Tag Archives: covid19

Zoonotic Infectious Diseases: Local Origins, Global consequences

Engage! – Discussions on active involvement in personal health and global wellness

On December 31, 2019, twenty-seven cases of pneumonia of unknown origin were reported in Wuhan, China. By the second week of January 2020, the first case outside China was reported in Thailand. On January 30, 2020, the WHO declared an international public health emergency. Since those events transpired none of us have escaped the effects of the waxing and waning of SARS-CoV-2 as it has raged around the world over the past 18 months. 

If there is a positive fallout from this event, it is the explosion of international scientific efforts to find a way to control this deadly virus. The first sequence of this coronavirus was publicly available in January 2020, and vaccines were created within the next six months, both achievements as epic as the urgency created by this unprecedented (at least in our lifetime) international crisis. Simultaneously, the origin of this virus is being investigated, and expanding upon the knowledge that bats are the natural host of previous coronaviruses that caused human epidemics, namely SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, it appears that SARS-CoV-2 managed to jump to humans from bats. In order for the jump to human infectability to occur, mutations occurring in the virus genome create a viral surface protein that can bind specifically to a human cell surface protein; in the case of SARS-CoV-2, this could be a mutation that allows the viral Spike protein to bind the human cell surface ACE2 protein and cause infection. 

COVID-19 structure
COVID-19 structure

This process of zoonosis, involving the adaptation and transmission of infectious agents from a primary host that is either a mammal or a bird to humans, is an evident aspect of over a hundred infectious diseases known to afflict humans. The infectious agent involved could be bacteria, fungi, parasites, or viruses and in addition to known diseases, there is a continuous roster of emerging zoonotic diseases as these opportunistic microorganisms try to find new hosts to live and breed in. Transmission from animal to human may be through direct contact through potential scratches or bites, airborne through droplets for instance, through vectors such as mosquitoes, ticks, and lice, ingestion of contaminated food or water, and by contact with infected vegetation, soil, water, wild animals, etc. Transmission of pathogens across oceans and borders after they have adapted to humans can, unfortunately, become a reality with the ease of international travel, especially if they can achieve efficient human-to-human transmission and become highly infectious, as in the case with SARS-CoV-2. 

Commonly known extant zoonotic diseases include rabies, plague, chagas disease, brucellosis, anthrax, bovine tuberculosis, Japanese encephalitis, zika virus, ebola, and AIDS. All these, and many more, are of direct relevance to India and other tropical and sub-tropical countries including south-east Asia, Africa, South America, western Pacific islands, and parts of Australia where they can be a burden on the public health system and economy. In India, 13 zoonoses are associated with 2.4 billion cases of human disease, and 2.2 million deaths per year. The National Center for Disease Control in India coordinates efforts at early diagnosis and effective containment, and a specific focus is in the handling of animals and regulation of human-animal contact. Peri-urban areas have grown rapidly in India, and are a link between agricultural areas and densely populated sites. They present a risk as there is unregulated livestock-based food production in these areas to meet the increased demand for food products. 

In addition to these existing illnesses, it is estimated that 60-80% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic diseases. Change in land use is thought to be a major underlying cause of this especially in Southeast Asia and in tropical and developing countries, coupled with wildlife diversity. Depending on the use that the deforested land is co-opted for, be it monoculture forests, crops. poultry, livestock. housing, etc., different groups of zoonotic species came to the fore. For instance, strong associations of vector-borne diseases were found with monoculture plantations (for instance, rubber), and bacterial and viral diseases are among others associated with livestock farming. In India, which is one of the hot spots for emerging zoonotic diseases, potential reasons for the emerging disease include changing land use, dairy farming, rodent infestations, wild-animal trading, climate change, and improper farming practices. Coupled with these conditions there is a lack of awareness, poverty, and poor access to medical and diagnostics services. Endemics, epidemics, and emerging zoonotic diseases in Australia have been a constant presence between livestock, horses, and humans. These are mostly viral and vector-borne diseases, and a few examples are Nipah virus, Menengle virus, and JE virus

Examples of zoonotic diseases and their affected populations.
Examples of zoonotic diseases and their affected populations.

Triggered by the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the World Wildlife Fund has published a report on the zoonotic disease risk posed by wildlife markets in southeast Asia that are involved in wildlife trade and consumption. They urge governments to impose regulations on these activities and reduce demand for high-risk wildlife products. Other comprehensive and phased efforts to prevent and control known and new pathogens have been reported from Congo (monkeypox virus), Ethiopia (rabies), and Georgia (a new zoonotic virus). Of particular concern to India is the potential for it to become a hotspot for future variants of SARS-CoV-2, with global consequences. With its density of population, a priority is to exercise COVID19-related behaviors of masking, social distancing, and vaccination. A second priority is sequencing variants as they arise and following them epidemiologically with outbreaks of COVID19. 

In urban settings, most contact with animals is relegated to pets, household pests, and the consumption of meat and dairy products. Obviously, food needs to be handled with care and cooked well, and pests ranging from rats to mosquitoes and flies need to be eradicated. Although specific viruses can infect dogs and cats, there is currently no evidence that these transmit to humans and cause disease. However, there is some evidence that pets can test positive for SARS-CoV-2, with infection transferring from infected humans. Import and close continuous contact with exotic and wild animals as pets is not recommended. 


L. Iyengar has lived and worked in India and the USA. A scientist by training, she enjoys experiencing diverse cultures and ideas, and writing. Her short story will be included in an anthology showcasing a group of international women writers, to be published in 2021 by The Nasiona. She can be found on Twitter at @l_iyengar and www.liyengar.com.


 

Why Is Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy Worried?

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is worried that the pandemic is getting worse in the US.

At a White House briefing on July 15 to announce a new campaign against COVID-19 misinformation, he shared his concerns about an urgent public health crisis – the growing surge of new Covid infections in the US. “Millions of Americans are still not protected against COVID-19. We are seeing more infections among those who are unvaccinated.”

The CDC warns that a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” is on the rise.

Murthy’s view was echoed by experts at a July 16 EMS briefing on the current state of the COVID-19 epidemic and vaccine rollout.

The CDC’s José T. Montero said on July 15 alone, the CDC recorded 33 thousand new cases of COVID-19.

After a reprieve in early 2021, granted by effective vaccines, masking mandates, and lockdown measures, new COVID-19 infections are increasing, driven by lagging vaccination rates and the highly contagious Delta variant.

The country is witnessing an alarming escalation in the 7 day average of Covid infections added Montero –  from 26% to 211 % per day.

“It is quite clear that this pandemic is not over,” said Montero.

The upward trend is a warning.

Although 160 million people (48.3% of the total U.S. population) have been fully vaccinated, and 55% have received at least one dose, the rapid rise in infections makes it evident that the coronavirus and its lethal Delta variant has unvaccinated communities squarely in their sights.

“Our 7-day average is at 26,300 cases a day,” said Montero, the CDC Director for Center for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Support. That represents a 70% increase from the previous 7-day average. The CDC, which is tasked with monitoring the nation’s health reported a 7-day average of hospitalization admissions (around 2790 per day), an increase of 36 % from the previous 7-day period.

Montero emphasized that people who are unvaccinated account for a majority of the new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Unsurprisingly, communities that are fully vaccinated are faring way better. Outbreaks of cases are erupting in different parts of the country “especially those with low vaccination coverage”.

The CDC’s Covid data tracker reported a corresponding ten percent increase in counties at high risk and a 7 percent increase in counties at substantial risk in the past week.

As of July 14, a total of 605,905 COVID-19 deaths have been reported. Almost 99.5 percent of the Covid deaths were among the unvaccinated, confirmed Dr.Fauci in an interview on PBS.

Surgeon General Murthy called the needless loss of life  from the virus “painful” and pointed out that “nearly every death we are seeing now from COVID-19 could have been prevented.”

So why is a surge in infections occurring despite the wide availability of vaccines available nationwide?

To a large extent, social determinants of health – “ where people live, work, learn and play”  – affect health risks and outcomes. Long-standing systemic health and social inequities in rural areas, for example, put some communities at greater risk of getting Covid.  But the uptick in cases correlates with low levels of vaccination and not in areas where a high percentage of the population is vaccinated.

Statistics shared by experts at the briefing confirm the virus is surging in pockets of the country with low vaccination rates. Cases are spiking in Yuba and Sutter Counties (California), which rate high on the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index.  Only 33% of Yuba County is vaccinated, compared to Placer County which has vaccinated more than half its residents.

“We are going to continue to see preventable cases, hospitalizations, and sadly, deaths among the unvaccinated, ”said Dr. Murthy.

He blamed the rapid spread of misinformation on the Internet for exacerbating the Covid public health crisis. His office has issued an advisory on how to counter misleading health information which “poses an immediate and insidious threat to our nation’s health.” Inaccurate content is poisoning the health environment and leading vulnerable people in high-risk settings to resist wearing masks, turn down proven treatments and choose not to get vaccinated.

“Simply put, health misinformation has cost us lives,” said Dr.Murthy, and is “taking away our right to make informed decisions about our health and the health of our loved ones.”

Current vaccines offer a measure of protection against COVID-19 and its mutations.

But the greatest danger ahead comes from the Delta variant which is quickly becoming the dominant coronavirus strain across the country. The Delta variant is highly transmissible and spreading rapidly. CDC experts confirmed that it is the most prevalent variant in the US, representing more than 57% of the samples being sequenced across the country. Less than a month ago in the middle of June, infection rates which were at 26% have gone up to 57%.

Dr. Lauri Hicks and Dr. Jose T. Montero, CDC

Lauri Hicks, DO |Chief Medical Officer of CDC’s Medical Task Force, warned that people who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated were at high risk of COVID-19 and its mutations. She urged people to get vaccinated ‘on time’ and take advantage of the increase in nationwide vaccine availability of FDA-approved vaccines that offer protection against Delta and other known variants.

Hicks, who works with an independent advisory committee that makes vaccine recommendations, reiterated the importance of getting fully vaccinated. Pfizer and Moderna each exceed “90 percent effectiveness against illness including severe disease,” she said.

Hicks emphasized that completing the series of two doses for both vaccines offer effective protection two weeks after the second dose. She confirmed that there was no need to restart the series if the second vaccine dose was taken later than recommended – after three or four weeks.

“Not completing the series puts those who are partially vaccinated at risk of Covid, including the highly contagious Delta variant,” said Hicks, adding, “COVID-19 vaccination is our most effective strategy without a doubt to prevent infection and control the pandemic!”

At the White House briefing, the Surgeon General shared that he lost 10 family members to Covid, highlighting that the pandemic affects everyone.  As the concerned father of two young children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, Dr. Murthy urged people to get their shots because our kids rely on us to shield them from the virus. Younger, unvaccinated people are more at risk, says a CDC study which reported that people under age 30 accounted for more than 20% of US COVID-19 cases. 

“We’ve come a long way” he said, “but we are still not out of the woods yet.”

As the Delta variant rips through unvaccinated communities across the US, how painful will it have to get before states reconsider their rescinded mask mandates?


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents


 

Author Prerona Mukherjee with her father.

At Bay, In a Sea of Poetry

Poetry As Sanctuary – A monthly column where poets from the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley pen their South Asian experiences.

I grew up surrounded by poetry. My father loved poems and would recite with all the passion of a Bengali man. My grandparents, who brought me up, were passionate Tagore fans.

My grandmother read poems in the afternoon, and sometimes she would cry. 

My grandfather wrote her love letters, allegedly, with a different appellation on each page.

They shared their favorite poems with each other.

My parents too were full of love and poetry. There was something very romantic about them – not just in the sense of their love for one another, but in that their whole life was a wild adventure. That is what poetry meant to me at that younger age — romance!

And I was too fierce and too alive: I wanted grit and reality, not escape and dreams.

Perhaps, because I grew up surrounded by so much poetry, I never took it seriously. If I wrote or read something, I did not work hard at it. I devoured poetry much like I would a fat mango in a Calcutta summer or how I would gulp it a delicate cup of Darjeeling tea on a misty morning. Recently, a beloved friend told me he was taking a course on reading poetry. I was stunned and awed. I did not think I could be so cerebral, so disciplined about poetry – I don’t ever want to be. 

Outside the home, the first poems I encountered were at school. I was lucky that what we read in school was spectacular: Night of the Scorpion, The Inchcape Rock, Ulysses, Bangabhumir Prati, Rabindranather Prati, Aabar Asibo Phire. I remember being arrested by a poem from time to time and writing ever so often, mostly when I should have been doing something else, as though spellbound. But even so, I did not think much of poetry then, they were just pretty words. I was too young, too caught up with living and doing.

Like in most relationships, my love for poetry evolved over time. You need a certain amount of heartache and storms to rake up the ground before words can take root. I kept discovering more poets I was entranced by: Nazim Hikmet, Pasternak, Jorge Luis Borges, Nizar Quabbani, Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, Buddhadeb Basu.

The older I get, the more compelled I am by the quietly strumming throb of words that is poetry. Now I see poems as feelings. Helpless impotent feelings that try to come out of the womb of our hearts and make a bid for a life of their own.

To me, poetry is madness. Most of the time, I am quite sane. I don’t think of myself as a poet, I can’t rhyme and my poems often have no set form. Yet from time to time, a thought or a feeling wells up and nags me till I write it down. 

These two poems came to me in these terrible times of Covid, which were so painful to many of us, helpless and arrested, so far from home.

Tired of writing condolence messages.

Every day to a new friend.

Every death untimely.

Each loss unfair.

I think of childhood friends. So & so?

Hope they are okay. I want a roll-call each day.

 

In the litany of deaths, some are uncounted.

An immigrant doesn’t leave with much:

An idea of home, a place lost in time,

Unreachable, outside a dream.

That dream, safely tucked away,

Is that too dying today?

 

And yet life knows no math.

There will be no reckoning.

We limp on, best we can, all of us.

And slivers of life sneak through the shrouds,

like my stubbornly optimistic son,

when I tell him I am too busy to play.

Sometimes my poems rise up almost fully formed, and I obediently play the scribe. I find it hard to think them through and even harder to edit, especially when the driving emotion is vivid and personal. This one came to me when I was missing my father, whom I lost to COVID, far away in India. I could not do anything with it, once I wrote it down. 

A Stubborn Poem that Refuses to Conform

The days at home are growing hot:

waiting for the rains, in murmuring desperation;

then often too much comes, too late.

 

I had written about you to the doctor,

and called the mayor too.

they said sorry, it was too late.

 

My dream died. And another was born,

a wish granted. A price collected –

equity in the business of souls.

 

I just wish I could have seen you once more.

though I know, it would never be enough.

I wanted you forever; I will want you forever 

 

A civilization of ants was devastated today –

I carelessly stepped on their bustle of progress.

A few, turncoats, hurried on my shoe to survive

 

They said they tried everything.

But I thought the tide was going to turn!

this “but”, this moment, this shock never ebbs

 

When an old friend has left,

little questions we never asked nag us.

When they are here, the questions hide like shy children.

 

It was inevitable, this farewell –

from the first kiss, our road to goodbye is inevitable

inescapable; from the moment I left your womb.

 

And yet it was a beautiful day. The skies were blue,

I read a new book. I thought I could tell you, then remembered…

From a dark window, I watch a square of light high on the hill.


Prerona Mukherjee is a Cognitive Neuroscientist and an aspiring writer. The common thread: people, life, and feelings. She spent most of her childhood in Calcutta, India, and adulthood in Edinburgh, Scotland before finding herself in the Bay.


 

To Mask Or Not to Mask: With the Delta Variant, Why is That Still a Question?

COVID-19 manifested itself in a new variant this year: The Delta Variant. The beginning of the variant was found in India, where the original strain has already shaken a lot of people and caused immense damage. According to the CDC, the Delta variant accounts for 51.7% of cases in the US. In India, 86% of vaccinated people were infected by the Delta Variant. This variant is a lot more severe and is spreading globally, now warning the third wave in most countries. The endlessness of the virus has brought about the recurring debate of whether or not to mask up. 

Even in the Bay Area, there has been a surge in cases. Officials in various counties have cautioned against the variant and urged people to wear masks. In June, the variant was responsible for 43% of the cases in California. The Bay Area is slowly becoming a hotspot since people have become lax in wearing masks in public spaces, giving way to the variant as it spreads increasingly. 

Some frequently asked questions

When should I wear them? How effective are they? Do I wear a mask if I’m vaccinated? 

Between those that flat out refuse to wear masks and those that wear masks in every setting, these are the string of questions that are most common. It doesn’t help that there are so many perspectives on what exactly is right to do. Do we trust the CDC guidelines blindly? Or should we take things as they come and weigh our best options out? 

When should I wear them? 

Masks should be worn when you are out of your house. Regardless of whether there are fewer people or more people. They offer a preventive measure and also keep the people around you safe. 

How effective are they? 

“The key thing is that studies show that masks help,” states epidemiologist and health economist Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding at an EMS Briefing on July 9th. Masks are efficient in protecting you and the people around you. Dr. Feigl-Ding furthered that double masking is a lot more effective.

According to an article by JAMA Health Forum, when one person double-masks and the other wears a single, 85.4% of cough particles are blocked, and when both double-mask, their exposure is blocked by more than 95%. The article further stated that after the CDC mask mandate had taken effect, COVID cases and hospitalization due to the strain had significantly decreased (by 5.5%). 

“Masking reduces 99-100 % of the infection but with the rest, it’s between 0 and 1%,” informs Dr. Ben Neuman.

Do I wear a mask if I’m vaccinated? 

Yes. There are no two ways about this. While the vaccine acts as a preventive measure against COVID-19, there have since been variants of the virus that are a lot more severe. The latest variant Delta is four times more severe than the original strain. The delta variant is also two times more transmissible than its older counterparts. This makes the vaccine evasive. Meaning vaccinated people CAN transmit the variant.

In Singapore, there were about two dozen cases where the virus carried from vaccinated people to other vaccinated people, ultimately affecting unvaccinated people.

Even in the States, the Delta variant is spreading. We have recently had a surge in cases as the mask mandate was lifted by the CDC. In the past three weeks, cases have been rising steadily. It takes five weeks to determine the results for the variant once tested.

With the variant, only a few changes and effects from the original strain are known. It has been documented that there are mutations that give the Delta variant unknown advantages on the lung’s immune system. 

Masking is not an option

Virologist and Professor at Texas A&M Dr. Ben Neuman talked about his experience as the only masker: “I’m in Texas and the only one that routinely wears a mask. Texas is one of the two clusters with the lowest vaccination rates.” 

The number of people vaccinated in the US has not even reached half the population yet. “There are pockets with less than 40% people vaccinated.” Dr. Jose Perez , Chief Medical Officer of South Central Family Health Center, advocates, “Wear a mask. Especially with people around. Anywhere.”

If this isn’t convincing you to mask up, there is more.

Hand sanitizers and glass shields offer about 0-1% aid against the vaccine if you don’t wear masks.

“People keep doing the things that don’t make a difference rather than the ones that do,” said Dr.Ben Neuman with regards to glass shields and hand sanitizers. As the virus is airborne, plexiglass does just about nothing to prevent it from spreading. Rather than offering shields, it is important to ventilate or incorporate better systems of ventilation to clean the air. But, as there isn’t any immediate action being taken for proper ventilation or disinfection, masking (double masking) works as a shield against the airborne strain. 

A google search bar recommended question on the masking:

“Do I wear my mask blue side out?”

Yes. Please wear your masks that are disposable blue side out. 


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and an aspiring creative writer.


 

Desis Not Getting Vaccinated is Borderline Sociopathic Behavior

With Irreverence Towards All – A monthly column on the musings and rants from a Bay Area Indian American about all that ails, affects, or matters to desis here and across these fine United States. Many will disagree, and sometimes aggressively. 

There is nothing cool, romantic, or brave about being a public health hazard. Many desis in the Bay area are unfortunately being just that. Yes, this is a rant. And it is intended to highlight this problem – if you see it happening in your circles, call it out.

Experts have estimated that 70 to 85% of people in the US will need to become immune to the coronavirus through vaccination or infection in order to control community spread.  Vaccination rates are slowing down dangerously, and as of July 13, only 55.7% of the US population has received at least one dose. 

A couple of weeks ago, more than 10% of those who received one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine have missed their second dose (per the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). This statistic is a huge concern. According to experts, studies have shown that the vaccines are much more effective against the Delta variant after the two-dose regimen is completed. Let’s not forget that the Delta variant is believed to be more transmissible and likely to cause more severe disease than other strains. 

Folks, these are the facts. So wherein lies the problem?

The problem lies with the folks who should be leading and guiding people to do the right thing for public health; they are doing the exact opposite. It is disheartening when these are people from your own community that is often thought of as one that functions at a higher degree of awareness and is well-educated. Yes, I’m talking about desis in the Bay area who are engaging in downright irresponsible behavior.

Exhibit A – A tech company CEO and their spouse, who many look up to because of their otherwise spiritual leanings, are refusing to get vaccinated. They are, in fact, trying to convince others that COVID has been blown out of proportion and that we should avoid getting vaccinated. What they are doing is very dangerous. They seem to forget that it is not about the individual alone, and not everyone can or will be able to do what these two individuals do for their personal immunity. I believe their behavior is outrageously selfish. What makes it worse is that they have a child in their twenties – a demographic that is already slowing down vaccination rates. With parents like these, I don’t see this young individual racing to get vaccinated. I think this couple is among the worst offenders because they are signaling to people who look up to them that it’s okay to be irresponsible. It is reprehensible how they do this maintaining a holier-than-thou attitude. And, I’ve seen other desis pretend this is not happening. Will we only take notice when they become sick? It is their choice to not get vaccinated – which must be respected. But they should not expect to be treated on par with others who have been responsible for protecting the health of the community. It should be perfectly fine to shun their company till they demonstrate more responsible behavior.

Exhibit B – A rising tech star (in Texas actually, but can we assume this is not happening in the Bay area too?) agreed to abandon their vaccination schedule because their spouse was convinced by friends that vaccines were not safe! And the source of the information? WhatsApp. These forwards seem to have taken control of brains around the world because we are too lazy to look up credible sources of information. Whatever happened to personal due diligence and a mind that can discern what’s BS and what is solid science-based reasoning? 

Exhibit C – A healthcare worker. Yes, a healthcare worker while administering a shot to a close friend of mine expresses doubts about the efficacy and illness preventing capabilities of the vaccine. Are you kidding me? If we have individuals like this in healthcare, it is a disaster waiting to happen. 

All these offenders are desi and all of them are fairly well-educated and wouldn’t otherwise be suspected of being science naysayers.

In the Hindu faith, the concept of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” implies the whole world is a family. Which in turn means that co-existence ought to be a core belief. What does it say about you, as a Hindu, if you are tearing down a core principle – one of co-existence? In the Sikh faith there happens to be a beautiful principle – “Sarbat da Bhala” which literally means the welfare of all. In the context of this discussion, I ask, aren’t we adversely impacting the welfare of the community by setting a bad example when we shun vaccination and advocate against it? This discussion is not meant to be about faith. I bring this up to expose the hypocrisy of those who are hurting our common interest and endangering everyone around. I mention these two faiths specifically because the offenders in my 3 examples are self-professed and self-proclaimed diehard believers of these faiths; and mind you, they don’t hesitate to pontificate ad nauseam, espousing the virtues of being a good Hindu or Sikh. 

The science is clear – the pandemic will not end until we get north of 70% immunity for the population. As a nation, we have missed the July 4 goal set by President Biden with respect to vaccination numbers. Can we pledge to do our part in trying to make up lost ground in the weeks ahead? Let’s push ourselves, our families, our friends, and all those sitting on the fence about getting vaccinated. The diehard anti-vaxxers I write off as parasites – they’ll benefit from our effort and dedication to public health – so, let’s not waste time trying to convince them. 

One more thing. I tip my hat (figuratively speaking, of course – I’m not exactly a wearer of hats) to Khushwant Singh, a journalist of international repute who used to run a syndicated column in the Illustrated Weekly of India called, “With Malice towards One and All (many older folks in the desi community might remember). While I cannot hope to match his talent, savvy, and way with words, I confess I am inspired by his irreverent wit. I hope to keep that irreverence alive. 

Irreverently yours, 

– Darpan


Darpan is a Bay Area artiste with a background in technology and finance. He shares his unfiltered views on a broad range of topics. He agrees to be restrained only by editorial diktat.


 

Abha Sharma and her family

Bereaved Mother of Bay Area Resident Unable to Visit the US

A longtime resident of the Bay Area, Abha Sharma suffered devastating losses from the Delta variant in India over the past two months. Sharma’s father and 40-year-old younger brother both succumbed to COVID 19. Her only surviving relative in India, her mother, Prabha Rawat, who was battling COVID, is now stuck there in a recovery hospital.

Mrs. Rawat is not aware of the deaths of her husband and son. Besides COVID, she has multiple medical conditions that need constant medical attention. The deaths of her husband and son have been withheld from her since she may not withstand the news of these losses on her own. The fear is that she may also pass away if she is not nursed back to health by her surviving family.

Sharma and her other brother, who are both in the USA, are unable to secure a visa to bring their mother here due to the freeze on the B1/B2 visas. Her brother is a US Citizen and she is a green cardholder. They are desperate to bring their mother here because she has no support in India.  

The only other option is for Sharma to move to India indefinitely. That will be a huge challenge since she has two children in high school in the Bay Area. 

The only hope right now is for the US State Department to issue humanitarian parole or an emergency visa issued based on these circumstances. But, embassy appointment dates are not available. Sharma and her brother are hoping that the State Department could issue their mom a visa to travel.

To this end, Sharma contacted many Congressmen/Congresswomen and Senators in many states including California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo’s office. They tried contacting the US embassy in New Delhi but the US embassy did not consider the circumstances exigent enough.

A visa application is filed but no appointments are available at the US Consulate in New Delhi. Abha has been diligently calling the US consulate every day for a month and a half for an appointment.

At this point, Abha’s situation appears to be dire with no light at the end of the tunnel. 

Please sign this change.org petition appealing the State Department to provide a visa to Abha’s mom on humanitarian grounds:  http://chng.it/fWPbZtrLQX


Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan has taught information systems at San Jose State.  She volunteers with the Plant-Based Advocates of Los Gatos.  http://www.plantbasedadvocates.com/


 

Neanderthal DNA Present in South Asians is a Risk Factor For COVID-19

People of South Asian descent possess a set of genes inherited from Neanderthals that makes them more susceptible to hospitalization from COVID-19, according to a study published in Nature

While certain risk factors affect the severity of COVID-19 – such as age and presence of underlying health conditions – the study noted that many still contract a severe case of COVID-19 without these risk factors, implying the existence of other risk factors in our genetics. Hugo Zeberg and Svante Paabo, the study’s authors, found a core haplotype (a group of genes inherited from a single parent) that increases the risk of hospitalization for COVID-19 to occur at a 50 percent frequency in South Asian people. 

The same haplotype is almost absent in those of East Asian descent, occurs at only a 16 percent frequency in people from Europe, but occurs at a 63 percent frequency among Bangladeshi people in the United Kingdom, Zeberg and Paabo wrote. They said Bangladeshi people in the UK also have double the risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to the general population, indicating further disparities in healthcare that are compounded by the genetic predisposition identified in the study.  

Pie charts show the minor allele frequency at rs35044562. Frequency data were obtained from the 1000 Genomes Project. Map source data were obtained from OpenStreetMap. (Image from Nature Magazine)

The study comes as COVID-19 cases in India are on the rise and hospitals struggle to maintain the resources to deal with the onset of new cases. Despite being one of the world’s biggest producers of compressed oxygen, the country has dealt with a shortage of supplies due to delays in oxygen storage and production, which in turn exacerbated the COVID-19 crisis.

“With respect to the current pandemic, it is clear that gene flow from Neanderthals has tragic consequences,” Zeberg and Paabo wrote. 

The study states that the fact these genes have endured over the course of history to the present day indicates they must have been beneficial to human survival at some point in time.

“Thus, although this haplotype is detrimental for its carriers during the current pandemic, it may have been beneficial in earlier times in South Asia, perhaps by conferring protection against other pathogens, whereas it may have been eliminated in East Asia by negative selection,” the study states

However, Zeberg and Paabo found that the haplotype is notably absent in those of African descent because gene flow from Neanderthals into African populations at the time was “limited and probably indirect.”

“It is currently not known what feature in the Neanderthal-derived region confers risk for severe COVID-19 and whether the effects of any such feature are specific to SARS-CoV-2, to other coronaviruses, or to other pathogens,” they wrote. “Once the functional feature is elucidated, it may be possible to speculate about the susceptibility of Neanderthals to relevant pathogens.”

Cutting-edge research, like the one Zebery and Paabo conducted, is an important reminder that diversity in research and medicine provides a more comprehensive understanding of diverse populations and how to address their needs.


Isha Trivedi is a journalism student at George Washington University. She enjoys reading and listening to podcasts in her (limited) spare time. 


 

Book cover of "V For Vaccine'

V For Vaccine: South Asians Educate Early

One of the hottest ‘V’ words that has the entire world talking about them these days is vaccines. Either someone has recently taken them, is taking them, or is about to take them! Lately, young children have been observing adults around them—their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles—taking the all-important Covid-19 jab. Moreover, now in several countries, with vaccine trials for children underway, the book is a useful manual to help them understand what’s going on. 

Artist - Isha Nagar
Artist – Isha Nagar

V For Vaccine: A One-Shot Introduction to Vaccines! (HarperCollins, 2021) is a ready reckoner to tell children everything they need to know about vaccines. Through easy-to-understand language and colorful, quirky illustrations by Isha Nagar, the book explains the preventive nature of vaccines—how they teach one’s body to recognize and fight certain germs such as chicken pox or measles—and what makes them different from other medicines.

Originally from Lucknow, Nagar was born into a family of artists and writers. In 2010, she graduated from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Delhi with a Graphic Design specialization. While working in the publishing industry, she discovered her love for illustrations and ventured into creating quirky, handmade illustrations. Based on the daily activities of Indians, it paved way for her own brand Tathya, which produced lifestyle products and designs. She has also illustrated for the Mini series by Nandini Nayar.

Much of the inputs for the book’s content come from Dr. Gagandeep Kang, a Professor of Microbiology at the Wellcome Trust Research Laboratory, Division of Gastrointestinal Sciences at the Christian Medical College, Vellore. Having worked on the development and use of vaccines for rotaviruses, cholera, and typhoid, she is the first woman working in India to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.  

“Vaccines are a clever way of teaching your body how to fight off germs that haven’t tried to attack you yet, so that the first time these germs try to make you feel sick, your immune system is already prepared!” In this way, the prose highlights the importance of vaccines by reminding us how so many diseases in the past have been eradicated through herd immunity. 

In simplified form, the book also introduces kids to concepts such as antigens as well as antibodies—“a protein shaped like a Y”—one of the most important elements of the immune system. The book also details the process of testing a vaccine in labs on humans and animals once it is created, and describes what the actual process of taking a vaccine entails: whether it hurts, how the body reacts to it and builds immunity, booster doses, and annual flu shots. 

A page from the book 'V for Vaccine'.
A page from the book ‘V for Vaccine’.

The book also lists other ways to stay healthy, including eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, getting exercise and staying active, following basic hygiene like washing hands before meals, sneezing or coughing into a tissue, wearing a mask, and practicing social distancing (particularly for Covid-19). Along the way, the book also offers some fun facts and trivia about the history of vaccines, informing that an English scientist, Edward Jenner, invented the first vaccine around 1796, using material from cowpox to give people immunity against smallpox. 

In all, this short and timely book is perfect to educate young ones about vaccines, and even includes a pull-out vaccine card at the end!


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. 


 

Top: Raj & Anna Asava. Bottom: HungerMitao Founders, Taiwan Center Foundation of LA, and HTHF on a zoom call.

An Unexpected Union of NonProfits Raise COVID Funds: HungerMitao, Taiwan Center Foundation, & a Hindu Temple

In April 2021, the United States experienced a steady decline in the COVID-19 cases, resulting in portions of the economy opening up. However, for people in India, the worst had just begun due to the second wave of the pandemic. The new variant of concern doubled the number of infections and deaths in the nation of 1.3 billion in population, sparking a  humanitarian crisis due to the shortage of medical resources for critically ill patients, resulting in an alarming number of people losing their lives. 

What emerges from the crisis is a story of three entities that didn’t know each other who, out of their compassion and vision, collaboratively raised $50,000 to help their fellow human beings in India.

In response to this crisis, Dallas-based philanthropists and founders of the HungerMitao movement, Raj & Aradhana Asava, initiated a matching donation challenge on Facebook of $25,000 and raised $12,343. 

Concurrently, the Los Angeles-based Taiwan Center Foundation of Greater Los Angeles spearheaded a fundraiser in the Taiwan American community in LA, raising $11,620 from many generous donors, and sent their funds to Pasadena-based non-profit Hindu Temple and Heritage Foundation (HTHF) to arrange to send to India. 

The three entities combined fundraising efforts – Taiwan Center Foundation’s $11,620.00 and HTHF’s donation of $1,037, was added to the $12,343 raised by Raj & Aradhana Asava challenge on Facebook for a total of $25,000. This was matched by a donation of  $25,000 from Raj & Aradhana Asava – resulting in a final donation amount of $50,000. 

These funds will be sent to India through Indiaspora to help set up COVID-19 Care Centers. The 10 bed COVID-19 Care Center, for a period of three critical months, will provide over 120 patients care for seven days each; and 7,000 people will be benefitted through outpatient services and utilization of various logistical support. 

A true story of what humans can achieve when they put their hearts and minds together! 

In addition, responding to the same crisis in May, HTHF also raised $17,500 to send 2,000  oxygen concentrators and help set up an oxygen plant in India. 

For additional information or to donate, check out each organization:


Mohna Manihar is an artist and a marketing, publicity, and fundraising consultant. She uses her MBA and networking skills as a catalyst to help non-profits and newer artists grow.


 

What is Vaccine Tourism?

As the world shot down largely in 2020, tourism was badly hit with losses estimated at a whopping US$ 2 trillion-plus in global GDP. However, the new year and the slew of vaccines launched across the board have sent a positive signal to the tourism industry. Even as international borders open albeit slowly, the tourism industry is hopping on to the vaccine bandwagon to boost its sagging image.

Understanding Vaccine Tourism

So, what is vaccine tourism all about?

Well simply speaking it is traveling to get a COVID-19 vaccine jab in another country. While the concept of medical tourism (getting treatment in another country) is quite commonplace, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in vaccine shortages in many countries which means people are looking at going to another country for their shot. It would be wise to understand which states can give non-residents a COVID-19 vaccine. Some countries like the Maldives, easily the most popular tourist destination in the pandemic, has announced that they will soon offer visitors vaccinations on arrival. This is being planned as part of a three-pronged 3V strategy that encourages ‘visit, vaccinate and vacation’ for its tourists. It does help that 90% of the tourism industry and 65% of the eligible population have already received their shots. The tourism minister of Maldives, Abdulla Mausoom, has been quoted saying the country will offer vaccines to tourists once the country is fully vaccinated.

The Maldives
The Maldives

Boosting Tourism?

With much talk about vaccine passports doing the rounds, several countries are ready to open for tourism. However, the shadow of the virus is still around and one way to mitigate this is to offer packages that allow people to come in for an extended stay that includes vaccination and quarantine.

Recently a Dubai-based travel agency Arabian Nights Tours launched a 23-night package from Delhi to Moscow which quickly disappeared from the site. While the agency claimed that it was sold out, the real issue is that Russia will allow only those foreign citizens with registration in Moscow, residence permits, and Russian health insurance to be vaccinated. Hence it is important to read and understand the fine print before heading for jaunt and jab trips.

However, while citizens are the priority, there has also been an announcement on Sputnik V’s official Twitter account that indicated that the Sputnik V vaccination was going to be available for travelers in Russia after July. A recent report confirmed that the first group of four people drove 26 hours in a camper van to reach San Marino from Latvia to become the first visitors to take advantage of the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine holiday package.

There have also been South Africans traveling to Zimbabwe and Canadians and Latinos traveling to the USA for jabs.

Question of Ethics

While vaccine tourism is something that people with deep pockets can aspire for, the question that also arises is whether it is ethical. Considering that vaccination drives have begun recently, several countries are now revising vaccine tourism packages as they have been under fire for offering vaccines to foreigners over residents.

A lot of the fallout is also happening, as these tours come with fancy price tags that the affluent can easily afford to leave out a large part of the vulnerable population. In fact, Glenn Cohen, a medical ethicist at Harvard Law School describes this issue very succinctly.

The other aspect is that people of color are more likely to be affected by the coronavirus as per a COVID Racial Tracker by NPR. This was also corroborated by a report that threw light on the Covid-19 mortality data by race and ethnicity across the United States.

While currently there are no laws that make it illegal to travel for vaccines, it is imperative to check and recheck before you embark on a journey to get the jab. And it is most vital for you to understand the reason why you have decided to travel for a vaccine. Research about the vaccine, your eligibility and accordingly make a decision that will be the right one.


Bindu Gopal Rao is a freelance writer and photographer from Bangalore who likes taking the offbeat path when traveling. Birding and environment are her favorites and she documents her work on www.bindugopalrao.com.


 

Trinity Cares Foundation fight against COVID-19 in Jangamakote Village. (Creative Commons License 2.0)

Don’t Forget People Are Still Dying In India

It started in mid-March 2021, the many videos of grandparents hugging their kids post-vaccination in the US. Families reunited safely after a year or more of waiting to touch. Pictures of social interaction among vaccinated people started appearing on social media feeds. People sat outdoors in restaurants in the sun. The CDC guidance changed about masks for vaccinated people.  

I live in the NY area. Perhaps, we can go to Broadway shows again soon. Maybe, we can relegate to memory those days of heartbreaking pictures of daughters looking in through the windows of nursing homes to get a glimpse of their mothers through the glass and families trying to decide whether to have Thanksgiving dinners sitting as far apart as possible in different rooms.

I do like the current optimism in the US on COVID. But for some of us, the pandemic is far from over. As an immigrant from India, I wish American media covered more world news.

For me, the pandemic is still very much alive. When I check my WhatsApp in the morning, before the fog of sleep has cleared, there is news from India. It may be that again someone we knew has passed away from COVID. In Facebook groups, someone else is looking for oxygen. The lucky ones are waiting three hours in line for a vaccine, while others don’t know when they will get a dose at all. They don’t need beer, donuts, or million-dollar lottery prizes as incentives to get vaccinated. 

There is a raging pandemic going on in India and in major parts of the world. If you believe in the overarching value of human life, you ought to be worried. 

I have been living in the US for more than two decades. As an immigrant, my threshold for pain is different. Even in regular times in my community, only the lucky children get to physically run and hug their grandparents once a year on a trip to India. We are lucky if we get to attend weddings of close relatives or be present when nephews and nieces are born. Every time we leave home in India, we aren’t quite sure whether we will see the very old ever again. 

No, the pandemic hasn’t ended for me. 

My septuagenarian father in Kolkata, India, who is disoriented after losing his wife last year in August, and has been socially distancing in the pandemic for so long, can neither go to the bank to stand in line or go to the fish market like he used to. He still has not been able to return to a fully independent life of doing the things he used to do. He has been taking social distancing seriously and I just long to hug him after my mother’s passing.

My father sits in a room surrounded by buildings that block the sky on all sides. There is no place to take a walk safely without running into people, even though that number continues to decrease because of COVID-related deaths. One neighbor, who called before my mother’s shradh ceremony (which is similar to a funeral) to inform us that she couldn’t attend, passed away just a few days later from COVID.

I talk to my father on the phone every day and tell him that all this will be over soon without really knowing what to believe myself. So, I switch to a conversation about how things are looking up in New York – at least he is happy that I am safe. 

Cable news channels in the US constantly state that the pandemic is ending. Occasionally, there is some coverage of other countries on the chyron when some complex US political complication is being discussed animatedly on the main screen. While there was never very much coverage of world news through the pandemic, I had hoped that we would hear more about those that are passing, at least from here in the US.

I live in the US and have lived here for twenty years. I am hoping the pandemic ends here. I teach in a college in Manhattan. I’m fully vaccinated. I’m eager to see my students in person just like anyone else. I’m hoping everyone else will be vaccinated when I take the train to Penn Station from New Jersey in the Fall. I, too, am hoping to sit in a cafe and write. I’m glad I can bring in groceries, now, without disinfecting them obsessively. But even as I think of my life here, I’m aware of the suffering of people in other countries. That is not just because I’m an immigrant. It’s because even before I became an immigrant, I grew up with the consciousness of the world through world news in India. 

For the first year of the pandemic, my experience of the pandemic in the US and India was parallel. I was looking in through the glass at my ailing mother last year all through her 5 months of sickness in Kolkata. I couldn’t visit her during the first Indian lockdown and the first wave of COVID in India. The glass in my case was not a hospital ICU wall but a phone video screen. The video was often blurred. Sometimes, I thought she recognized me on the screen. Sometimes, I thought she only saw the phone. She lost speech and then we eventually lost her in August 2020 through indescribable hardship.

For those of us, who lost someone close in the COVID world, the post-COVID world, if and when it comes, will never be the same.

For months I have been planning on how to visit my father in India safely. I have planned various scenarios in my head through the spikes in COVID cases in the US and India, and through lockdowns, flight cancellations, planning local transportation in India, COVID tests, seat availability, vaccination – tracking every little large and small last-mile problem through my mind’s eye. 

Yet, I have only ended up reassuring my father in India over the phone that he will go to the fish market soon, that he will be able to stand in line at the bank soon, that it will be safe for him to walk on the teeming Kolkata streets soon. My visit almost worked out when I completed my second dose of the vaccine in the US, but that’s when the deadly second wave hit India in April. My travel plans are on hold again.

World news should matter. Worldwide deaths should matter. Worldwide deaths should matter and not just because a virus mutating in the developing world can put the developed world in jeopardy. 

Death should matter just because we value human life.


Madhura Bandyopadhyay is a Doctoral Lecturer in the English Department at John Jay College, City University of New York (CUNY) in Manhattan, New York. She grew up in Kolkata, India and has lived in Florida, California, and Singapore. She lives in New Jersey now. Apart from being a teacher and scholar of writing, she blogs in her spare time just for fun on her blog at bottledworder.com 


 

For Toddlers, Pandemic Shapes Development During Formative Years

Lucretia Wilks, who runs a small day care out of her home in north St. Louis County, is used to watching young children embrace, hold hands and play together in close quarters.

But the covid-19 pandemic made such normal toddler behavior potentially unsafe.

“It’s weird that they now live in a time where they’re expected to not hug and touch,” said Wilks, founder of Their Future’s Bright Child Development Center, which cares for about a dozen children ranging from infants to 7 years old. “They’re making bonds, friendships, and that’s how they show affection.”

Day care and other child care providers said they are relieved to see covid cases drop as vaccines roll out across the United States. But even as the nation reopens, mental health and child development experts wonder about what, if any, long-term mental health and development consequences young children may face.

In the short term, medical and child development experts said the pandemic has harmed even young children’s mental health and caused them to miss important parts of typical social and emotional development. Besides not being able to get as close to other people as usual, many young children have seen their routines interrupted or experienced family stress when parents have lost jobs or gotten sick. The pandemic and its economic fallout have also forced many families to change caregiving arrangements.

“Coronavirus is impacting children and families in many ways mentally. The biggest and most obvious way is in the children’s structure and routine,” said Dr. Mini Tandon, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Young kids thrive in structure and routine, so when you disrupt that, things go awry pretty quickly in their day-to-day lives.”

Tandon, who has spoken frequently with parents and caregivers since the pandemic began, said she and her peers have seen more severe anxiety and high levels of stress in young children than in the past.

Child behavior experts pointed to a number of problems exacerbated by the pandemic in a National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness webinar last year, including separation anxiety and clinginess, sleep issues and challenges learning new information. Children have also shown regressive behaviors — wetting the bed even though they’ve been potty-trained, for example.

For young children, changes in caregiving arrangements can be a huge source of stress. And the financial strain of the pandemic forced many families to rethink how they cared for their youngest children.

The average monthly child care cost in Missouri, for example, is $584 for 4-year-olds and $837 for infants, according to Procare Solutions, which works with over 30,000 programs for children. That has been too high for some parents who lost their jobs in the pandemic. President Joe Biden’s covid relief plan signed into law in March gives monthly payments of up to $300 per child this year and his latest proposal would help reduce child care costs and increase access to preschool, if approved.

But in the many months when day care has been out of reach, some parents have had to rearrange their work schedules to care for infants or toddlers while also helping school-age children with virtual learning. Others have relied on grandparents for help, although that option was potentially dangerous before vaccines were available. Keeping children apart from grandparents has been tough for both kids and seniors.

Even when parents could afford day care, fear of getting or spreading covid affected their choices about whether and when to send them. And some facilities closed temporarily during the pandemic.

Aimee Witzl, 34, of St. Louis, an accountant and new mom, said she and her husband were hesitant to send their daughter, Riley Witzl, to day care early in the pandemic. Riley was born prematurely in November 2019 and had to spend nine weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit before coming home. So, the couple waited until August to send her to day care part time, then until January to send her full time.

“We were already high-risk,” Witzl said. “Then covid happened, so we kept her home even longer than planned.”

Fortunately, she said, no one in her family has contracted the virus.

In March 2020, the Early Childhood Development Action Network, a global collection of agencies and institutions promoting child health and safety, put out a “call to action” shared by the World Health Organization saying they were concerned about the pandemic putting “children at great risk of not reaching their full potential” because the early years are a “critical window of rapid brain development that lays the foundation for health, wellbeing and productivity throughout life.”

Tandon, the Washington University psychiatrist, said she’s especially worried about young children who may have been isolated in unsafe homes where they were mistreated. Maltreatment is more likely to go unnoticed, she said, when children are outside of the day cares and schools where adults are required to report child abuse and neglect.

But Tandon said the stresses of the pandemic can affect the mental health of any child, which motivated her to write a children’s book about a girl dealing with anxiety during the pandemic.

Now, though covid vaccinations still remain months away for the youngest children, a shift is occurring that may cause a new round of disruptions for them. Nancy Rotter, a child psychologist and assistant professor at Harvard University, said young children may be experiencing separation anxiety as they fully transition back into their schools and day cares after being at home with their parents.

To help kids heal, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests families make sure kids stay connected to relatives and friends. The agency also advises that parents do their best to recognize and address fear and stress in themselves and their kids and seek professional help if needed. CDC experts suggest parents talk about emotions and provide opportunities for children to express their fears in a safe place.

Yet as children and toddlers return to a new normal, it may not be as strange to them as it is for adults. Though the pandemic has presented stressors, Rotter said, children can be very resilient.

“Supportive caregivers and supportive emotional environments help with resilience in the child,” she said. “Resilience is not just what’s in the child, but what’s within the child’s environment. It’s the home, religious community, school and day care environment that aid in the child’s development and how they cope with changes.”

And the pandemic may leave behind one benefit for children: the emphasis on washing hands. Child care experts said good hygiene habits are an important life lesson that will likely last beyond this health crisis.


This story was produced by KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.