Go to the ant

In spite of taking photos of insects for over a decade, it turns out that I don’t have a photo of an ant. So, now that I want to talk a little about how ants deal with epidemics, the only photo I can use is of a termite. Since termites are social animals too, the photo is not inappropriate.

I came across a two year old paper which observed how ant colonies deal with infections. It seems that ant colonies have a rather modularized structure. Every ant does not meet every other member of the colony all the time. They mostly socialize with a reasonably small set of friends and colleagues. These little social cliques intersect, so that they have the “six degrees of separation” that human networks show. What this means is that messages pass very efficiently from one forager to another, or from foragers to the queen and her attendants.

It turns out that when a forager is exposed to an infection, the social network rearranges itself. Each ant meets a much smaller set of friends. As a result, it becomes harder for messages, and infections, to pass from one to another, or to the queen. It is amazing that these measurements were made and have been known for two years already. Interestingly, the colony does not lock down all activity. It cannot afford to do that for long, like human societies. Foraging, defense, breeding continue, but with appropriate caution, namely defensive distancing.

Who says that there is no proof that distancing is effective against an infection? You can quote chapter and verse now (Proverbs, 6 and 6, if you must know). People have gone to the ant, considered her ways, and learnt from it. The lesson is clear: distancing works against infections.

Clear the air

It is time to say this. The epidemic and the enforced lockdown continues to show what a strange universe we had locked ourselves into. The walls we had built around our complicated social and economic world have collapsed and through these gaps we can see new possibilities. When we build up again, there will be a push to instantly return to what we had earlier, but it will be good for us to see how flimsy the supporting arguments were.

The air is so clear ten days after the beginning of the lockdown that from the rooftops of Jalandhar one can see the high Himalayas. We’d driven through this city almost two years ago, when we spent a week in the lower Himalayas. Passing through the traffic snarled up in the city I never realized that we were only 450 Km from Srinagar in Kashmir. This air can be kept clear. Change from oil to electric. Electric scooter technology is cheap and widely available. Just the will to change the tax structure to favour a new industry is lacking. Autos on the road are another major polluter, but changing their two-stroke engines to battery would be another step towards clean air. It can be done at a cost much smaller than the lockdown.

Dolphins on Marine Drive in Mumbai! Whales visiting the oil rig at Bombay High! These are not fake videos. We saw different dolphin videos taken by a lot of people, from a lot of different angles. So this we can be take as verified. Just one day of reduced noise pollution in the sea brought dolphins into Backbay. That’s not something I’ve seen written about even in the literature from a century ago. The incidental conversation in the whale video indicates that this is probably not fake. We will not be able to recover this perhaps, because the world’s supply chain moves through the seas. On the other hand, I know some extremely good engineers, and they should be able to put their minds to lowering the noise made by ships, if they can make a living doing it. After all, energy lost to noise is produced by burning fuel, so less noise is an incremental increase in efficiency. In any case, it is good to see how quickly nature can begin to reclaim the earth.

Peacocks dancing through the streets of Mumbai! Who would have thought! I didn’t even know there were peacocks left withing the city. That’s hope for the future. We do have small green lungs in the city. I hope videos such as this give people a reason to hope that planning for more patches of greenery will help preserve these wonders right here, next to our homes. I think a lot of small patches with trees will help.

Away from the big bad city, one has seen videos of elephants roaming through the streets of small towns. That may not be to everyone’s liking. There is a growing body of scientific thought that says that the increasing instances of new diseases, SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, and COVID-19, is due to human activity encroaching on parts of the world which were the natural range of other species. It sounds reasonable, because the new diseases are not coming from the already-dead lands of Europe and the US. They are arising in parts of the world where there are ancient ecosystems newly destroyed. We have known for years that human-elephant conflict is due to us taking over their land. Now perhaps we are facing bigger threats as we take over new ecologies.

Enough of a Sunday sermon. Let me end with this wonderful video of a fawn of the spotted deer, Cheetal, galloping in the waves of the Bay of Bengal. The video is verified to come from Puri, that famous temple town and beach resort. What a wonderful sight! I cannot go out to see wildlife right now, but it is coming in to see us today.

The intense social life under lockdown

Our culture is changing so rapidly now. Some of it is bad: a constant worry, leading to a tendency to be prescriptive in our little lives and dictatorial in powerful circles. But others are wonderful. The Family and I are in much closer contact with our globally dispersed families.

Apart from calling more often, we have family meals together at least twice a week. We find ourselves having dinner as others join us on video with an evening’s tea, or an elaborate afternoon meal, or a mid-morning break for tea, or even brunch. Sometimes these are formal occasions, where everyone dresses up (except an occasional hilarious couple who have just woken up and appear looking disheveled). We chat about our daily lives (I’d never pickled onions before), while the children run around and come up now and then to monopolize the conversation for a bit (they have seldom had such large audiences). Sometimes two or three of us wander off for a private phone chat, and join the conversation later. It is all a bit like a messy family weekend that I remember from my childhood.

Is this the shape of our lives for a while? I will be happy. WHO recommends that we do physical distancing. That’s what it feels like: social togetherness and physical distancing.

A better light

I looked out of the window early in the morning. That sentence could not have been written before COVID-19 forced us into a more measured lifestyle. Working from home gives us more time, a clearer understanding of what are priorities, and what we can postpone. So The Family and I have mostly managed to sleep by midnight, and wake while birds are still active in the morning. We never thought that we were being disturbed by traffic, but the clear harmonies of birds in the trees remind us how much of the city’s background noise has died out.

At the horizon a ship was waiting its turn to enter the harbour. That’s another sentence that could not have been written a week ago. The haze had been so bad that I could not see beyond the trees. The sky and sea used to be a glare of white. In a week the pollution has cleared out, and I can see the horizon and the ships waiting there. Later in the day there was a haze, but the air quality remained unchanged. So this was due to water evaporating in the warmth of the sun. I could still look out across the bay and see the bungalows on the headland opposite to us.

Life is not going to be simple in the coming weeks, but some background problems have resolved themselves. Perhaps the world will muddle through.