How is your life under lockdown?

As I read an article with the same title as this post, I realized that the premise was quite right. The four authors had looked at tweets from Melbourne to see how the quality of your life under lockdown depends on the neighbourhood that you live in. Do you reveal your moods on social media? I haven’t been reading tweets, but the blogs I read do reveal the ups and downs of our moods during lockdown.

Now that restrictions are being lifted, and we are able to leave home, it seems to be a good time to take stock of the last seven months. You will remember that there was a lot of despair at the beginning of the pandemic, at a time when the number of cases was small, but growing rapidly. That didn’t last too long. Very soon I could see people reacting quite individually.

It was interesting how people reacted to the claustrophobia of strict lockdowns. The Family was never terribly interested in cooking, but, like a lot of people around the world, she dived into it. And found that she was good at it. Like many of you, we rediscovered our families, and had frequent chats on phone and video calls with far-flung family members.

“What kept us sane?” I asked The Family. She thought for a while. “The trees and gardens around us”, she eventually said. That’s what I was thinking. Waking in the mornings to bird calls, looking out at a sea of green (we live just above the canopy of the trees which surround us), the open views of the sky and the sea. “If it was not for that,” she said, “I think we might have been bickering all the time.” Niece Moja told us several times about how widespread domestic violence had become during this time. She said that the fraction of her clients that suffered from this had increased sharply. I could agree with The Family; we were lucky with our surroundings. But we also talked through a division of work in the house right at the beginning, and decided to keep fixed hours. I think that also worked for us. We could arrange our day to suit us.

The article that I had read also talked about the availability of amenities. We were lucky with that too. A bhajiwala and a store inside our complex kept open all through the two months of strict lockdowns. There may not have been a lot to eat, or greatly fresh vegetables, but we didn’t run out of food. Our help, who were locked up in their houses were unable to locate stores with sufficient food. Our security staff helped us to talk to the police and arrange for us to give them basic supplies once a month. This kind of relatively easy connection to the police and municipal services also helped us to stay sane.

Is this the first time in history that the middle class across the world has had almost exactly the same experience, and known that for a fact? All of us lived, and are still living, through a bad epidemic, closed in at home, totally dependent on small supplies, reading and watching the same news, the same entertainment, sharing our experiences through this new medium, which has suddenly become so central to our lives that we are more conscious of how it exploits us. What a difference between the global middle class and the poor. We know now that around 400 million people in India walked away from cities to their villages, crossing the subcontinent on foot. This distress is perhaps less visible in other countries, but it must be there. And that is another difference: I can read about your feelings and experiences and see how closely they mirrored mine, but I have little idea about the inner world of the poorer people around me.

These gardens were my hideaway for two months, while the human world went to seed. Now, as the garden goes to seed, the world around me does not exactly show signs of recovery. What was the most interesting thing that happened to me in the Anthropause? The sudden end to human noise in the sea brought a pod of curious dolphins to Backbay. They came, they looked, they played, for the first time in recorded history. Curiosity satisfied, they went back to the deeper waters in the Arabian Sea where they are normally found. That was a reminder that there are other intelligences in the world.

Good employers

We’re all aware of the number of people who have lost jobs during the pandemic. It will be quite a while before peoples’ personal levels of income reach what they were six months ago. There are businesses which pre-emptively fired people. Then there are businesses which tried to retain as many employees as possible for as long as they could. This cafe had more servers than customers, something which annoyed me, until The Family pointed out that they probably haven’t fired anyone yet. That changed my perspective. This business is only a stand-in for those uncounted, unseen employers who kept paying their employees as long as they could. Some shut down, some will continue until the economy gets back on its feet again. They all tried their best.

Marine Drive on a weekend afternoon

The weather is clearing up slowly as the monsoon dies down. Brilliant sunshine and no haze is the order of the day right now. On Saturday afternoon The Family and I decided to go for a walk to Marine Drive; we’d not seen it for six months. It was different. Not very crowded. People were mostly masked. These two youngsters without masks looked so much a throwback to earlier times that they gave me a twinge of nostalgia. I know that they should not be doing this, but I can hardly blame them. At their age you think you are immortal. I don’t want to take that away from them, though I hope they have sense enough to mask themselves when there are more people around.

There are reminders chalked on to the promenade. People took photos. I took one. The Family, who has been reading newspapers more regularly than me, told me that it appeared in the papers some days back. I think it is heartening that so many people are obviously being sensible. Hospitals are no longer over-run. The result is that the fraction of deaths in hospitals is decreasing. I’m sure many people are not getting themselves tested, and the actual number of deaths will only be tallied by historians in future. But the epidemic is destroying the country in other ways: jobs and incomes are lost, other diseases are unchecked, school meals have been stopped, less well-to-do children are missing school because they can’t go online. It’s too depressing to think of during a lovely walk by the sea. Let’s go back to admiring the view.

Gray days

The fag end of the monsoon is always depressing. Just when you have seen a day or two of bright sunshine and colour to remind you of what the world could be, the endless dreary rain sets in again. This year is no different. It has been a depressing gray since the weekend. Without social contact it is even worse. On Sunday I could not stand it any more, and the Family and I put on our rain coats and masks and went out to the Gateway of India in the evening. An espresso carry out, a stroll by the sea, and the sight of other people, although distanced and masked, revived our spirits for a while.

I felt cheerful enough to take photos of the depressing weather. The Gateway looked forlorn and beaten down by the rain. Usually it is cleaned by a work crew long before Diwali; I hope that happens this year. Far in the distance I could see the usual semi-industrial wasteland of the docks below the hills, the feet of the Western Ghats dipping into the sea. I guess the time when these toes of the Sahayadris are chopped off have just been postponed by the economic depression brought on by the epidemic. One can see a silver lining in everything when one feels upbeat.

New things on the horizon

I woke before dawn today, even before the first bird had started singing. As the sky turned from black to a faint colour, I saw twinkling lights on the horizon, out at sea. The mad twinkling told me that the morning was going to be more hazy than I’d hoped. Shipping had come to a halt in April, and the absence of man-made noise must have been almost pre-industrial. For the first time in the recorded history of Mumbai dolphins were seen in Backbay. That is well past now. From July I’ve been seeing cargo ships pass through the far channel, weaving back together a world wide web of commerce. One of the set of lights, the rightmost, looked like a mobile drilling rig. The leftmost was certainly neither that, nor a container ship. It looked more like a cruise ship waiting to berth. I didn’t know that passenger cruises had started. Could this be one of those stranded cruises finally coming to dock? These are strange times; both would surprise me, but I’m ready for surprises.

Bon weekend: a way through the maze

It is a good week that ends in a happy decision. After lots of discussion, through many calls-to-attention and dissents, and much going back to basics and consulting lawyers, we could take a decision that a dozen of us could each be happy with. We will have to go back to full functioning, because we can’t wait for five years to reopen. But we can’t force people to act against their fears, or to utilize city services which are working at less than capacity. So, for the moment, we decided to open fully, but with minimal staff, so no one has to share an office. People who do not come in to work on a given day will be working a normal day and week out of home. Almost every person will still be coming in to work at least once in two weeks, but older people and people who have morbidities which make them more susceptible to COVID-19 will be able to work entirely out of home.

I think this was a foregone conclusion. There is no alternative to leading our lives, but we will have to feel our way through new dangers, and adapt to take that into account. We have learnt a huge amount about this disease in the last months, and we can bring that new understanding into play, as best as now-strained finances can. As we start to work, perhaps we can bootstrap ourselves into a better situation in all respects. I am happy that we can curb the madness of meetings and video calls at all hours of the day and night and every day of the week. I love my work, and can do it constantly, but when I am doing a lot more chores and repairs around the house (because help that would be available at other times isn’t), I need to take predictable times off. I hope our co-workers agree with the decisions we took for them, but I think we have enough flexibility delegated through the organization to take care of most reasonable caveats.

Now I have time to enjoy my tea in the morning as I look at what is nesting or hiding in the banyan tree outside; a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) this morning. Or to wonder when the municipality will be back to work trucking away the neatly stacked remnants of the trees that fell down in the storm a month ago.

A billion shots of vaccine

The featured photo has 480,000 pixels. Imagine 2084 copies of this picture. The number of pixels in that collection would be around a billion. It is a staggering number. But the human population of the world is almost eight times that much. That is the amount of COVID-19 vaccine that must be produced for everyone in the world to be immunized. That is if the vaccine is perfect. If you need booster shots, or multiple doses, then the problem multiplies.

A news article in Nature tells us how the world plans to produce enough vaccine. The case study in the article is what is being called the Oxford vaccine, with a placeholder of a name: AZD1222. An Indian company called The Serum Institute has tied up with AstraZeneca (and Johnson&Johnson) to market the vaccine. The vaccine is still under Phase III trials, but the company has already created a stockpile of about a million doses in anticipation of clearances. The Gavi Foundation is underwriting the bet on this vaccine for the developing world.

I want to get back to numbers again. The company says that it can produce 60 million doses of this vaccine every month by taking away capacity for other vaccines (so expect tuberculosis and childhood vaccinations to take a back seat). Half of these vaccines will be given to the government of India. The other half will go to the rest of the developing world. India has about 10,000 hospitals, perhaps triple that number of health care centers if you include other clinics. So each will get an average of 100 shots of vaccine a month. Do expect shortages. At this rate it will take 4 years for every Indian to get one dose of this vaccine.

I suppose things may be easier, because if the vaccine works then production will be scaled up. On the other hand, if we need booster shots, then you may have not get it in time. If I want to travel, then I still need to consider risks, because other diseases would have burgeoned in the shadow of COVID-19. Much better to think past our fears, and plan out how to live a life in the presence of a new killer disease.

Beam me up Scotty

No one will beam us back to normal except those who find a cure for COVID-19, or an efficient and cheap vaccine. Until then the world is experiencing a variety of effects: second waves in some places, persistent long plateaus in others, strong economic distress everywhere. Niece Moja, a therapist, is one of the few people with a burgeoning business, but she is also a wreck at the end of a busy day having to deal with others’ anxieties on top of her own. Niece Mbili is one of the unlucky generation. She graduated in the middle of the crisis, and at a time when the industry she wanted to join has dropped into recession. The Youngest Niece is in the uncertain generation. Will her school reopen? Will her school leaving exams at the end of the next year leave her infected?

We’ve decided for ourselves to work back to something closer to normal. I’d been working through video and phone calls, but now I’ve begun to take “coffee time” with colleagues. Some time back we started meeting friends outdoors: masked and distanced. Last week we met a couple for dinner for the first time in half a year. We sat as far apart in their living room as space allowed, and had all windows open. We think we can continue meeting couples for dinner, one at a time, with at least two weeks between meetings. This interval would be sufficient for us not to become unwitting carriers of the disease. Our help have been lucky, most of their employers gave them their salary and helped out with food, when they were not working. Still, they are happy now to get out of their own homes and back to work, but have concerns about safety. We worked out a way so that they don’t have to breathe the same air as us when they come home.

We’ve been shopping for a while, usually outdoors. Unfortunately markets are crowded, so distancing is not possible. Most people are masked, but many are not properly masked: noses outside the mask, or mask pulled down below the lips. So I prefer to have a face shield in addition to a mask when shopping. The economic trouble has reduced a lot of people to an unsustainable income level, so there are many people who come up to you begging for help. It is distressing, because you know that as an individual you cannot possibly help enough. I have the luxury of moral distress, but when you cannot get a meal, perhaps you are not focused on the long term. When I’m face to face with this kind of problem, I can’t help feeling a little ashamed that I have a mask and a face shield to protect against a more remote possibility.

COVID-19 has probably killed more people than we can really account for. When a younger friend, a Himalayan trekker, died of a sudden massive cardiac arrest three months ago, I did not think it had anything to do with the epidemic. But then I heard of two more friends of friends, again in the early and mid-40s, dying similarly, and read about cardiac problems that COVID-19 causes, and I begin to wonder. There is no upside to going back to normal. But there is no upside to remaining locked down either. A perfect dilemma! If I were in the shoes of policy makers, I would throw money at some kinds of biological and mathematical sciences. Funding science always produces new possibilities.

[All images except the featured one are WhatsApp forwards; artist unknown, copyright status unknown]

On the edge

The rains are beginning to die down. The epidemic isn’t. Passing clouds still deposit short and furious showers; half a kilometer away the road is dry. Official numbers tell me that every day about 1000 people in Mumbai are newly infected, about 70 die. We decided to mask ourselves and went out for a walk to Colaba and the Gateway of India. The Gateway was clearly a popular destination. There were police barricades around it to prevent crowding. A stretch of the sea front is opened up to walkers around 5 in the evening. We’d reached before the crowds, so I got an opportunity to take photos of the vista of the empty harbour, and the lovely old buildings which face out towards it.

It is clear that people will die if everything opens up now. It is also increasingly clear that people are hurting: the plumbers, the electricians, the taxi drivers, and also big businesses. If a few hot-spots had been locked down early and severely, like Wuhan, then there might have been a chance to beat back the disease and open up more fully. But, as the examples of China, New Zealand and South Korea show, perhaps not. So we live on edge. These masked walks, an occasional espresso takeaway, phone calls and chance meetings with friends on the road, is that all there is to the new normal?

An evening drive in COVID times

Saturday was the first day of the Ganapati festival. When I went out to collect my new spectacles on Friday I didn’t notice any of the usual preparations: no idols being brought to their 10 days’ home in trucks, no stages being set up. On Sunday evening there would be the first day of immersion. This is usually an immersion day for the small gods from homes.

At nine in the evening we drove by one of the places set aside for immersion. There were traffic barricades and police, but no crowds of people. In other years, I have walked to this place with my camera and got nice photos of families come to immerse an idol. Nothing this year.

I passed a place where the residents get together every year and install a vary large idol. At 9 on the evening of the second day it would be rather crowded, especially if it happened to be a Sunday. Lights and preparation certainly, but no people this year.

Newspapers had carried photos of a crowded flower market in Dadar the previous day. I sat down to count the fraction of masked people. In the over hundred faces visible in that photos, I could spot more than 80% covered with masks. I wonder whether all the cities in India have compliance this good. I’ll have to wait for photos of Navaratri from across India to see that.