Tag Archives: awareness

Comforting Thoughts Through Scary Times

As I sit in my family room, looking out at the smokey, orange skies of the San Francisco Bay Area, I can’t help but think about my child with special needs.

It has been 8 months since we have been stuck at home due to COVID. This morning, September 9, 2020, at 11 am, when I woke up, it looked like dawn. When I drew open my bedroom curtains, I saw the sky in bright orange color. I had never seen anything like it before.

I quickly looked at the weather on Google it said that the clouds covered the smoke which traveled during the night and will eventually open up the skies around 5 pm.  I then looked up the weather in Cloverdale, CA. It was 81 degrees with clear blue skies!  I was comforted that my daughter, Siri would be moving there soon, in early 2021.

As a parent of an Autistic child, I worry about her future. 180,000 adults live at home with their parents.  Siri, a 27-year-old young lady lives with us, her parents, and her two younger brothers at home.  

About 90 miles away from San Francisco is Cloverdale, in a small town in the beautiful Sonoma County, rests Clearwater Ranch. Their mission is to provide life-long housing and community that empowers developmentally disabled adults to live their lives to the fullest potential with dignity, purpose, and joy. What a comforting feeling.

Our family along with a few other like-minded families are working actively, partnering with a non-profit, Living Unlimited, to design, develop and implement a life-long housing solution for our loved ones with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

So as the skies burn, I think about the future. The future of my daughter, of disabled people, of seniors, and of myself. I have committed my time and my life to securing my children’s future. Have you?


Swathi Chettipally is a devoted mother and an Autism advocate. Find more about her work with Siri on PinterestInstagram, and Youtube.

Environmentalism Through Kid’s Kathas

Living in the world that all of us do today, it goes without saying that children across the spectrum need to read books that create awareness surrounding the environment and its inhabitants. 

When I think of an Indian publishing house for children, the name that first comes to mind is Katha. What sets Katha’s books apart from others is that it is known for facilitating learning through the power of storytelling. Storytelling is a beautiful way to address some of the most pertinent issues related to the environment and climate change, and the 32-year-old publishing house has time and again called for attention towards our planet through this distinctive approach, in books such as Tigers Forever!, The Mysteries Of Migration, and Polar Bear

Books that Make You Fall in Love with Nature

Sonam’s Ladakh

One of the most effective ways of getting children to care about the environment is to simply help them fall in love with it. Some of Katha’s older books instill a love for nature with their stories and themes. Each of their books has a varied message: In Run Ranga! Run!, one gets to explore the grasslands with the fearless baby rhinoceros who needs a friend; Walk the Rainforest with Niwupah and Walk the Grasslands with Takuri are tours of rainforests and grasslands with a hornbill and an elephant, respectively; On the Tip of a Pin Was… uncovers the science behind wormholes; The Gift of Gold is a mythical story from South African folklore is about a little girl who saves her village from drought. 

Manish Lakhani’s Sonam’s Ladakh tells a story through exquisite photography about a girl belonging to the semi-nomadic Changpa tribe, wandering shepherds in Ladakh. Young Sonam informs readers about animals in the Ladakh region that are her closest friends and “better than boxes of money”. She mentions goats, dogs, her father’s pashmina herds of sheep, and yaks that help grow food and whose wool make their tents. She also points out other animals in the region—the rare Eurasian otters, horses, and Himalayan wolves. The story that is bound to fascinate most children with its sheer novelty and imagery. The books ends with a section that discusses Ladakh’s many glaciers that are gradually melting due to the earth’s global warming, increasing pollution levels and the cutting of trees. The questions posed are aimed at making children think of ways in which all of us in our own way can contribute to caring for the environment.

Keeping it Simple

In a world filled with an overwhelming amount of information on environmental degradation, young children are most likely to gain sensitivity about the situation most through personal experience. Katha’s books have constantly aimed at bringing out simple storylines with characters that relate to most children.

In Who Wants Green Fingers Anyway?, Geeta Dharmarajan explores a mother’s obsession with her potted plants kept in her verandah. When her plants start mysteriously wilting and drooping, her husband researches the subject of how to keep them happy, leading him to attempt re-potting them. What follows is a comical saga, however, the key message has been surreptitiously slipped in—that the roots of plants get tangled up when their pots become too small for them.  

More recently, in The Mystery of the Missing Soap, Tobakachi, the wicked Asura and GermaAsura, along with their Coronavirus Army, make soap disappear in Dakshinapur, one of the happiest villages in the country. By tricking people in this way, they ensure that no one washes their hands, which makes them all very sick. That is until the helpful elephant, Tamasha and the fearless girl, Lachmi, show everyone how to make soap in order to win the battle against the Virus Army. The story, beautifully illustrated by Suddhasattwa Basu and Charbak Dipta, is followed by a simple recipe for making soap at home using reetha berries. By explaining the importance of washing one’s hands in order to prevent coronavirus, the book then dives into Katha’s famous “TADAA” (Think, Ask questions, Discuss, Act, and Take Action for the community) section which details what coronavirus actually is and what one can do to prevent oneself from getting it.

Big Ideas with a Heart

After getting kids to fall in love with nature through simple stories—and hence, getting them to care for the environment—the next step is to focus on concepts that help them think about pressing environmental issues that are affecting the world. Every narrative in Katha’s books is filled with common themes—or what the publisher likes to call ‘big ideas’. For instance, all of Katha’s environment books have recurring themes such as empathy, affection, kindness, collective action, and cues to switch to alternative eco-friendly habits.

Ma Ganga and the Razai Box weaves environmental concerns like pollution, soil erosion, and desertification with mythology. The Magical Raindrop humanizes and gives emotions to Mother Earth, formulating her character in a way that the readers feel she’s a person who feels happiness, sadness, anxiety, and joy just like all of us. Katha’s Thinkbook Series has been designed in a way to introduce young readers to big ideas such as “climate change, gender, and kindness through stories that inspire, aspire, and engage.” 

Educating through Stories

Katha’s founder, Padma Shri Geeta Dharmarajan, is an award-winning writer, editor, and educator. Her published works alone include more than 30 children’s books, many of which are Katha publications. Needless to say, environmental issues are very close to her heart. She is credited for having created Katha’s unique concept of StoryPedagogy, which combines India’s oral traditions and the 2,000-year-old Sanskrit text on the performing arts, Natya Shastra; an idea that she has seamlessly integrated with an earth-friendly curriculum.

While the stories get children to empathize with the characters and their situation—and thus, understand and imbibe an environmental concept—Katha’s final goal is to make children think deeper and take initiatives to act and make a difference. The insightful exercises that appear at the end of each book are created using the SPICE model (Student-centred, Problem-based, Integrated, Community-based, Electives, Systematic) as well as observations, teachers’ feedback, and research among children in the Katha Lab School.

Katha Lab School is a model and a center of creativity for the slum cluster of Govindpuri in New Delhi. Thus, Katha takes the storytelling approach a step further beyond its books too. The Katha Lab School, for instance, uses no traditional textbooks or a one-size-fits-all syllabus. Instead, its system of education is based on StoryPedagogy, a technique that is delivered through Active Story-Based Learning, which helps children to learn language, science, and mathematics, while developing general awareness and critical thinking skills through various stories and activities.

Katha’s StoryPedagogy is the new age of education – one that we can all benefit from adopting.

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 

#WashTheHate

As lockdown orders begin lifting across the United States, the Asian American community is not only concerned about protecting themselves from exposure to COVID-19 but also their physical safety. Since the outbreak of the virus, hate incidents against persons of Asian descent have surged throughout the country with reports of harassment, vandalism, and violent assaults. In March, the FBI assessed that hate crime incidents against Asian Americans would likely increase due to the spread of the virus and the assumption that certain individuals may associate COVID-19 with the Asian American community. 

#WashTheHate was launched in March following a series of violent assaults against Asian Americans and is a social media campaign created to raise awareness about COVID-related bigotry and xenophobia. It features videos of Asian American celebrities, leaders, and influencers, as well as community allies, washing their hands in accordance with CDC recommendations while sharing personal stories about how the pandemic and racism has impacted their lives. Notable participants include Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), Panda Express founders Peggy and Andrew Cherng, Opening Ceremony co-founder Carol Lim, actor Ludi Lin (Aquaman), actor Osric Chau (Supernatural), singer AJ Rafael, actress Amy Hill (Magnum, P.I.), recording artist/producer Shawn Wasabi and former Miss America Nina Davaluri. Over two dozen national advocacy organizations have also endorsed the campaign. 

Comedian, Maulik Pancholy, on #washthehate

Due to the nationwide quarantine and social distancing restrictions, each of the PSA participants shot their portion of the spot in their homes using nothing but their smartphones. The self-shot footage was then compiled, edited, and transformed into the final product by Asian American communications agency IW Group, creators of #WashTheHate. To promote the PSA and social media campaign, #WashTheHate organizers and participants have embarked on a virtual speaking tour throughout Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. 

“As someone who’s come face to face with COVID-related bigotry, I understand the concern that many Asian Americans feel as the country begins to reopen and we start stepping back into the world,” said Tzi Ma, who experienced a racist encounter outside a supermarket near his home at the start of the outbreak. “We hope this PSA allows the public to see this situation from a different perspective while underscoring the need for solidarity during this critical time.” 

“Throughout history, there’s been a tendency to single out and cast blame on certain groups of people during difficult times. We must be vigilant in preventing this from happening again, not only to our Asian American Pacific Islander community, but to any community,” said Celia Au. “This PSA reinforces the need to stop bigotry and create solidarity, so that we can all come out of this pandemic standing stronger than ever before.”  

“A self-shot spot is usually the result of creative experimentation but, in this case, it was an absolute necessity,” said Telly Wong, Campaign Director of #WashTheHate and IW Group Chief Content Officer. “We needed to get this message out promptly, and this was the only way to do it. Our PSA was the result of a group of amazing individuals working together to address and elevate a serious concern within our community.” 

COVID19 Testing is Our Salvation

We are weeks into widespread social distancing in many parts of the world, though it feels like months. Cases of COVID19 continue to mount, as expected, and we watch Italy and Spain for signs of when our society might be cast into crisis and chaos. Health care workers, the heroes of our time (and of all times, really), gird themselves for a flood of respiratory distress cases, projected to peak sometime in April. Physicians and nurses of all specialties are being asked to update their ventilator training in anticipation of being called to the front lines for service. Yet many fear that they will not have sufficient weapons for this fight, such as masks and ventilators.

At this time, it’s important to remember that COVID19 has a global case-fatality rate of about 2 to 3%, lower in the USA, meaning that most people will survive this. In the words of Larry Brilliant, “this is not a zombie apocalypse. It’s not a mass extinction event.” What is it, then? This is, and always has been, a health systems crisis more than simply a health crisis.

In a health crisis, we await salvation from a lucky mutation, a change in seasons (that will likely have no effect on this virus), a vaccine, or a cure. But in a health systems crisis, we can manufacture our own salvation through proper preparation, investment, leadership, and resource management.

In the early phase of a pandemic, it is possible to identify infected individuals, trace their contacts and quarantine them. Once there is community spread, the focus shifts to isolating populations and hardening the hospitals against the onslaught. We are clearly in this second half now.

At present, America’s one million hospital beds are not completely saturated by the number of serious COVID cases, except in overwhelmed places like New York. But in anticipation, health systems managers in many states are struggling to procure PPE (personal protective equipment), ventilators, and even sufficient front-line staff. But there is another way, and both Singapore and South Korea have shown us the first steps on that path.

With an extreme national lockdown that only permits movement of emergency personnel and essential services, lasting a couple of months or more, the number of new cases can be kept to a slow simmer. This is because it would take longer for new infections to occur, while allowing time for existing infections to resolve. The more severe the isolation, the longer it would take for a new case to emerge. The epidemic then recedes to a small number of active cases and a non-newsworthy number of hospitalizations.

The more lax these restrictions, and the slower governments are to enact them, the higher the peak of cases and deaths, and the longer it takes to push the rate of new infections down to a manageable number. But once that is achieved, we can all breathe a little easier.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) predicts that proper social distancing would see the end of the first wave of the epidemic by early June. The timing of the arrival of a second or even third wave depends on the public health interventions made when the first wave abates.

Cases in the US as of March 27, 2020. Image provided by Pharexia.

This post-lockdown, post-first wave scenario resembles the early phase of the pandemic, with a few cases and contacts. That, then, is the time to apply the force of a newly resourced awesome preventative public health system. The secret weapon is something that exists now, that we can manufacture or purchase: tests, and lots of them.

The deployment of rapid, frequent, public testing at a national scale would allow society to return to productive normalcy while keeping the disease to a simmering annoyance.

A Herculean investment in the flotilla of new testing options now becoming available, including rapid 15-minute in situ and at-home testing would give us the epidemiological data to control the outbreak. With sufficient human resources support, every case could be quickly identified and isolated, their contacts immediately traced and tested, as well.

This would require a commitment to a strong and well-maintained public health infrastructure. But such an investment would be a pittance compared to the costs of either the expansion of our hospitals to accommodate throngs of dying patients or the economic cost of many more months of isolation.

In particular, the serology or antibody test would be critical for managing our staged return to society. Such a test would detect the products of the body’s immunological response to the virus, and would therefore tell us if a person were currently or previously infected. If the latter, then they would presumably be immune, and would be granted a free pass to return fully to normal life.

While several serology tests are now on the global market, some jurisdictions do not yet licence them. The challenges are largely scientific. First, the test cannot distinguish between past and present infection, so it would have to be followed up with another test to detect the presence of the virus and therefore determine if the person was still infectious. Second, the potential for false positives is high as it might detect antibodies to other coronaviruses, such as the common cold. And third, it is not yet known how much antibody needs to be present to confer immunity.

On the other hand, the more common nasal swab test, employed on a wide scale in almost every city, relies upon a well equipped laboratory to render a result. But a global shortage of the crucial reagents has resulted in a backlog of pending tests in several places. In many cases, university research labs are being raided to help supply the public health laboratories.

Given that expanded testing, absent a cure or vaccine, is our best path out of the pandemic morass, a natural question is whether the shortages and backlogs could have been avoided. The answer, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, is yes. 

Years ago, the Obama administration put together a comprehensive pandemic response plan that included policy provisions for acquiring critical equipment. That plan was scrapped by the current administration, undoubtedly contributing to the apparent inconsistencies and lack of direction in the national response thus far, and to most states’ inability to acquire PPE and testing kits.

The politics of this failure are tied up in the ideological and personal conflicts between the present and former administration, as well as in the unending tension between private and public sector solutions, pertaining to the question of which sector is best equipped to order, manage, validate, apply and monitor the deployment of tests on a national scale.

Health care system crises like the COVID19 pandemic are not elemental disasters delivered by the gods, but rather are manageable aspects of 21st century globalized life. They can be overcome with good leadership, investment, and planning. Thus far, the leadership has been disappointing, the investment late, and the planning ignored. But there is time yet for these problems to be solved, not by the rare and precious front line clinicians risking their lives, but by the administrators and policymakers, of whom we have no short supply.

Raywat Deonandan, PhD, is an Epidemiologist, Associate Professor and Assistant Director of the Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa in Canada. www.deonandan.com


Featured image is CDC 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time Reverse Transcriptase (RT)-PCR Diagnostic Panel.

Cycling Around The World: Somen Debnath

The statistics and the breadth of ambition are daunting to say the very least. 14 year journey which started in 2004. 154,800 km on bike. Traveled through 150 countries. Currently biking in the United States. On his way to Canada through the West Coast. Raising awareness about HIV and AIDS among rural people in India. 

I spoke with Somen Debnath, a cyclist who has broken many an endurance record with his stupendous journey to cover 190 countries one kilometer at a time, reaching his goal of 200,000 km in 14 years. 

I asked him about how this passion started. “When I was 14 years old, a man who lived close to my village died of AIDS. The West Bengal AIDS prevention society carried newspaper articles which pointed out that AIDS could be deadlier than cancer.” This information about the potentially deadly disease stayed with him, as did the circumstances of growing up in a village in Bengal. “About 80 km. from Kolkata, I grew up in the village of Basanti,” while adding, “which is in the middle of the Sundarbans region, where we have mangrove forests and the largest tiger reserve in India.  have always been inspired by Swami Vivekananda’s teachings directed towards Then, I read Bimal Mukherjee’s book – Du Chakay Duniya where he describes using a bicycle to travel the world for eleven years. His trip started in 1926. Reading this book made a deep impression on me, since I had always wanted to see and experience many places in India and all over the world too. I was raised in the forests. From there, it was my desire that has taken me to so many places across the world.”

When I ask him about the condition of his bike, he told me that this was the eighth bike that he is using. This bike was gifted to him by Indian-Americans living in Texas, and with that he reached California. From here, he planned to go to Portland in Oregon and onto Seattle in Washington. From there, it would be northwards to Canada, the North Pole and then through Siberian Russia. He commenced this journey in May of 2014 and hopes to end it in India in December of 2020 after a journey of 16 years. 

When asked to name his most interesting experiences, he said that traveling through Bangladesh, being captured by the Taliban for 24 days and seeing wild animals like rhinos, cheetahs and lions wandering around in the African grasslands were unforgettable. He also said that his trip elicited a lot of curiosity among people all over, with kindness and empathy coming next, helping him tide over to the next part of the trip. 

“Indians all over and Indian-Americans have been very kind to me, welcoming me with open arms. Everyone can help me through monetary donations and by keeping track of my trip by going to my website at https://www.somen2020world.com/

Pedal up and pedal down. One kilometer at a time; 200, 000 km in 16 years. What passion!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing editor of India Currents magazine.