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Category Archives: Social/Political issues

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Masks not a ‘muzzled misery’, they saved lives in the 1918 flu pandemic  

Social distancing and wearing masks isn’t a new idea in the battle against the pandemic. They saved thousands of lives during the 1918 flu pandemic which lasted from February 2018 to April 2020. The efforts implemented then to stem the flu’s spread in cities across America — and the outcomes — may offer lessons for battling today’s crisis.

In the 1918 flu pandemic, also known as Spanish flu, an estimated 500 million or about one-third of the world’s population perished.

Masks became the facial frontlines in the battle against the virus. But as they have now, the masks also stoked political division. Then, as now, public health experts urged the wearing of masks to help slow the spread of disease. And then, as now, some people resisted.

Although there’s no universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, the first infections were identified in March the same year, at an Army base in Kansas, where 100 soldiers were infected.

The number of flu cases grew five-fold within a week, and the disease soon took hold of the entire country, prompting some cities to impose quarantines and mask orders to contain it.

By the fall of 1918, seven cities — San Francisco, Seattle, Oakland, Sacramento, Denver, Indianapolis and Pasadena, California — had put in effect mandatory face mask laws, said Dr Howard Markel,  a historian of epidemics and the author of Quarantne.

Organized resistance to mask wearing was not common, Dr Markel said, but it was present. “There were flare-ups, there were scuffles and there were occasional groups, like the Anti-Mask League,” he said, “but that is the exception rather than the rule.”

People who resisted complained about appearance, comfort and freedom, even after the flu wiped out an estimated 195,000 Americans in October alone.

Alma Whitaker, writing in The Los Angeles Times on October 22, 1918, reviewed masks’ impact on society and celebrity, saying famous people shunned them because it was “so horrid” to go unrecognized.

However, those violated the rules were fined $5 to $10, or 10 days’ imprisonment. On November 9, 1,000 people were arrested, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. City prisons swelled to standing room only; police shifts and court sessions were added to help manage. Jail terms of 8 hours to 10 days were given out. Those who could not pay $5 were jailed.

Cartoon: Suparno Chaudhuri

On October 28, a blacksmith named James Wisser stood on Powell and Market streets in front of a drugstore, urging a crowd to dispose of their masks, which he described as “bunk.”

A health inspector, Henry D. Miller, led him to the drugstore to buy a mask.

At the door, Mr Wisser struck Mr Miller with a sack of silver dollars and knocked him to the ground, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. While being “pummeled,” Mr Miller, 62, fired four times with a revolver. Passers-by “scurried for cover,” The Associated Press said.

Mr Wisser was injured, as were two bystanders. He was charged with disturbing the peace, resisting an officer and assault. The inspector was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.

The LA Times carried a story, ‘To Mask or Not to Mask’, when city officials met in November to decide whether to require residents to wear “germ scarers” or “flu-scarers.”

Dramatic demographic shifts in the past century have made containing a pandemic increasingly hard. The rise of globalization, urbanization, and larger, more densely populated cities can facilitate a virus’ spread across a continent in a few hours—while the tools available to respond have remained nearly the same. Now as then, public health interventions are the first line of defense against an epidemic in the absence of a vaccine. These measures include closing schools, shops, and restaurants; placing restrictions on transportation; mandating social distancing, and banning public gatherings.

Of course, getting citizens to comply with such orders is another story: In 1918, a San Francisco health officer gunned down three people when one refused to wear a mandatory face mask. In Arizona, police handed out $10 fines for those caught without the protective gear. But eventually, the most drastic and sweeping measures paid off.

Nina Strochlic and Riley D. Champine, in the story ‘How some cities flattened the curve during the 1918 flu epidemic’, wrote in National Geographic:

In 2007, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed health data from the U.S. census that experienced the 1918 pandemic, and charted the death rates of 43 U.S. cities. That same year, two studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sought to understand how responses influenced the disease’s spread in different cities. By comparing fatality rates, timing, and public health interventions, they found death rates were around 50 per cent lower in cities that implemented preventative measures early on, versus those that did so late or not at all. The most effective efforts had simultaneously closed schools, churches, and theaters, and banned public gatherings. This would allow time for vaccine development (though a flu vaccine was not used until the 1940s) and lessened the strain on health care systems.

In 1918, the studies found, the key to flattening the curve was social distancing. And that’s likely to be true a century later, in the current battle against coronavirus. “[T]here is an invaluable treasure trove of useful historical data that has only just begun to be used to inform our actions,” Columbia University epidemiologist Stephen S. Morse wrote in an analysis of the data. “The lessons of 1918, if well heeded, might help us to avoid repeating the same history today.”

President Donald Trump’s refusal to set an example by wearing a face covering, despite growing evidence that it may be one of the most effective ways to slow America’s increasingly disastrous coronavirus pandemic, has been a fatuous political statement.

By going barefaced when everyone around him masked up, the President created a false impression that the worst was behind the Americans, that normality was about to come roaring back.

Let’s take lessons from the 1918 flu pandemic and mask up and abide by the social-distancing guidelines to send the coronavirus into retreat.


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Corona: A time to revisit Camus

As the coronavirus pandemic paralyses the world and continues its ravages, I’m reminded of the great French novelist, Albert Camus. In La Peste, (The Plague) Camus ends the novel (1947) by saying: “The plague never dies or disappears for good; it lies dormant for years and years in furniture, and linen-chests; it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and perhaps the day would come again when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it will rouse up its rats again and send them to die in a happy city.”

When the scourge of the plague ends and Dr. Bernard Rieux, the narrator of the novel, listens to the jubilation of the townsfolk, he knows such joy is always imperiled. “…this chronicle could not be a story of definitive victory. It could only be the record of what had to be done and what, no doubt, would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts,” he says.

Camus believed that the actual historical incidents we call plagues “are merely concentrations of a universal precondition, dramatic instances of a perpetual rule: that all human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident or the actions of our fellow man”.

This is what Camus meant when he talked about the “absurdity” of life.

To write his novel, Camus went through the history of plagues: the Black Death that killed an estimated 50 million people in Europe in the 14th century, the Italian plague of 1630 that killed 280,000 across Milan, Lombardy and Veneto, the great plague of London of 1665 as well as plagues that ravaged cities on China’s eastern coast during the 18th and 19th centuries.

He also read Daniel Defoe’s ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ (1722) and Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni’s ‘The Betrothed’ (1827).

Today, while the governments all over the world are battling against the pandemic, and we all are hoping to defeat this invisible enemy, Camus’s novel reminds us: “There’s no heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. This may seem ridiculous, but the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.” And by decency, he means “doing one’s job”.

Camus wrote: “We all inside us have plague because no one in the world, no one, is immune …and if there is one thing one can always yearn for, it is human love.”

Will the Trump government take a lesson from Camus? Will it stop the blame game and behave with ‘decency’ and realize the need to love ‘fellow damned humans’ to protect the planet.

The coronavirus doesn’t care whether you’re rich or poor, white or black, famous or infamous, royal or commoner. It has leveled off discrimination and treated everyone as equals in a world of brutal inequality and inhuman disparity. It has exposed the fragility and vulnerability of human beings, the futility of our aspirations, insufferable conceit and the inevitability of suffering.

With the body counts in the US crossing 85,000, the virus has exposed how the richest country of the world collapsed within weeks after the outbreak exploded. The US must now realize, however wealthy they are, they are powerless and vulnerable to this pandemic like any other country in the world.

Unfortunately, the US President isn’t willing to accept the fact that the pandemic can render our lives instantaneously meaningless.

Bill Gates in a recent interview has said it’s not the time for finger-pointing as that won’t help and will only prolong the crisis. Time has come to close ranks and work together for global solidarity to combat the contagion.

The revolutionary musician, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, said: “We can only move forward and save this fragile planet that we call home if we co-operate with one another, rather than fight one another.”

Eminent Jewish historian Yuval Noah Harari says: “We must hope that the current epidemic will help humankind realise the acute danger posed by global disunity. Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity?”

The ongoing calamity must open our eyes to how much life has changed in a blink of an eye and how challenging, both intellectually and emotionally, it will be for us to go forward.  We’re getting a different sense of our place in history. We’re entering a new world, a new era.

Nobel laureate Turkish author Orhan Pamuk (who’s been writing a new novel called ‘Nights of Plague’) says: “Much of the literature of plague and contagious diseases presents the carelessness, incompetence and selfishness of those in power as the sole instigator of the fury of the masses. But the best writers, such as Defoe and Camus, allowed their readers a glimpse at something other than politics lying beneath the wave of popular fury, something intrinsic to the human condition….

“For a better world to emerge after this pandemic, we must embrace and nourish the feelings of humility and solidarity engendered by the current moment.”

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‘Google station’: Indian railways on wrong tracks

If you travel by train across India, you begin to look anew at the word “rail travel,” and revise your definition.
Overworked tracks, dirty and dinged-up coaches, commuters clinging to open doorways, late trains and cancellations, and platforms clogged with hawkers, beggars and stalls: these are indelible images of the 165-year-old Indian Railways. The sprawling network has become emblematic of Indian government structures that are at once byzantine and inefficient.
An analysis of available data show track failures and subsequent derailments are caused by excessive traffic and under-investment in rail infrastructure. Against this backdrop, the Ministry of Railways has roped in Google to bring free Wi-Fi services to 400 rail stations across India.
Isn’t it ridiculous?

Wi-Fi at Naihati rail station: lopsided priority

Well, the government may argue that the Google has provided the services free of cost.
But, is there any corporate house in the world which runs the business for charity. I’m sure the Google may have bigger things in mind. Or, they will charge fees for subsequent maintenance!
My question is does India need Wi-Fi at stations now? Is ‘Google station’ a priority when trains never run on time and daily commute is a nightmare; when overworked tracks make travel unsafe; when a 60-minute journey takes almost two hours and when ordinary passenger trains cannot average more than 25km an hour.
The idea of introducing free Wi-Fi at the stations across India is not just bizarre, it’s absolutely ridiculous. The government must focus on infrastructure upgrade like laying new tracks, repairing dilapidated rail lines, installing automatic signals, buying new coaches, ensuring commuters’ comfort and safety and timely running of trains.
Are the guys in Railways Board aware of the ground reality? Have they ever experienced the travails of daily travel? Do they know that millions of commuters face unimaginable ordeal daily as they travel in coaches packed like sardines. If they have slightest empathy for the commuters, they wouldn’t have gone ahead with the ‘Google station’ project.
I grew up in a suburb, 38km from Kolkata, and used to take train daily to reach my college. I know perfectly well the trauma and torment of a commuter.
I remember when the train pulled into Sealdah station relatively on time ((well, that happened very rarely), I heard someone saying “Oh! Train ta darun elo!” (performance of the train was admirable!) The guy was elated as trains are perennially late and its on-time performance on that day took him by surprise.
Dysfunction in Indian Railways is not a surprise.
There has been a 56 per cent increase in the daily tally of passenger trains over 15 years from 8,500 in 2000-2001 to 13,313 in 2015-16. The number of freight trains increased by 59 per cent in the same period, but the running track length for all these trains increased by only 12 per cent in 15 years – from 81,865 km to 92,081 km.

Indian railways: Losing train of thought

If one considers the period from 1950 to 2016, the under-investment in rail infrastructure appears all the more acute. Against 23 per cent railways’ route km expansion, passenger and freight traffic increased 1,344 per cent and 1,642 per cent respectively, the Standing Committee on Railways said in a December 2016 report on Safety and Security in Railways.
Railways minister Suresh Prabhu has said part of the problem is seven decades of under-investment.
“If India is to grow at an eight to 10 per cent, or even a slower six to eight per cent growth path, railways will need to carry a lot more freight,” says an economist who examined Indian Railways as part of a government-appointed panel. “And right now it doesn’t. It’s almost bursting at the seams.”
Economic expansion requires more power and in India, that means more coal. Hauling the coal to power stations means more rail cars. “The capacity of railways to carry coal is totally exhausted at present,” says another expert. “It is absolutely essential to expand the capacity.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said India must “take the railways forward, and through the railways, take the country forward.” The rail system should be “the backbone of our economic growth,” he added.
However, the country needs to convert about 10,000 km of tracks just to have a uniform rail gauge. There are no timetables for freight cars—goods just show up when they get there—and four out of 10 lines run at 100 per cent or more of capacity.
The rail ministry planned to spend Rs.1 trillion in 2015-16 budget with almost 42 per cent of that coming from the central government. Analysts who reviewed the accounts said the bookkeeping was so opaque as to be inscrutable.
Mr Minister, please bring along your Railways Board members to Sealdah or Howrah stations in the morning and in the afternoon and see the veritable hell the commuters are thrown in.
Please come and witness how long-distance trains are made to wait for 15 to 20 minutes to get signal at Howrah station in the morning.
Whenever a long-distance train pulls into Howrah station in the morning (especially after 6am), they are made to wait near car-shed while local trains are given signal for departure. Why are the trains made to wait for so long to get signal? Imagine the sufferings of the passengers who have been on the trains for more than a day! I’ve been observing this since my childhood. I wonder why the Indian railways can’t solve the problem yet.
For an estimated 9.2 lakh people, who commute to Kolkata from suburbs every day, travel is a nightmare. Well, the word ‘nightmare’ is an understatement.
The Eastern Railways says Sealdah, one of the busiest rail stations in India, which will celebrate its sesquicentennial (150th year) next year, cannot be expanded to handle more than the existing 917 pairs of local trains that bring in people from the suburbs. Moreover, about 80,000 people embark and disembark every day from long-distance trains that run through Sealdah.
The ER authorities say the number of commuters who land in Kolkata by local trains every day, will cross the 10-lakh mark by 2020.

Sealdah station: Sea of humanity
Photo: Sudip Acharya

The ER says capacity augmentation is impossible due to encroachment along the tracks. Meanwhile, successive regimes in West Bengal have not only turned a blind eye to the blatant and rampant encroachments, but also encouraged them as part of their vote banks politics.
Mr Minister, do you know most of the footbridges at major rail stations across the country are without ramps and passengers face huge difficulties in carrying their luggage? It’s not difficult to set things right. Will you please look into such glaring mistakes?
Sir, you’ve traveled abroad and seen how rail bridges are built. I’m sorry to say your civil engineers don’t even know the basics of building a bridge. A footbridge over Naihati rail station has been built recently. It’s just awful! Please come and take the stairs up the bridge. It’s so steep. I’m sure you’d puff and pant.
Sir, please spare a thought for the millions of commuters and their daily ordeal. Instead of ‘Google station’, what is badly needed are more trains, improved tracks, increase of trains’ average speed, cleaner coaches, and timely running of trains.
I’m reminded of an old saying: “The right train of thought can take you to a better station in life.”
Are the guys in Railways Board listening?

Daily commute: an unspeakable ordeal
Photo: Sudip Acharya

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‘Porch pirates’ make merry in festive season

Thieves make hay while Santa shines.
Call it the flip side of affluence or what you will. Come Christmas, ‘porch pirates’ are a growing problem in neighborhoods across the United States. Over 25 million Americans have been victims of holiday package robbery this year, an increase from 23 million porch thefts in 2015.
A national survey in 2015 by Princeton Survey Research associate found 23 million people were victims of ‘porch pirates’.

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An appeal to Prime Minister Modi

Mr Prime Minister, I was absolutely astonished by the way the Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has treated The Argumentative Indian, a documentary on Amartya Sen by economist Suman Ghosh.
It’s an innocuous film, beautifully crafted.
Prof Sen in an interview said it was not so much the word ‘cow’, the fact that “I raised my eyebrows and complained whether in a country as multi-religious as India, whether cow slaughter could be banned, on which the lives of so many people depend.”
He also said “It’s not the use of the word ‘Gujarat’ that they didn’t like, but my reference to what happened in 2002 in Gujarat that they don’t like.”
The Censor diktat has raised a question: Is this the way the democracy is being interpreted now?

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Mission: Serving poor in a remote village

My destination: A medical camp at Sri Ramakrishna Sevashram in Dakshin Akhratala village in North 24 Parganas. Rivers Bidyadhari and Betuni meet here, about 70km from Kolkata.

Ramakrishna Mission Residential College, Narendrapur conducts the medical camp on third Sunday every month.

I got into the Innova along with my friend Satyaki Pal (he’s been teaching English in Narendrapur RK Mission College since 1983) near Jadavpur police station around 8.45am last Sunday (July 16). Our next stop was SSKM Hospital where we had to pick up three doctors– Dr Anisha Rathore, Dr Akhansha Mishra and Dr Varsha Saboo– who volunteered for the medical camp.

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Changing face of Bengal-Part II

As I was riding pillion, Anup kept telling me how mobile phones, especially smartphones, have changed the lives of rural folks. “TVs and cell phones have brought about a bewildering array of changes in values and aspirations of the villagers,” he said.
I was reminded of Tagore’s speech titled Robbery of the soil, which he had delivered at Calcutta University in 1922. “Villages are nearer to nature than towns and therefore in closer touch with the fountain of life. They have the atmosphere which possesses a natural power of healing. It is the function of the village to provide people with their elemental needs, with food and joy, with the simple poetry of life and with those ceremonies of beauty which the village spontaneously produces and in which she finds delight.”

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