The great pandemic: A long update
“At least 11 major States have reduced their testing levels recently. Of those 11, in four States, the positivity rate is on the rise. Lowering the number of tests would mean missing out on identifying a number of infected people even as the COVID-19 graph would show an ‘artificial peaking’.”
Another caveat: The virus is currently spreading like wildfire in rural areas—where there is little testing or treatment.
Speaking of positivity rates: Early May data shows that 40% of India’s 741 districts recorded a positivity rate of 20% or more. This refers to the percentage of Covid tests that turn up positive. But we often misunderstand this indicator, as subscriber Mehrab Modi explains:
“Test positivity is the fraction of conducted tests that turn up positive. Test positivity being high means we're not doing enough tests to accurately estimate how many people are actually infected. Think of it as an inverse measure of confidence in our estimate of the number of reported infections.
Since the people getting tested aren't really a random sample, we can't extrapolate and say that if 25% of our tests are positive, it means 25% of the population is infected. I think the correct interpretation of a high test positivity is that we're simply not doing enough tests. It implies that the denominator is too low, rather than that the numerator is high. We should be doing many, many more tests. Just another item in the list of ways Indian infrastructure was under-prepared for the second wave.”
Uncounted deaths: The Hindu estimates that at least 4,783 deaths have gone unreported in Delhi. Also undercounted: deaths in Gujarat, where the numbers in some districts may be as much as 20X higher. Local newspaper Divya Bhaskar shows that Gujarat issued more than double the death certificates between March 1 and May 10 than during the same period last year. The Telegraph has a longer read on figuring out our real death toll. The Print has a heart-wrenching report on three siblings left orphaned and alone, forced to arrange a hurried burial for their parents. Watch that clip here.
Death on the Ganga: Dainik Bhaskar sent 30 reporters to cover 1,140 km along the banks of the river—and discovered 2,000 bodies buried in the sand. The bodies are also sparking widespread fear of contamination and infection. A related read: The Wire on how the rains are exposing mass shallow graves. Barkha Dutt shared a disturbing clip. See image below:
For those who don’t read Hindi, it reads: “Modi-ji why did you send our children’s vaccines abroad?” The police have linked those arrested to the Aam Aadmi Party. Indian Express reports that most of those arrested were “either daily wage workers who put up posters and banners for a living or jobless youths—and had no idea about the content or politics involved.” But none of which explains why these people have been deliberately booked on charges that are non-bailable offences. This thread dissects the charges.
Point to note: Whether you agree with the content of the posters or not, they seem to be addressed to the right person. A New Indian Express story shows that there have been only five union cabinet meetings during the second wave—and not one of them took a significant decision regarding the pandemic. All of those calls were made by the Prime Minister’s Office.
A variant update:
- New data shows that while Covaxin and Covishield vaccines do trigger the production of antibodies in response to the double mutant virus—the amount is reduced by half.
- Related read: NPR on how well the different vaccines work against this variant.
- Boris Johnson is under fire for not imposing a travel ban on passengers from India earlier. One reason for his dithering according to a government source: “It’s very clear that we should have closed the border to India earlier and that Boris did not do so because he didn’t want to offend Modi”—because he is keen to seal a post-Brexit trade deal.
- The fallout: Britain may have to delay easing of lockdown restrictions due to worries about the double mutant variant—which is spreading across parts of the country.
- FYI: UK data shows there is “a realistic possibility” that the ‘Indian’ variant could be up to 50% more transmissible than the ‘UK’ variant.
- Another consequence of ‘double variant’ fears: The UK has reduced the recommended gap between vaccine doses to 8 weeks—down from 12 weeks—for everyone over 50. Our government, OTOH, increased the gap to 12-16 weeks 🤦🏽♀️ .
- Speaking of travel bans, here’s a related good read: New York Times on pandemic refugees who are rushing to the Mexico-US border to seek asylum. These include many from India.
A bit of bad news: Dr Shahid Jameel has quit his position as the chair of the scientific advisory group tasked with helping the government fight the pandemic. This comes right after he penned a New York Times op-ed where he recommended a series of measures necessary to survive the second wave, but noted that Indian scientists “are facing stubborn resistance to evidence-based policymaking.” Also bad news: Most Indian vaccine makers are not equipped to produce Covaxin because it requires deactivating a live virus.
Cyclone Tauktae is here
The cyclone has already wreaked havoc on the coasts of Kerala, Karnataka and Goa—and is now moving toward Gujarat (see satellite map here). The meteorological department has declared it a ‘very severe’ cyclone with speeds of up to 185 km per hour. Indian Express has more on why we are seeing more cyclones develop over the Arabian sea. Watch a house in Kerala collapse below:
Air India in the crosshairs
In December, the international court of arbitration at The Hague ruled that the Indian government must pay $1.2 billion in damages to Cairn Energy. The reason: New Delhi slapped a massive tax bill on Cairn by applying a new tax law retrospectively—and it sold Cairn’s shares, seized its dividends, and withheld tax refunds to recover the amount. Now, Cairn has asked a New York court to recognise government-owned entities—like Air India or the Shipping Corporation of India—as alter egos of India. And the company should have the right to seize their assets if the government fails to pay up:
“The assets identified range from Air India's planes to vessels belonging to the Shipping Corporation of India (NSE -4.47 %), and properties owned by state-owned banks to oil and gas cargoes of PSUs.”
A hateful Eid story
A Hindutva YouTube channel called Liberal Doge posted photos of Muslim women dressed up for the festival. The audience then “‘rated’ the women, ‘auctioned’ them off to each other, and posted sexually charged comments on their looks and clothes.” The tagline for the video: “Today, we will stalk women with our eyes filled with lust.” Quint has more details. NewsLaundry profiles the owner of the channel, Ritesh Jha. Subscriber Animesh Kumar also sent us this Twitter thread that allegedly reveals Jha admitting to sexually exploiting his Muslim house help.
Companies making big changes
One: Amazon is launching a free streaming service in India called MiniTV—and it will have exclusive content for the Indian market, including web series, comedy shows, and tech news, food, beauty, and fashion content. You can access it directly from your Amazon app. Also this: Amazon Prime has canceled its monthly subscription due to RBI rules— and put its one month free trial offer on hold. News18 has more.
Two: AT&T—which owns CNN, HBO, and Warner Bros—is in talks to merge with/acquire Discovery Inc to create an even bigger entertainment behemoth. (Bloomberg via Mint)
Also making big changes: The Suez Canal authorities who will widen the canal by 131 feet and increase its depth by 10 feet—to avoid another ship-stuck-in-Suez disaster (explained here). Of course, now the industry will just make even bigger ships 🙄. (Business Insider)
Forced out of business: The hacking group Darkside, which successfully broke into the fuel pipeline that supplies the United States’ East Coast—forcing the company Colonial Pipeline to shut its operation. They apparently received $5 million in ransom—but that has proved to be a high price for what came next. The FBI appears to have cut off Darkside's access to its online system—including its blog and payment server—and transferred out all the funds in its bank account. Payback is a b****. (New York Times)
China lands on Mars
Beijing successfully landed its Martian rover Zhurong on the surface of the planet on Mars. It is now the second nation—after the United States—to achieve this feat. BBC has more details. Watch the landing below:
The end of the big tiger drama
Remember the crazy story about a ‘pet’ Bengal tiger roaming the streets of Houston, Texas? The police arrested the owner—who was out on bail on murder charges, no less—but couldn’t track down the tiger. The good news: the AWOL big cat has been found and will be sent to a wildlife sanctuary. FYI: He’s a nine-month old called, what else, India! CNN has the story, while the clip below shows owner Victor Cuevas playing with India:
One dinosaur thing
Palaeontologists in Mexico have identified a new species called the Tlatolophus galorum or the crested dinosaur. And it apparently looked pretty cool. Watch the Reuters report below:
Two Indian turtle things
One: The native Cantor’s giant softshell turtle was thought to have gone extinct after it was not sighted for a decade in India. But in 2020, a team from the Zoological Society of London discovered a nest of turtle eggs—which were flown out and incubated at the London Zoo. Last week, researchers released five of the hatchlings back into the wild. FYI, the giant turtle—which can grow up to six feet long-—does not have a traditional shell, and looks like this:
Two: Indian wildlife conservationists are worried about the red-eared slider—a ‘cute’ American turtle that is popular as a pet. Many of them have been released into water bodies in Assam and Mizoram where they pose a threat to 29 native species of turtles and tortoises. The reason: “they grow fast and virtually leave nothing for the native species to eat.” Why we need to move fast to stop this invasion:
“But more than elsewhere in India, preventing this invasive species from overtaking the Brahmaputra and other river ecosystems in the Northeast is crucial because the Northeast is home to more than 72% of the turtle and tortoise species in the country, all of them very rare.”
The Hindu has more. Also, it looks like this:
A good use of your time!
GatherAroundSisters is a progressive, intersectional feminist community based out of Delhi. They are putting together an oral history record of The Moment we as a country are in right now—through the first-person narratives of 30 women journalists. The aim: “From Kashmir to Kochi and Kohima to Kota, we’re taking stock of the cultural and political status quo through women's encounters with the system and look towards an imminent future through the inventiveness and warmth of community response.”
Their first five speakers:
- Monday, May 17: Tazeen Qureshy, independent journalist, Odisha
- Tuesday, May 18: Tabassum Barnagarwala of The Indian Express, Maharashtra
- Wednesday, May 19: Vijayta Lalwani of Scroll.in, Delhi
- Thursday, May 20: Damayantee Dhar of NewsClick, Gujarat
- Friday, May 21: Quratulain Rehbar, independent journalist, Kashmir
Their gatherings are open to those who identify as women. You can register here.