Last Friday we went to hear Ustad Rashid Khan sing. It has been more than two years since the two of us sat in a darkened hall full of people. Everyone had to carry a certificate of complete vaccination in order to enter, and even then there was the mandatory temperature check at the gate. The seating was alternate, and everyone was masked. But people mingled in the foyer. In any collection of people there will be those who are more careful and distancing and masking, and those who are not. In recent times we have never been in a crowd except at airports, and there we could keep our distance. Still, this didn’t set our teeth on edge.
Why? I asked The Family after the concert. Perhaps because everyone was vaccinated. Vaccine coverage in Mumbai is very high, with almost everyone having received one shot, and a large fraction being fully vaccinated. The case load has not disappeared. There are between 100 and 200 new cases discovered every day. Even in our moderately large apartment complex there is a case every few weeks. But beds in COVID hospitals and ICUs in the city are now freely available. People have buckled down to work again, although there is more work-from-home than in the November of 2019. The pattern of sickness and mortality has shifted over time. The pandemic began with large risks for people above 60. Now the largest fraction of mortality is for people in their 50s. The number of children, under 10s as well as teens, infected is no longer a negligible fraction. As the pandemic comes under better control, attention has to shift to the less vulnerable population. No one is invulnerable.
Ustad Rashid Khan has perhaps the best voice of his generation of singers. It was good to begin the season with him. We have tickets for the next couple of performances. It was interesting to find that at the end of the concert there was no crowding at the doors. People spontaneously remained in place and maintained a constant trickle at the exit. That is the kind of new normal that I would love. The initial vaccine hesitancy in certain pockets of the city was quickly overcome because all political parties supported the vaccination drive. I came across a very well-researched news story which talks of the slower spread of vaccination in villages. India’s population is immense, and even though it hits new records of the number of vaccine doses given, only about a quarter is fully vaccinated as yet. It will be a while before one can safely gather in large numbers indoors everywhere in the city.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.