This assumes that everyone in a given population is equally vulnerable to infection—and there are no attempts to stop its spread, i.e. there is no social distancing or vaccinations etc. So the R-nought for this coronavirus is 3, while the number for measles is 15. Typically, experts arrive at this number after the fact—and early in the pandemic. They work back from the data available:

 

“[D]isease modellers look at current and previous numbers of cases and deaths, make some assumptions to find infection numbers that could have explained the trend and then derive R from these.”

 

Here’s a chart showing R0 numbers for different diseases:

 

The real Rt: This is the effective rate of spread, and calculated as the virus spreads. This requires figuring out how many people may already have immunity—either because they’ve already survived the disease or been vaccinated. Often, when health authorities speak of the R number, this is the one they are referencing. And if you have lots of social distancing or widespread vaccinations, there can be a wide variance between Rt and R0. 

 

Point to note: When it comes to Rt, any number above 1—where one person only infects one other person or less—is dangerous. And it becomes a key factor in deciding whether or not to impose a lockdown. Below 1, the virus eventually sputters out, running out of enough people to infect. Above 1, it starts to gather momentum, and the cases grow exponentially. Here’s BBC’s chart on how different Rt numbers produce different case loads.

 

And what’s our Rt number?

As of March 22, it stands at 1.32—the highest since April last year, when there were less than 27,000 cases. And it dipped below 1 in November, and stayed there until late February—which is when the second wave started to build. The big point to note: “The top 16 states with the highest number of active Covid-19 cases, with the exception of Kerala, have Rt over 1.” As of March 19, among the states, Chhattisgarh had the highest Rt number of 1.44—while Maharashtra was 1.29. At the time, the India number was 1.19.

 

So it’s Maharashtra not India, really!

In a sense, yes. The Rt number offers a big picture that can often be misleading.

 

One: It can’t capture how one region or even a city or locality within that region single-handedly drives that overall figure. So our 1.39 number more accurately reflects the situation in one state rather than the country. As The Print notes, “A comparison between the R values of Maharashtra with that of the rest of the country shows that India’s R value roughly mirrors the peaks and troughs of the Maharashtra R graph.”

 

Two: It’s a ‘lagging indicator’ since it relies on cases reported today—which only capture infections that occurred anywhere between 1-3 weeks ago. It can’t capture how the disease is spreading right now. As one expert notes: “If you have your Rt estimate lagging by at least ten days, possibly two weeks, then it’s not going to be that useful as a real-time decision-making tool”—especially when it comes to decisions like imposing a lockdown.

 

Three: Over the course of one year of Covid, experts have learned that this virus doesn’t spread in a uniform way. One person or event can be a super-spreader, while others don’t pass on the virus at all. This is why they are now looking at a new number called ‘K’—which captures ‘dispersion’. During the 1918 flu epidemic, the virus had a K value of around 1—which meant around 40% of those infected didn’t pass on the disease. But for this coronavirus, that number is 0.1—i.e. 70% of those infected don’t infect others. 

 

So it becomes hard to predict the progression of a disease. As The Atlantic notes, 

 

“This highly skewed, imbalanced distribution means that an early run of bad luck with a few super-spreading events, or clusters, can produce dramatically different outcomes even for otherwise similar countries.”

 

And it may explain what we’re seeing right now in Maharashtra—as opposed to other parts of the country.

 

And how does the K number help us?

It offers a different way to tackle the pandemic—or an urgent situation like Maharashtra. Here are two possible strategies:

 

One: Minimise the risk of super-spreader events—all of which have the same characteristics: prolonged contact, poor ventilation, a highly infectious person, and crowding. So rather than a total lockdown, we may look at shutting down theatres, local trains etc.

 

Two: Change how we do contact tracing. Right now, when a person tests positive, we look ‘forward’ to figure out who else they infected. But in a highly variable disease like Covid, that number may actually be small in most cases. The trail will inevitably peter out. So some experts advocate ‘backward’ tracing—figure who infected the person who tested positive. This makes it much more likely that we will identify clusters and superspreading events and people. 


The bottomline: Today marks the one year anniversary of the janata lockdown—when we shut the entire country down to stop the pandemic in its tracks. Clearly, that strategy has not worked. Nor has opening everything, and throwing caution to the winds. Maybe it is time to deploy a new set of more finely-focused measures that embrace the reality of this virus.

 

Reading list

NDTV has the latest on our R number. The Print has a good set of graphs on R numbers for India and Maharashtra. Nature does an excellent job of explaining the R number and its limitations. The Atlantic and The Conversation dive into the K number and why it matters.

Sanity Break #1

Have you heard of Elton John’s lesser-known hit ‘Oven Manual Song’? No? Enjoy!

Headlines that matter

Did UAE broker India-Pakistan truce? 

On February 25, India and Pakistan signed an unexpected ceasefire agreement along their shared border—especially Kashmir. Making it all the more exceptional: this was the first such treaty signed since 2003. Now, a Bloomberg News (via Al Jazeera) exclusive suggests that the United Arab Emirates may have played peacemaker:

 

“Yet behind closed doors, the India-Pakistan cease-fire marked a milestone in secret talks brokered by the UAE that began months earlier, according to officials aware of the situation who asked not to be identified. The cease-fire, one said, is only the beginning of a larger roadmap to forge a lasting peace between the neighbors.”

 

Also this: “The next step in the process involves both sides reinstating envoys in New Delhi and Islamabad, who were pulled in 2019 after Pakistan protested India’s move to revoke seven decades of autonomy for the disputed Muslim-majority State of Jammu and Kashmir. Then comes the hard part: Talks on resuming trade and a lasting resolution on Kashmir, the subject of three wars since India and Pakistan became independent from Britain in 1947."

 

The Hindu notes that there have been previous reports in the Indian media of a “back-channel, allegedly led by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and interlocutors in Pakistan including Pakistan Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa.”

 

Another sign of a thaw: Pakistan and India are getting ready to hold the annual meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission—which focuses on cross-border water-sharing agreements. It too had been suspended for the past 2.5 years.


Sign of a coming chill: Canada, US, UK and the European Union have imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials and one security agency over human rights abuses against the Uighurs. In retaliation, Beijing in turn has imposed travel bans on 10 EU individuals and four entities. (Irish Times)

 

The hidden problem with microplastics

We all worry about plastic pollution—especially of the microscopic kind that extends even to the remotest stretches of the world. But a new study offers a new reason to worry. It found that microplastics are a breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant bacteria and other pathogens. How this happens: Once tiny plastic particles—the kind found in cosmetics, toothpaste and clothing microfibers—wash down household drains and enter wastewater treatment plants, they form a slimy layer of buildup, or biofilm. This in turn allows microorganisms and antibiotic waste to attach to them and thrive. The result: “certain strains of bacteria elevated antibiotic resistance by up to 30 times while living on microplastic biofilms that can form inside activated sludge units at municipal wastewater treatment plants.” Phys.org has this important story.

 

In other unhappy news: A third tigress has died in Maharashtra in eight days—and the eleventh since January 1. Nope, this isn’t a case of poachers running wild since the body parts were intact—and electrocution has been ruled out. The tragic deaths will remain a mystery until the post-mortem offers more clues. In any case, whatever the specific cause of death, the fatality rate especially of young cubs is in itself a huge cause for worry. (Times of India)

 

In other animal-related news: Scientists have just discovered that a lot of marine animals swim in circles. This includes whale sharks, turtles and penguins. Nope, there is no specific reason for it. The data was gathered from across the world—from the Cape Verde Islands to Okinawa, Japan—and while the animals were foraging, swimming home, and returning after nesting. The bottomline: Scientists have no clue why the hell they do it… as yet. (Popular Mechanics)

 

In animal-related horrors: First came a ‘plague’ of mice thanks to the long rainless months. Now the rains have finally arrived in Australia—but with a vengeance. The flooding has brought with it new horrors. For starters: flooding. This in turn has led to… lots and lots of drowned mice. And last but not least: a new plague of insects—as “swarms of spiders flee into homes—and up legs” to escape the floods. We leave it to The Guardian to lay out the full horror. Or just check out the video below:

 

Related good read: The New York Times via the Telegraph looks at how climate change has triggered a cycle of extreme weather patterns in Australia.

 

The great pandemic: A quick update

  • Nope, the pandemic isn’t over. That’s the news from Mumbai where doctors are seeing rapid lung deterioration among young people—who started out as either asymptomatic or had mild symptoms. For instance, doctors treated a 40-year-old with mild symptoms who then required ventilator support within just four days.
  •  Are you ‘quaradreaming’—as in having more nightmares? You can thank your WFH lifestyle that allows you to go to sleep later—and get up later yet. The result: You have more stress and time for REM sleep. The result: more nightmares. 
  • Are you convinced that the Oxford vaccine is absolutely safe? No? Well, here’s more data: the long-awaited US trial shows that the shot is both safe and highly effective. In a trial involving 32,000 volunteers, the vaccine was 79% effective against symptomatic Covid—and showed no signs of causing blood clots. BBC News has more.
  • Speaking of the Oxford vaccine, India has changed its recommendation for Covishield. It has finally recognised the message sent by overwhelming research and asked that the gap between two doses be increased from 4-6 weeks to 6-8 weeks. Research out of Europe suggests that the vaccine can be up to 90 % effective when given at an interval of 12 weeks.
  • Some private hospitals have been informed that they will only receive Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin—and they’re worried that people will refuse to take the jab. The government is worried that the Covaxin vials will expire.
  • As production ramps up, the US will have an oversupply of Covid doses within a month to 45 days and a quarter of unvaccinated adults are still hesitant to take the shot.
  • A new survey of 31,092 people (full-time and self-employed workers) across 31 countries in Asia reveals the huge impact of the pandemic: 50% are considering a career shift and 47% are looking to change jobs—both of which are higher than the global average. The hardest hit: Gen Z workers who are feeling isolated, unexcited and struggling to stay innovative.
  • Two good related reads: MIT Technology Review takes a serious look at researchers who are convinced that the coronavirus may be lab-engineered. NPR has a great read on an American family that was stranded thanks to false rumours about Tablighi Muslims being super-spreaders of Covid, and were separated from their kids for over a year. Here’s the weird thing: They still love this country.

 

National Awards are out!

Kangana Ranaut scored the best actress award for 'Manikarnika’ and 'Panga', while Manoj Bajpayee shared best actor honours for ‘Bhonsle’ with Dhanush (‘Asuran’).  Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan won best director for Bahattar Hoorain. Best feature film: ‘Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham’the Malayalam film starring Mohanlal. See the full list over at Times of India.

 

Speaking about your bacon input…

A new study shows that a single rasher of bacon per day can increase your risk of dementia by 44%. The reason: it is processed meat. And it’s the ‘processed’ bit not the amount of meat that matters:

 

“In the study, people who ate 25 gm a day of processed meat had a 44% greater chance of developing the condition, but those who consumed 50 gm a day of unprocessed meat were almost 20% less likely to develop dementia.”

 

Speaking of your pasta input:  Food podcast host and pasta aficionado Dan Pashman has invented a brand new shape called cascatelliwhich is Italian for "little waterfalls." And it’s engineered to hold on to every bit of that delicious sauce:

 

"That right-angle element is really key to what I think makes this shape different… There are very few pasta shapes that have right angles. It provides resistance to the bite at all angles. It creates kind of like an I-beam, and that makes for a very satisfying bite." 


NPR has more. Also, it looks like this:

 


Speaking of your liquor input: The Delhi government has reduced the legal drinking age from 25 to 21. That said, Delhi is the only city that had this impossible-to-enforce rule for all kinds of booze. Now, it’s all about aiming for a 20% growth in excise revenue thanks to a grudging acceptance of reality. (Mint)

 

Some very strange UFO news

The former Director of National Intelligence under Donald Trump claims that we may have been visited by aliens—as confirmed by sightings by US navy and air force personnel:

 

“And when we talk about sightings, we are talking about objects that have seen by Navy or Air Force pilots, or have been picked up by satellite imagery that frankly engage in actions that are difficult to explain. Movements that are hard to replicate that we don’t have the technology for. Or traveling at speeds that exceed the sound barrier without a sonic boom.”


Why this may not be crazy Trump-lover talk: The comments come just weeks before the US government is set to declassify confidential and ‘detailed analysis of unidentified phenomena data’ in US airspace. Hmm. well, we’ll wait for the report. (The Guardian)

 

What you see is...

The Instagram edition: A 50-year-old Japanese male biker used photo editing apps like FaceApp to transform himself into a young, hot girl to gain popularity:

 

“Zonggu [said] he had wanted to increase his presence on social media and believed people would prefer to see a ‘younger beautiful woman’ rather than an old ‘uncle’. ‘No-one will read what a normal middle-aged man, taking care of his motorcycle and taking pictures outside, posts on his account,’ he said.”

 

Below is the real vs unreal moment of revelation. (BBC News)

 

 The Shakespeare edition: A sculpture that stands above the immortal bard’s grave may be the most accurate version of what he looked like. Until now, the effigy was assumed to be a posthumous memorial of the man—not an accurate rendition. But now, researchers have established that it was created by a sculptor in the playwright’s lifetime, and likely commissioned by him. Also: The 20th-century critic John Dover Wilson characterised it as that of a “self-satisfied pork butcher.” We are hard-pressed to disagree. The Guardian has the rest of this excellent story.

 

Sanity Break #2

We rarely put viral animal videos up here in a sanity break. But this seal has truly earned his place in the sun… and in the fish tank!

Smart & Curious

A list of intriguing things

One: This one is for our classical music nerds—and we have many among our subscribers. Does a $5000 cello sound very different from a $180,000 and $1 million kind? Wendy Law performed this fascinating experiment with one of the best known classical tunes: Bach Suite No. 1. Jump to the 1:20 mark to skip the extended intro.

 

Two: Casu marzu is the world's 'most dangerous' cheese, according to the Guiness World Record. This Sardinian delicacy is infested with maggot eggs, which hatch turning the pecorino cheese into a creamy paste. And then you crack the top open… and swallow. One slight hitch: “maggots could survive the bite and create myiasis, micro-perforations in the intestine.” Umm, it’s also illegal to buy or sell Casu marzu. CNN has all the gory details.

 

Three: This 29-second film was made in 1898 and titled ‘Something Good’—and it is the first ever depiction of a Black couple kissing on-screen. University of Chicago has more on how this fascinating bit of history was discovered—in near pristine form.

 

Four: On a lighter note, we were totally intrigued by this Lahore barber who uses fire, a butcher’s knife and/or a hammer to cut hair. Coz getting a haircut isn’t stressful enough?

 

Five: Speaking of hair, there’s the blunt. And there’s the fringe. Now we have the ‘blunt fringe’—also known closer home as the katora cut. We picked the ugliest version (coz we’re mean like that), but Vogue has a gallery of more attractive versions.

 

Feel good place

One: A slothful appreciation of water.

 

Two: Goodnight, Earth.

 

Three: Donkey + hammock = adorableness overload.

 

Four: Donkey serenade.

 

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