The India Cable: Cyclone Yaas Makes Landfall; WhatsApp Sues Govt Over Privacy

Plus: NYT estimates India’s Covid toll in millions, farmers mark Black Day, WHO’s signalling failure intensified misery, India’s gender gap widens, in lockdown, comedy brings relief

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
May 26, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

The severe Bay of Bengal cyclone Yaas made landfall near Balasore before noon today. In a curtain-raiser, a tornado in Chinsurah, West Bengal, took two lives. Kolkata and Bhubaneswar airports are closed. The sea was probing residential streets in the beach resort of Digha by late morning. Cyclone Amphan, which had left West Bengal paralysed for over a week last year, was a lesson, and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee spent the night at the Nabanna secretariat, preparing for disaster relief. Odisha’s permanent cyclone shelters, designed by IIT Kharagpur after the devastating super-cyclone of 1999 for entire communities to retreat into, are its first line of defence. Over 20 lakh have been evacuated but this year, people are reluctant to crowd together because of Covid-19. 

Follow the path of the storm live, or follow satellite images at the tropical cyclone tracking site of the Indian Meteorological Department. Don’t look for news images ― a journalist reports in shock after her car was taken by the sea as she got too close to the story, under pressure to get a Facebook Live session.

Twelve o’clock and all’s well, reported internet users on Twitter at midnight, when it was expected to be taken off the air as new IT Rules, with which it has not complied, came into force. In the first blowback against the government, WhatsApp has sued the government, arguing that the new rules infringe upon constitutional guarantees. They require platforms to break encryption to trace the originator of a problematic message, but that would violate the privacy of all involved in the conversation: “[a] government that chooses to mandate traceability is effectively mandating a new form of mass surveillance.” Privacy is commercially valuable, and platforms keenly remember the demise of Blackberry after it surrendered its bulletproof security to concerns about terrorism in India, among other countries.

The New York Times takes a stab at the big question: Just how big could India’s true Covid toll be? A conservative scenario estimates infections to be 15 times the official count, and 600,000 deaths. The more likely scenario posits 20 times higher infections and 1.6 million deaths while a worst-case scenario estimates the infections to be 26 times the official figure and 4.2 million deaths. India’s official Covid statistics reported 26,948,800 cases and 307,231 deaths as of May 24. Chinmay Tumbe estimates that “even the most conservative extrapolations from the available excess mortality data take the all-India death toll of the second wave to over a million.” 

Government figures establish that at least 577 children lost both parents to Covid-19 between April 1 and May 25.

Six months after farmers laid siege to the capital against three farm laws steamrolled through Parliament by a voice vote last year, it’s ‘Black Day’ today. Farmers are hoisting black flags wherever they are – on their cars, trucks or at their homes – to avoid forming crowds in view of the pandemic, and will burn effigies of PM Modi.

The CBI has a new director ― Subodh Kumar Jaiswal was appointed last night. The 1985 batch Maharashtra cadre police officer heads the Central Industrial Security Force. The shortlist was approved on Monday by the PM, the Congress leader in the Lok Sabha, who was vocally disapproving of the process but came around, and Chief Justice of India NV Ramana. 

The Congress has approached Twitter to seek a ‘manipulated media’ tag on posts by 11 Union ministers including Smriti Irani, Piyush Goyal and Prahlad Joshi on the purported ‘Congress toolkit’, allegedly designed to defame the Modi government. But since these leaders were careful to tweet just the associated hashtag but not the dodgy document, Twitter is unlikely to flag their posts. In a letter to Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s Lead for Legal, Policy and Trust and Safety, and Deputy General Counsel and Vice President (Legal) Jim Baker, the Opposition party sought stern action against the ministers for allegedly spreading false and forged documents. Earlier, Twitter had labelled posts by BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra, senior leader CT Ravi, the former Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh and other party leaders as ‘manipulated media’. 

Noting that Madhya Pradesh has not received even half of its vaccine quota for May 2021, the Madhya Pradesh High Court asked the Centre to produce and distribute more vaccines rapidly. The Bench also asked the Centre to consider procuring the vaccination doses itself from foreign manufacturers and providing them to the states.

The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) ‘bed scam’, about irregularities in bed allocations by the city’s Covid-19 War Room, has meant more trouble for aggressive BJP MP Tejasvi Surya and friends. Bengaluru Police has arrested a close aide of Bommanahalli MLA Satish Reddy who had accompanied Surya on his ‘raid’ on the War Room on May 4. 

A State Bank of India research report, ‘Ecowrap’, concludes that India’s GDP may have contracted by 7.3% in the last financial year. And President Biden may be preparing to nominate political ally and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as US ambassador to India.


In UP, shrouds ripped off unnamed bodies aggravate anger

Videos and images of yellow, saffron and white shrouds being removed to blur the number of bodies buried on the banks of the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh have gone viral. The “model state” remains focused on narrative rather than reality, and this is seen as the final indignity. Former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav supported a colleague, who is outraged that a government headed by a Hindu monk can do this. Priyanka Gandhi termed it an insult to humans, humanity and faith. Sitaram Yechury asked why even the chance of Moksha was being denied to pandemic victims buried by desperate relatives.


Covaxin talks but doesn’t deliver 

Covaxin has reached private hospitals in 30 cities within a month of the liberalised and decentralised Covid vaccination policy coming into effect, Bharat Biotech said, but it is not clear how many doses were supplied. The Modi government had announced a few days ago that 51.5 crore doses are to be available before August, but by the end of May, it wasn’t even 25 crore.

Bharat Biotech must also publish its Phase 3 efficacy data in a peer reviewed journal, especially as it has just announced that the second interim analysis of the late stage trial showed the vaccine to be 78% effective against infection and 100% effective against severe disease. There is concern that Covaxin recipients may not be allowed to travel overseas, as WHO does not recognise it in the absence of Phase 3 clinical trial data. The company has claimed that it was expecting WHO’s emergency use listing between July and September.


Moderna declines, Pfizer seeks breaks

Moderna doesn’t have surplus vaccines for India in 2021 and hopes to launch a single-dose vaccine here next year. It is in talks with Cipla, among other Indian firms. Pfizer can supply 5 crore doses — 1 crore in July, 1 crore in August, 2 crore in September and 1 crore in October. But it will contract only with the Centre. It seeks significant relaxations, including indemnification, which 116 countries including the USA have accorded it. India denied approval to Pfizer in February. The Financial Times reports that “India’s Covid vaccine rollout favours the wealthy and tech-savvy.”


Where will the next India-scale outbreak occur? 

Could other countries face India’s fate, with cases rapidly spiking and health systems being overwhelmed? WHO reports the Indian variant in 53 countries, but which country could actually face disaster? The next perfect storm would rely on a few variables coming together ― at the core, a slow vaccine rollout and susceptible populations mixing freely. Mass gatherings, political or religious, could seed new outbreaks that overwhelm health systems. 


PM Cares ventilators useless

The Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court noted that out of 150 ventilators supplied under the PM CARES fund to Marathwada, 37 are yet to be unboxed and the 113 in use are defective. “We find the situation as regards to dysfunctional ventilators through PM CARES fund to be quite serious,” the HC said.


On Narada, Supreme Court says liberty first

“Special Benches are assigned to give liberty. This is the first time we are seeing that they are being used to take away liberty,” observed the vacation bench of the Supreme Court while hearing the CBI’s appeal in the Narada case. It repeatedly told the Solicitor General, representing the CBI, that the “liberty of a person is the first thing to be seen” and that it cannot be mixed up with other issues like a Chief Minister’s dharna and public protests against CBI arrests. The court also said that the district judiciary would not be influenced by mob pressure, while Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had argued that the entire proceedings of the Special CBI Court, Kolkata of May 17, which granted bail to four TMC leaders, stood vitiated by mass protests led by the Chief Minister.


The Long Cable

WHO’s signalling failure intensified misery of pandemic  

Pratik Kanjilal

In July 2019, just months before the first Covid-19 outbreak was detected in Wuhan, the World Health Organization’s Delhi office was torn down. The strikingly rectilinear lines of Habib Rahman’s 1962 design were often mistaken for “phoren construction”. The WHO building was one of the first landmarks signalling modernity visible from trains steaming into the capital. In a country historically burdened by communicable diseases, it stood for a significant property of modern civilisation ― freedom from disease. That building was the national node of a global system of communications that just worked, vacuuming up data from nations for the world’s specialists to inspect, and sending back protocols for treatment and vaccination which reached the most remote general practitioner, who trusted it blindly. 

Under the onslaught of Covid-19, this fail-safe system faltered in 2020, and the consequences for managing the pandemic are still being felt. For a year now, national health systems have desperately sought means to prevent and cure Covid-19, including off-label remedies. None have been of use. On the contrary, they have raised false hopes and caused deep anxieties to the families of the sick. This could have been prevented if national bodies and WHO quickly dispelled pharma mythologies, but they were academically cautious in responding, and the national health system continues to flip-flop in advisories. 

This week, a retired Army doctor wrote to AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guleria, the most visible face in Covid management in India. Major General (Retd) Dr VK Sinha pointed out that while the use of Ivermectin, Remdesivir and convalescent plasma have now been withdrawn from the national protocol, there was never a rational basis for including them. In fact, the research paper which was circulated in the summer of 2020 to justify the off-label use of Ivermectin, a deworming agent, was patently inconclusive. WHO explicitly denied the utility of Ivermectin only on March 31, 2121, and it was withdrawn from the Indian protocol even later. WHO had advised against Remdesivir earlier, on November 20, 2020, noting that it had no influence on outcomes. It had issued an advisory even earlier, in May 2020. But in India, these drugs, and plasma therapy, continued to be prescribed and used through the second wave. Such departures from WHO protocols are without precedent. Try getting a child vaccinated against typhoid or rubella, but contrary to the WHO protocol. Good luck to you. 

If physicians and national bodies have diverged from Covid-19 protocols, it is because of a withdrawal of faith, or because denials were not loud enough, or abundant enough. WHO has lost its iron grip by being uncharacteristically unreliable. The early WHO advisories of 2020 seemed to blindly follow Spanish flu advisories from a century earlier: mask up, wash your hands and keep surfaces clean. Only the masks remain a serious priority.

Obsessive-compulsive hand-washing, which created a vast alcohol-based sanitiser industry, is far less important than was imagined. Fomites, which bear infection persistently on surfaces, turned out to be irrelevant, after triggering a boom of surface cleaners. A learned debate on whether the virus is airborne continues after a year, and people periodically insist on keeping windows open, and periodically fear infections leaking in on the breeze. 

But most damaging was confusion about therapy. In India, the second wave not only took lives, but also inflicted unbelievable misery as irrelevant interventions were prescribed, black markets developed and ripoffs became rampant. Families have been beggared after selling assets to buy Remdesivir. Many more suffer the pangs of guilt for failing to do their best. 

The effects of medical advisories extend beyond clinics and hospitals to society. They must be rapidly and unambiguously articulated by nodal agencies. Since emergency interventions are practical and rely for success on speed, academic caution ceases to be a primary virtue. On social media, practitioners argue that medicine evolves according to available knowledge. Very true, but it does not explain reliance on strategies priorly known to be without effect. That is explained only by excessive academic caution ― at least an intervention like Ivermectin can’t harm you. In fact, it will deworm you. But it will not save you. 

Even now, a communications oversight remains. Since it is not understood why Covid-19 affects people differently ― some die in days, others don’t exhibit a single symptom ― one strategy to develop better vaccines and a cure would be to preserve scans and tissue samples from fatalities on a large scale. They could yield up histopathological secrets later, when researchers have more time to study them. But to the best of our knowledge, no autopsy protocol or large data repository exists in India. All it would take would be a clear advisory, but the line is busy.


Reportedly 

Casteist slurs from celebrities, influencers or people claiming to not know about caste have often been ignored, and demands for an apology read as over-reaction. But now there is vigilance online. TV actor Yuvika Chaudhry used a banned caste moniker as a pejorative on a video she shot, and was attacked. But even a note of apology for using the proscribed word cut no ice. Finally, she had to Instagram a video and apologise with joined hands. Her husband, too, had to do one. It’s a good start.


Record harvest expected, amidst hunger

India was plummeting disgracefully down the Global Hunger Index well before the pandemic, and now the lockdown has increased cases of hunger as at least 230 million slide back into poverty. In contrast, a record 305.44 million tonnes of foodgrain production is estimated in 2020-21, reported All India Radio


Prime Number: 140
India’s global ranking, with a value of 0.625, in the Global Gender Gap 2021 Index of the World Economic Forum. This is 28 places below the country’s 2020 ranking. India is lower than Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan, but ahead of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

IPL in Dubai in Sept-Oct

The postponed Indian Premier League will resume tentatively on September 18 or 19 in the UAE with as many as 10 double-headers expected to be played during a three-week window. The final might be held on October 9 or 10. The IPL was postponed on May 4 after multiple Covid-19 cases inside its bio-bubble came to light.


Deep Dive

Saurav Kumar Rai sees the pandemic through an Indian literary lens. The epidemic-centric literature speaks volumes about how people, societies and regimes have perceived and reacted to disease outbreaks. A pandemic begins as a biological phenomenon, but it always has a political, social and economic context that determines how it evolves, how it is tackled, and who gets to live.


Comedy and mythology in demand

For the week ended May 14, viewership of mythological content on Hindi general entertainment channels increased to 15.2 billion minutes, a 73% growth over the 8.8 billion minutes recorded for the week ended April 9, BARC said. But it still falls short of the viewership of comedy content, which is going up steadily over the last month of the lockdowns, rising 36% on the Hindi GECs to 31.8 billion minutes for the week ended May 14, when compared to 23.3 billion minutes for the week ended April 9.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • A Hindustan Times editorial terms the Delhi Police’s  faux raid on Twitter India’s offices “a self goal”.

  • Modi’s mazboot government has given us, apart from demonetisation and a contracting economy, lakhs of deaths due to a flawed strategy to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. His vaccine policy that will not provide India with herd immunity for months. On top of it, also a society with festering bitterness, a polity riven with divisions, and a federal structure eroded, writes Ajaz Ashraf.


Listen Up

Jeremy Paxman talks to Salman Rushdie about writing fiction, growing old, India, censorship and other controversial matters.


Watch Out

Hear what scientist Prof Dinesh Mohan, whom Covid-19 claimed last week, had to say long ago on cities, urbanisation and modernity. Eye-opening, even today.


Over and Out

A woman in Massachusetts threw away her shot at $1 million, but as luck would have it, she got a second chance, thanks to an Indian-origin family who returned the discarded lottery ticket to their long-time customer, earning appreciation for their honesty. Lea Rose Fiega bought a Diamond Millions scratch-off ticket in March at Lucky Stop, a store owned by the Indian-origin family in Southwick, where she was a regular customer.

“I was in a hurry, on lunch break, and just scratched it real quick, and looked at it, and it didn’t look like a winner, so I handed it over to them to throw away,” Fiega said. But the ticket was not fully scratched off and it sat in a pile in the store for 10 days until Abhi Shah, son of the store owners, noticed the unfinished $30 ticket in the trash. “I scratched the number and it was $1 million underneath the ticket,” he said. The family said it was not an easy decision to return the ticket.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.