BBC News – India coronavirus: Trouble ahead for India’s fight against infections

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

On the face of it, things may not look bad.

New Delhi – India, 28 May 2020. Since the first case of corona-virus at the end of January, India has reported more than 150,000 Covid-19 infections. More than 4,000 people have died of the infection.

To put this in some context, as of 22 May, India’s testing positivity rate was around 4%, the death rate from the infection around 3% and the doubling rate of infection, or the amount of time it takes for the number of coronavirus cases to double, was 13 days.

The recovery rate of infected patients was around 40%.

All this is markedly lower than in the countries badly hit by the pandemic. Like elsewhere in the world, there are hot-spots and clusters of infection.

More than 80% of the active cases are in five states, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, and more than 60% of the cases in five cities, including Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmedabad, according to official data.

More than half of people who have died of the disease have been aged 60 and older and many have underlying conditions, hewing to the international data about elderly people being more vulnerable to the disease.

The more than two-month-long grinding lock-down, official data suggests, has prevented the loss of between 37,000 and 78,000 lives.

A paper published in Harvard Data Science Review appears to support that, it shows an eight-week lock-down can prevent about two million cases and, at a 3% fatality rate, prevent some 60,000 deaths.

“Infection has remained limited to certain areas. This also gives us confidence to open up other areas. It is so far an urban disease,” says V K Paul, who heads the medical emergency management plan on Covid-19.

This is where such claims enter uncertain territory.

India is now among the top 10 countries worldwide in terms of total reported infections, and among the top five in the number of new cases.

Infections are rising sharply, up from 536 cases on 25 March when the first phase of the world’s harshest lock-down was imposed. The growth of infections is outpacing growth in testing, tests have doubled since April but cases have leapt fourfold.

Epidemiologists say the increase in reported infections is possibly because of increased testing. India has been testing up to 100,000 samples a day in the past week. Testing criteria have been expanded to include asymptomatic contacts of positive patients.

Yet, India’s testing remains one of the lowest in the world per head of population, 2,198 tests per million people.

The bungled lock-down at the end of March triggered an exodus of millions of informal workers who lost their jobs in the cities and began returning home in droves, first on foot and then by train.

Some four million workers have travelled by rail from cities to their villages in more than half a dozen states in the past three weeks.

There is mounting evidence that this has already led to the spread of infection from the cities to the villages.

And with the messy easing of the lock-down earlier this month, there are growing fears of infections spreading further in the cities.

Rising infections and a still-low fatality rate possibly points to milder infection in a younger population and a large number of asymptomatic cases.

The focus, says Amitabh Kant, CEO of the government think-tank NITI Aayog, should be “bringing down fatalities and improving the recovery rate”.

But if the infection rate continues to grow, “things are going to get pretty grim in a few weeks time,” a leading virologist told me.

Doctors in the capital, Delhi, and the western city of Mumbai tell me they are already seeing a steady surge in Covid-19 admissions and worry about a looming shortage of hospital beds, including in critical care.

When the infection peaks in July, as is expected, a spike in infections could easily lead to many avoidable deaths as hospitals run out of beds for, or delay treatment to, infected patients who need timely oxygen support and clinical care to recover.

“That is the real worry. A critical-care bed needs an oxygen line, a ventilator, doctors, nursing staff. Everything will be under pressure,” Dr Ravi Dosi, who is heading a Covid-19 ward at a hospital in Indore, told me. His 50-bed ICU is already full of patients battling the infection.

With the lock-down easing, doctors are feeling jittery. “It’s a tactical nightmare because some people have begun going to work but there is a lot of fear”, says Dr Dosi.

“One co-worker sneezed in the office and 10-15 of his colleagues panicked and came to the hospital and demanded they get tested. These are the pressures that are building up.”

One reason for the confusion is the lack of, or the opacity of adequate data on the pandemic to help frame a strategic and granular response.

Most experts say a one-size-fits-all strategy to contain the pandemic and impose and lift lock-downs will not work in India where different states will see infection peaks at different times.

The reported infection rate, the number of infections for every 100 tests, in Maharashtra state, for example, is three times the national average.

“The infection is not spreading uniformly. India will see staggered waves,” a leading virologist, who insisted on anonymity, told me.

The lack of data means questions abound.

What about some 3,000 cases, which are not being assigned to any state because these people were found infected in places where they don’t live? (To put this into context, nine states in India have more than 3,000 cases.) How many of these cases have died or recovered?

Also, it is not clear whether the current data, sparse, and sporadic, is sufficient to map the future trajectory of the disease.

There is, for example, no robust estimate of carriers of the virus who have no symptoms, last month a senior government scientist said at least “80 out of every 100 Covid-19 patients may be asymptomatic or could be showing mild symptoms”.

If that is indeed true, then India’s fatality rate is bound to be lower. Atanu Biswas, a professor of statistics, says the predicted trajectory could change “with the huge inclusion of asymptomatic cases”. But, in the absence of data, India cannot be sure.

Also, epidemiologists say, measures like the doubling time of the infections and the reproduction number or R0 have their limitations.

R0, or simply the R value, is a way of rating a disease’s ability to spread. The new coronavirus, Sars-CoV-2, has a reproduction number of about three, but estimates vary.

“These measures are good when we are in the middle of a pandemic, less robust with fewer cases. You do need forecasting models for at least a month’s projection to anticipate healthcare needs. We should always evaluate an aggregate of evidence, not just one measure, but a cascade of measures,” Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, told me.

Others say even calculating the number of recorded infections every day is “not always a good indicator of how an infection is spreading”.

A better option would be to look at the number of new tests and new cases every day that would provide a “degree of standardisation”, K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, told me.

Likewise, he believes, a measure of how many Covid-19 deaths have occurred compared with the size of a country’s population, the numbers of deaths per million people, is a better indicator of the fatality rate. Reason: the denominator, the country’s population, remains stable.

In the absence of robust and expansive data, India appears to be struggling to predict the future trajectory of the infection.

It is not clear yet how many deaths are not being reported, although there is no evidence of large scale “hidden deaths”.

Epidemiologists say they would like to see clearer data on deaths due to pneumonia and influenza-like illnesses at this time over the past few years to quantify excess deaths and help with accurate reporting of Covid-19 deaths.

They would also like to see what racial disparities in infections and deaths there are to help improve containment in specific community areas. (In Louisiana, for example, African Americans accounted for 70% of Covid-19 deaths, while comprising 33% of the population.)

What is clear, say epidemiologists, is that India is as yet unable to get a grip on the extent of the spread of infection because of the still limited testing.

“We need reliable forecasting models with projection for the next few weeks for the country and the states,” says Dr Mukherjee.

Epidemiologists say India needs more testing and contact-tracing for both asymptomatic and symptomatic infections, as well as isolation and quarantine.

There’s also the need to test based on the “contact network” to stop super-spreader events, frontline workers, delivery workers, essential workers, practically anybody who interacts with a large group of people.

“We have to learn how to manage and minimise risk in our daily lives as the virus is going to be with us,” says Dr Mukherjee.

Without knowing the true number of infected cases India is, in the words of an epidemiologist, “flying blindfolded”.

That can seriously jeopardise India’s fight against the virus and hobble its response in reviving the broken economy.

Published in: on June 1, 2020 at 6:32 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , – The Tribune – NRI couple found murdered in Phagwara

Phagwara – Panjab – India. 30 May 2020. A Canada-based NRI couple was reportedly found murdered with sharp weapons at their residence in Onkar Nagar here late this evening.

Senior Superintendent of the Police (SSP) Satinder Singh confirmed the incident and said a police team led by SHO (City) Onkar Singh Brar rushed to the spot.

The SSP said the deceased couple had been identified as Kirpal Singh Minhas (67) and his wife Davinder Kaur (65).

The couple came to Phagwara from Canada in November 2019 for a few months and had been stuck in the town due to the lock-down. They were planning to return back.

The SHO (City) said though the room of the deceased was seemed to be ransacked, nothing was found missing.

He said one of their tenants, Jassi Dholi, was found missing. The police have registered a case under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and sent the bodies for autopsy in the local Civil Hospital. The SSP said the police were looking for the absconding tenant.

Published in: on June 1, 2020 at 6:16 am  Leave a Comment  

Gentbrugge – Melle – Gentbrugge

Gentbrugge – Melle – Gentbrugge
31 March 2020

Gebroeders Deschampstraat

Gebroeders Deschampstraat

Evi Van Hamme

François Spaestraat

François Spaestraat
Semi-rural ?

More Belgian pictures to be published
Harjinder Singh
Man in Blue

Published in: on June 1, 2020 at 5:58 am  Leave a Comment  

Hindustan Times – Stranded in Pakistan, 300 Indians likely to return via Wagah on Tuesday

Ministry of external affairs (MEA) deputy secretary Sandeep Kumar said the repatriation process has been initiated but the date of their return is yet to be finalised

Anil Sharma

Chandigarh – Panjab – India, 31 May 2020. Nearly 300 Indians stranded in various parts of Pakistan due to the closure of the borders in the wake of the corona-virus-induced lock-down are likely to return home through the Attar-Wagah border in Amritsar on Tuesday.

Ministry of external affairs (MEA) deputy secretary Sandeep Kumar said the repatriation process has been initiated but the date of their return is yet to be finalised.

A senior official of the Land Port Authority of India (LPAI), which manages the Integrated Check Post (ICP) at the international border, said, “We expect the return of those stranded after Monday. It will most likely be on Tuesday.”

The ICP also facilitates India’s trade with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

According to reports in the Pakistan media, among those stranded are 80 students from Jammu and Kashmir who are studying there.

Around 10 Indians are stuck in Islamabad, 200 in Karachi and other parts of Sindh province where they had gone to meet their relatives, it is learnt.

Nearly a dozen people, most of them from Amritsar who had gone to the neighbouring country for paying obeisance at various gurdwaras, including Nankana Sahib, are stuck in Lahore.

Satbir Singh (60), his wife Jasmeen Kaur along with three others from Amritsar had gone to pay obeisance at Nankana Sahib on 10 March. They have been staying at the house of Amrik Singh, a Lahore resident.

“The health department in Pakistan has conducted their corona-virus tests as part of the repatriation process and they were found negative.

My father is unwell as the medicines prescribed to him are not available at drug stores there,” said Satbir’s son Kamaljeet Singh, who deals in auto spare parts in Amritsar.

On 27 May, the Indian government had facilitated the return of 179 Pakistani nationals, who were also stranded due to the lock-down, through the land route. After the lock-down, India has allowed nearly 400 Pakistani nationals to return their homes via the Wagah border.

India suspended the cross-border movement of passengers through the Attari-Wagah border On 14 March.

Published in: on June 1, 2020 at 5:35 am  Leave a Comment – How colonial India fought locust attacks – and what we could learn from those tactics

One simple strategy: protect birds that eat the predatory insects.

Pallavi Das & Vineet K Giri

New Delhi – India, 30 May 2020. As India struggles to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, it faces a new challenge. Several parts of the country have experienced heavy infestations of locusts, an insect that devours crops and foliage, often leaving devastation in its wake.

If there’s a silver lining to this cloud, it is that India has two centuries of experience in dealing with locust swarms.

India’s Locust Warning Organisation, which is at the forefront of battling the infestation, was established 81 years ago during the colonial era.

Perhaps India could use some lessons from the past to avert the crisis that the current locust outbreaks might trigger.

It is not surprising that the colonial authorities made relentless efforts not only to contain the threat of locusts but also understand the science behind infestations. After all, the insects had the power to devastate the agricultural economy.

For the British imperialist state which drew significant revenue from the exploitation of Indian agriculture, locusts posed no trivial threat: they could lead to famine and cause starvation, which would threaten the slender basis of British power in India.

How could the British let a tiny organism ruin their ambitious project of colonisation?

The origins of locust control

In the nineteenth century, India experienced serious locust outbreaks in 1812, 1821, 1843-’44, 1863, 1869, 1878, 1889-’92, and 1896-’97. Several efforts were made to combat the swarms.

The first of these measures was to systematically collect and record data regarding locust occurrences. The British encouraged entomologists, scientists who study insects, to research locusts with the hope of understanding this phenomenon.

Until the early twentieth century, the containment of locust plagues remained a regionalised effort. The responsibility of control lay largely with provincial revenue departments.

However, the colonial system of locust control yet remained a dynamic one, employing an interesting mix of local reliance and global cooperation.

It rested on the exchange of knowledge and techniques between various provinces of India as well as with other countries similarly ravaged by the pestilence.

Only after the 1927-’29 outbreak that ravaged the central and western parts of India was the need felt for a centralised organisation to gather information about locusts and control them.

This resulted in the formation of the Standing Locust Committee in 1929 and the Central Locust Bureau in 1930. This culminated in 1939 in the establishment of the present-day Locust Warning Organisation.

One of the key ideas in colonial times was to destroy the breeding grounds and locust larvae before they could fly. Several techniques were employed for this purpose.

One of them was the use of oil-tarred screens to kill locusts (also known as Cyprus screen, because it was popular in that country). They did not prove effective.

The other two popular methods were the net system and the dhotar method. The net system involved holding a “capricious” bag and swinging it around fields, trapping young locusts in the process.

The dhotar method involved using a blanket to trip locusts resting on bushes.

All of these methods required great manpower, so the British began employing Indians for the purpose.

The challenge was that many Indians regarded locust attacks as a “heaven-sent visitation” and felt that god would take care of them.

They were not very enthusiastic about extending their support to the colonial state, they believed that locust control was part of the British government’s responsibilities.

Moreover, villagers were often preoccupied with harvesting and sowing crops and felt that carrying the extra burden of locust annihilation work was too cumbersome.

Encouraging public participation

The British deployed a very tactical carrot-and-stick method to incorporate Indians into its system of locust management.

The villagers were often told to render all possible assistance in their power and were warned that if they refused to do so, they would have no help from the government in their claim to remission of the tax assessment if their crops were destroyed.

This was not an unpaid job. They were often rewarded with cash for the locusts they killed. It was believed that this would serve as a kind of relief work.

Incorporating local people into the system of locust control often took into account the caste dynamics and ritual hierarchies.

It was mostly people from the “lower castes” who participated in these exercises, attracted by the monetary compensation on offer. The upper castes mostly remained aloof.

British colonial officials in the late 19th century relied heavily on observing Indian ecology, which helped them realise that birds could help to limit the locust population.

Officers in various parts of India noted that kites, crows, storks, starlings, peafowls, and rosy starling birds fed on locusts.

They also observed that birds killed more locusts than human effort ever could.

Official devised an insect-control technique that involved ploughing the fallow lands where locusts were resting: the escaping insects became an easy target for birds.

Officials were helped by the knowledge that similar techniques were being applied in places like Syria, where birds like rosy pastors, domestic fowls, partridges were used to exterminate locusts.

This method became so successful that it was practised well until the twentieth century.

It received favourable mention in the interim report of the Locust Committee of 1929, which recommended protecting birds like starlings and mynas which fed on locusts as a preventive measure against locust outbreaks.

It is notable that this scientifically sound, non-chemical method employed by British authorities in India to counter locust attacks was a common practice followed by many countries through the 19th and 20th centuries and remains relevant to the present day.

International cooperation

The colonial state realised that fighting locust outbreaks required inter-state and international cooperation, along with coordinated efforts of the state and its subjects.

Even at a time when India lacked an organised system of locust control, networks of knowledge and technique exchange existed between various Indian provinces as well as with other countries.

From 1929 onwards, it became evident that the periodic locust invasions in India had their origins outside the country, mostly in Iran, Arabia, or Africa.

By then, the British and the French colonies started to develop centralised bodies for locust control. In British India, this culminated in the establishment of the Locust Warning Organisation in India.

In the following decades, research on locusts was further encouraged , cross-country exchanges intensified and several international bodies formed aimed at the global control of locust infestations.

Today, when countries across Asia, Africa and the Middle East grapple with the locust menace, perhaps, it is time to learn from history.

The magnitude of locust attacks and the need for international cooperation were deemed so essential that in 1943, at the height of World War II, the French resistance organised a conference in the Morrocan city of Rabat to deal with the problem.

The meeting was attended by representatives of several Saharan countries.

It is time to also reconsider some old techniques for combating locust infestations.

During China’s Great Leap Forward from 1958, a plan to eliminate “four pests” rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows, greatly reduced the sparrow population.

China paid the price for this when a locust outbreak occurred because sparrows had maintained an equilibrium by feeding on the insects.

In the following decades, as locust swarms multiplied, China developed a “duck army” to wage a fight against the swarms.

China’s deployment of the duck army is now becoming a diplomatic policy.

In February, there were news reports that China was considering sending its duck army to Pakistan to deal with the locust menace. (This didn’t not materialise eventually.)

Among the other species known to be effective in checking the locust population are pigs, toads and snakes. Ground beetles and parasitic flies are known to reduce the locust population too.

Insecticides may give temporary relief during an infestation, but they might also endanger the birds that act as natural predators of locusts.

The way ahead lies in state-supported protection of birds. This should include a conscious effort to bring back species like house sparrows that have been disappearing rapidly.

Pallavi Das is a doctoral candidate at University of Delhi specialising in the history of science, technology and medicine.

Vineet K. Giri has an MPhil from the University of Delhi and specialises in environmental history.