Don’t get fooled again

The eye is so easy to fool! I’d posted the featured photo in colour before. Just for fun I decided to convert it to black and white. I was surprised that it works. Perhaps because the yellow of the tiny flowers is so luminous that although the whole plant is in shadow there is enough contrast there. That got me thinking about decomposing it by colour. I dialled down the saturation of everything except yellow, and the eye still saw it as not very different from before. You really have to put the two next to each other to remind yourself what the difference is. And even then you may not notice that in one photo the leaves are not green.

Are we thinking right in our response to the pandemic? The world locked down again and again to flatten the curve, to prevent hospitals from being overrun. Wuhan was absolutely locked down at the beginning, and that stamped out the disease in that city completely. In other cities we thought it wouldn’t hurt to go for a walk, and perhaps talk to the people we see. Surely meeting one acquaintance in a couple of weeks would not change things, we reasoned. Was that right?

June Almeida was the first scientist to image a human coronavirus (for bio, click on pic)

If the disease spreads evenly, that is every infected person has the same chance of passing on an infection, then even very mildly leaky lockdowns do not prevent a single death! When you study the total number of deaths, it seems to make no difference whether the lockdown was leaky, or whether there was no lockdown. The only difference is the availability of health care, and whatever that implies. Strange!

So lockdowns were thought of as a tool to “flatten the curve”, not as a long-term solution. But that step involved an assumption. It turns out that if you have epidemics (like the flu or COVID-19) which depend on super-spreading events, then the situation could change. The simple expedient of closing every place in which, say, more than 20 people can gather, can cut the transmission of the disease by a large factor. This saves many lives. Strange!

John Snow is widely regarded as the founder of the field of Epidemiology (for bio, click on pic)

It seems that the maths works out. Not quite as transparent as 2+2=4, but apparently quite as definite. But I am always left a little doubtful by mathematical arguments in which every assumption cannot be tested in real life. Maths is a bit like that photo in yellow; an approximation of the real world. Some scenes can be captured in yellow, others not. Believing blindly in mathematical models of the world led people to theories of the aether once. It leads others to believe in market economics today. Both could have been right, but without extensive testing we would not have known better. You don’t want to make the same missteps again with epidemics. The world is stress-testing epidemiology now. I wonder how the subject will change in a couple of years.

Our journey so far

On December 31, 2019, WHO declared that an emerging new disease had been reported by China. The Family and I were on a trip, and like most others across the world, did not pay much attention to this news. Within a few days, the news from China began to take up more of the news cycle. The disease acquired the name COVID-19, and the virus that caused it was gene sequenced in China, found to be new, and dubbed SARS-CoV-2. I had a full year of business trips and vacations planned, and knew that I had to keep an eye on this. (New words: COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2)

It was hard to see the big picture in early 2020

On 30 January, 2020, WHO declared that the disease was a pandemic. On the same day, a traveler returning to India was found to have the new disease. This was the first reported case of the disease in India. Wuhan and its surroundings had been locked down for days. I’d already talked to my colleagues in Wuhan, and they told me of their tedium. It was hard to imagine spending weeks inside the four walls of a flat, energetic children cooped up in the same space, looking out at deserted streets. Little did we know that the world was to follow suit. (New word: pandemic)

The world was beginning to close in

In February we made a small trip to see the winter’s birds (the featured photo of the black-shouldered kite, Elanus caeruleus, comes from that trip). The news was beginning to get dire. Countries were locking down flights. Italy was badly affected; on a call with her sister in Milan, The Family heard sirens from racing ambulances in the background. I was on conference calls with colleagues across the world trying to decide whether to move schedules for meetings. A divide was perceptible: people from Europe, the USA, and Australia were sure that this would pass in a couple of weeks, and no long term measures were necessary. People from East Asia were convinced that it would take longer to normalize. Indians and South Africans on these calls were not sure, but tended to be cautious. (New phrase: contact tracing)

Everyone was captive in their own houses

When the first large cluster of infections was detected in Punjab, it had been brought in by a traveler returning from Europe. Soon a clutch of cases brought by tourists began to spread in Rajasthan. The Family and I shared a laugh with our extended families about the passing phase of reverse racism on the streets: any white tourist was given a wide berth, and there were mutterings about why they should stay home for now. I began to teach myself epidemiology just in time to understand the advise that was soon being offered on safety. But then, the government of India decided to shut everything down very suddenly. (New word: lockdown)

Wild oscillations between euphoria at remaining healthy and tedium at being locked down

The resulting human tragedy of unemployment and displacement was enormous. For a while we, like the rest of the middle class, remained hopeful, because the skies cleared up due to the lack of new pollution. Then the monsoon storms reminded us that planet was still warming from older pollution. And the new obsession with cleaning meant that more plastic and detergents were being pumped into the earth. In the beginning we cleaned obsessively. The Family brought her professional expertise to the matter and found safe ways to disinfect food: soak fresh food in brine for half an hour. Sealed packages could be dunked in soap water and then washed. Brine and soap water could be reused, since they do not allow the growth of bacteria and viruses, so buckets full of them could be reused, saving on water usage. (New word: social distancing)

A grey and colorless world

Locked down at home, we realized how important our internet connectivity was. New services for video conferencing were quickly adopted. Our meetings went online, and suddenly that part of our work had been revolutionized. We forced the pace of moving work on-line. The Family and I decided early on that we had to fight back at the black depression that threatened us. We decided to keep a strict routine, and eat only healthy food. We shared household chores, and cooking, learnt new time-saving techniques, and set aside time for watching movies and TV, and meeting friends and family through video conferencing. (New word: Zoom)

It is hard to see the big picture even now

Now, one year on, Mumbai is opening up. Today, on 1 February, 2021, the local trains are starting up again. What did we learn? What did we change? First, that when you are afraid of a respiratory disease, mask yourself. This would be enough to slow down the disease. Quick deaths, although in the millions now, turned out to be not the most likely bad outcome of the infection. People have reported recurring breathing difficulties, heart disease, extreme fatigue. These symptoms pass in a few weeks, or months, for most people, but others have continuing problems: the COVID long-haulers. With all this knowledge, the second lesson is internal, one that most people I speak to seem to have learnt. It comes out in little ways: your life is important, its quality is important, family and health are important, socializing is important, being chained to a machine is secondary. We do not yet know how things will evolve. Vaccines are available, but it will be a decade before most people get it. In the meanwhile new variants of the virus are appearing, cases of reinfection are being discovered. Perhaps the disease will be a thing of the past in another three to five years. Or perhaps we will learn to live with a deadly disease, as earlier generations had learnt to live with small pox. New ways of working, new politics, new power groups have already begun to emerge, and they will be part of the new normal. (New phrase: new normal)

For all of us this has been a journey into ourselves, finding what we are capable of, learning new skills. Like most people, we spent more time cooking than before. I tried to learn how to identify the birds around me by their calls. I kept a record of the days through my photos (the ones above are my photographic journey through the year) and through occasional blog posts.