Second wave

Bad news came in over the weekend. Cases are up in Mumbai, and in several smaller towns. Kerala, which had beaten back the pandemic in its early days, has been going through enormous pains in recent weeks. This week, overall, cases are up in India by about a third. We seem to be at the beginning of a second wave. Friends around Mumbai have been discussing the inevitability of such a thing ever since the local trains were opened to the general public. I have been playing the devil’s advocate (what an appropriate phrase at this time) with the argument that if livelihoods are to be safeguarded, we have no choice but to let people move around. An increase of cases today inevitably leads to the conclusion that the policy changes made two or three weeks ago are at the root of the problem. Governments agree, and sometimes have gone the whole hog again, imposing full lockdowns in some towns.

My early training predisposes me to seek answers in an engineering discipline that is called Systems Design and Control Theory. One of the things that we learnt was that you could try to control a system by using its output to influence its input. This is called feedback. There is a theorem which says that feedback with delays leads to oscillations. Every teenager who has tried to form a rock band knows about the screech of feedback which badly placed mics and speakers can lead to. Others can more easily relate to the frustrating experience of making sure that the water in the shower is a comfortable temperature as an experience of oscillations due to delayed feedback.

Why should this lead to second and third waves of epidemics? The argument goes something like this. When it becomes clear that there is an epidemic, governments put various restrictions in place. But these are temporary, and when the number of cases decreases they are removed. Clearly there is a feedback. The delay comes from two sources: it takes time to realize that there is a consistent rise (or fall) in the number of cases, and it takes time for committees to make decisions.

Fortunately, the theorem assures us that we are not doomed to be tossed about forever by waves of the pandemic. If there is friction in the system then that damps out the successive waves. Where does this friction come from? One is the brutal calculus that the most susceptible are the earliest victims of the epidemic, so successive waves of disease, eventually, find better prepared immune systems. The second source is our personal learning and initiative. When we realize that there is danger, we personally take precautions. And we learn what are the most important, and best, measures. The third is the most enlightened reason of all: medical practice evolves, so that treatments and vaccines become available.

Human behaviour is unpredictable. There are no theorems which guarantee how I will act. Still, when studying a large enough body of people, there are general principles which seem to govern how such collections will respond to circumstances. There are limits to such predictions. Different countries, even different cities, have had a their second and third waves of COVID-19 at different times.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

Sunrise to sunset

Back in the land of the seeing, I’m so happy that I missed the news cycle, full of the elections in Myanmar and Bihar. It gives me a quieter state of mind in which to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets in my neighbourhood. I stretched the definition of sunrise a little when I went off for a walk by the harbour in the morning.

Coffee in hand, I stared at the incredible changes in the harbour. In the two weeks since I’d last walked there, the harbour has filled with boats. Sails furled, these Lightning class boats are ready to make the best of Mumbai’s sailing season. I watched one unfurl its sail and slip off into deeper waters. The air was warming, and a haze of vapour lay over the harbour, but I liked the glint of the sun on the sea. It is sailing season again for the next five months or so.

A small number of professional photographers cluster around the Gateway and the Taj hotel, hoping to find a tourist or two who wants a photo taken. This was never a lucrative profession, but times are harder now. I was wondering whether the lockdown was the last blow to the few left here, but they are back. As the long and hard epidemic begins to wind down, at least for now, more people are back. Almost everyone has a mask, although many continue to use it as a chin guard.

The morning brought back an old familiar, the moth Cydalima laticostalis. Its diaphanous wings with the golden line on its leading edge, the white body partly visible, first made me take up moth identification. Progress has been slow, but steady. This species makes its appearance towards Diwali, as the weather cools. This was my first sighting of the year.

Nights have been cool, but the day was hot today. As I came over the sea link around sunset, the inner bay was heavy with a damp mist. Two young men had parked their motorbikes on the verge and were busy taking photos of the skyline of Parel rising through the mist. It was a lovely sight, and a nice end to a lovely day, meeting family for lunch. It was our first gathering after February. In several conversations during the day, people talked about how much they enjoyed the change in work habits forced on them by the epidemic, how they gained hours of time from not being bogged down in traffic, and not having useless meetings. There is a definite shift in attitudes towards working from home. Individuals and corporations are in agreement here. The latter are happy to stop spending on office space. Perhaps, in the future, people may not have to move into cities like Mumbai any more. There are so many possibilities that branch out from here! Perhaps the sun is really setting on these unfinished high rises in south Mumbai.

Ludicrous monsoon sky

This annoys me. Just look at that ludicrous sky, a splash of colour that any child with a messy paintbox can scrawl on to paper. I just had to take a photo to vent about it. Look at that wash of yellow at the bottom: what an inept attempt to show the blaze of the setting sun. If this was entered in a competition where I was a judge, I would sentence it to a hanging.

Others found themselves looking at different parts of this artist’s work. Here is a view someone drew my attention to: east across the Oval to the clock tower of the University with the concrete shell of the stock exchange looming behind it. At least this part looks like a competent watercolour, not the random splash of the sunset.

But then there is this view that another person pointed out, looking northwest at the city’s skyline. Again, the same amateurish dribbles of contrasting colours, and a very ham-fisted attempt at balancing them out by putting a red building on the right and blue buildings on the left and across the bottom. Really! I’m looking forward to the normal grey of smoke and car fumes to damp down the lurid imagination of this artist with the large canvas.

Harbour line

Another Monday! Another day to quietly nurse the hangover of a lovely Sunday spent in the open air; the pleasant drowsiness of waking in the morning after spending a day walking through air so polluted that you can cut it with a butter knife. My lungs feel more tired than my muscles, but it was a nice weekend.

This post is a guest post in spirit, with photos by The Family. She took them from a launch which puttered through Mumbai’s harbour. Strange creature! You can see the gulls craning their necks to look at it.

The weather’s been a little cooler than normal but does that mean it is winter? You wouldn’t know till the brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) and black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) arrive. They have spent the summer in the cooler altitudes of the Himalayas, and the cooler latitudes of Central Asia, China, and Mongolia, and in the last month they have arrived here ahead of the displaced polar vortex which is currently shedding snow across the Himalayas.

I like this lovely shot of Mumbai’s skyline at sunrise with a whole bunch of gulls following the boat in hopes of a snack. Why call these birds brown or black headed, when they clearly have clean white heads? That’s because they have brown or black heads in the summer breeding season, something that we’ll not get to see in Mumbai. In these waters they have black-tipped yellow beaks, white heads, and a small comma of black on the head behind the eyes. The patch of black on the head distinguishes these two from the slender-billed gull, which has sometimes been seen here. The beak of the brown-headed is distinctly stouter, but that may be hard to see when the bird is flying.

An easier way to tell the difference on the wing is to look at, er, the wings. Both have black-tipped wings, but the mature brown-headed gull has a patch of white inside the black. The wing colour of the immature black-headed gull is more brown than black. It is a pity that the harbour is not the center of Mumbai’s leisure life. The western shoreline: Backbay and Marine Drive, the Worli seaface, and Madh island get mentioned a lot. But to enjoy the sea you need to be in the water, and there is no place other than the harbour where you can do it.

Mumbai: all the cliches

mumbai

Sometimes you don’t need to travel. I stepped out for a short walk to clear my head, and saw a tourist’s Mumbai spread out before me. Beyond the haze of Backbay were the high rises on Malabar hill. In the foreground, children from the slums had walked out on to the stones exposed by the tide. There are no parks or public spaces for some people; they exist only on what the city cannot take. This is a view of Mumbai which the tourist cannot help but notice, but it is a view one can lose track of in the middle of the daily routine.