Tag Archives: India

7 Unexpected Places to Hike in India

For those familiar with the Indian terrain and are searching for unique trails, this article showcases seven unexpected places to hike in India. Sometimes, the best travel experiences are those that are lesser-known. From its towering Himalayan peaks, and lush jungles and forests, India is a diverse place of excitement and adventure for those who seek it. And, don’t worry if you’re not a hardcore hiker, India has a plethora of trails ranging from easy to difficult. 

Hopefully, when you’re done reading the list, you’ll be heading to one of these sought-after hiking destinations! 

Manali

“Serving as an epicenter of adventure in Himachal Pradesh, India, Manali is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the world,” says Edward Jackson, a lifestyle blogger at UK Services Reviews and UK Top Writers. “Whether you’re an athlete or a casual hiker, Manali has something for many people who go there. First, start at Solang Valley, known locally as ‘Snow Point.’ Afterwards, you’ll be trekking up to Dhundi. As you hike, you’ll notice natural beauties like the Beas River and purple Rhododendron flowers. For this hiking trip, it’ll take a whole day to complete.”

Himachal Pardesh, Manali

Chembra Peak

Chembra Peak is a hiking spot in Southern India, where the treks are filled with surprises. From gorgeous views to breathtaking grasslands and hills, the Peak will leave you amazed. Also, this place takes conservation very seriously — be sure to abide by the rules and regulations set up by the local government and law enforcement. 

Chembra Peak (Image by Karkiabhijeet and under CC BY 4.0)

The Grand Indrahar Pass

Indrahar Pass is a mountainous trek, which makes it one of the best hiking spots in India. Located in the Dhauladhar range in the Himalayas, you’ll start at the Galu temple. From there, you’ll pass by the camping ground Triund, and then visit the Lahesh Caves. You’ll finish the trek at Chamba. The best times to trek this spectacular pass is between May and October.

Indrahar Pass (Image by Ashish Gupta and under CC BY 2.0)

Deoria Tal

Deoria Tal

Essentially a beautiful lake with a scenic backdrop of snow-clad Himalayan peaks – much like in the movies – Deoria Tal is your go-to hiking spot. If you’re looking to get closer to nature, then this is the place to be. The best part? You can either hike its trails or hire a donkey porter to take you through this amazing place. You can also rent a cozy place to stay if you decide this to be an overnight journey. 

Roopkund

While many of the hiking spots so far on this list are spectacular for their natural beauty, the Roopkund is spectacular in a different way. Roopkund is an eerie and remote Himalayan lake sitting in the Uttarakhand region of India. Legend has it that a violent snowstorm had taken innocent lives during the 9th century, and what’s left to show for it years later are skeletal remains that circle the lake. So, when you have the time and the ambition, and you want to travel solo or with a group, then check out the Roopkund. 

Spooky Lake in Roopkund (Image by Abhijeet Rane under CC BY 2.0 )

Kedarkantha

“For those looking to go on winter treks, Kedarkantha is a great trail to hike,” says Philip Davis, a design writer at State of Writing and Elite Assignment Help. “With the best hiking season during winter, hikers will be enticed by the majesty of the snowy landscapes, which offer a refreshing feel to the beholder. When you travel along the trail and from the summit, you’ll delve deep into the natural beauty that this trek has to offer – the lush green meadows, the towering Himalayan peaks, and the humble hamlets.”

Kedarkantha Trek

Gaumukh

Essentially a beautiful lake with a scenic backdrop of snow-clad Himalayan peaks – much like in the movies – Deoria Tal is your go-to hiking spot. If you’re looking to get closer to nature, then this is the place to be. The best part? You can either hike its trails or hire a donkey porter to take you through this amazing place. You can also rent a cozy place to stay if you decide this to be an overnight journey.

Gaumukh, source of the Ganga river (Image by Richard Haley and under CC BY 2.0)

Conclusion

As you can see, India is something to behold in the hiking community. With many things to do, many places to explore, there’s no shortage of excitement and adventure as you visit these 7 hiking spots. Ultimately, when hiking, India has so much to offer nature-wise and travel-wise. If you’re looking to embrace nature more, or just want to go hiking more, then let these 7 hiking spots take your breath away. 


Elizabeth Hines is a writer and editor at Big Assignments and Coursework writing. She is also a contributing writer for Study Demic. As a content writer, she writes articles about the latest tech and marketing trends, innovations, and strategies.


 

The Significance of Pew’s ‘Religions of India’ Survey

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

When the US-based Pew Research Center published the findings of its Religions of India survey, it left many elite journalists, Marxist and “South-Asia” scholar-activists scratching their heads. Most Indians, including Indian-Americans, however, felt vindicated. 

At the heart of such polar reactions is the disconnect between perception and reality in the presentation of India, both in media and academia. There is this false perception of India deliberately and painstakingly crafted by the Indologists, Orientalists-Colonialists, and Marxists. And then, there is the real India, that is Bharat.

In a massive undertaking spanning over several months, Pew surveyed nearly 30,000 respondents in face-to-face interviews. These interviews were conducted in 17 languages across the length and breadth of India just before the Pandemic (2020). Pew, one of the most reputable polling agencies in the world, conducts “opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis, and other data-driven social science research.”

It came as no surprise to most that the survey found India to be a deeply “religious” country, even though the Indic notion of “religion” is quite different (for example, it is not dogmatic) from the Abrahamic one. Native Hindus have preserved and nurtured their indigenous notion of Dharma for over 5,000 years despite foreign invasions, colonization, and Marxist hegemony over India’s educational institutions. 

One of the key findings of the Pew survey was that Indians deeply value “religious tolerance.” The survey reported that it was essential for Indians to respect other faiths. Almost 84% (85% Hindus) of the respondents said that to be “truly Indian,” it is crucial not just to tolerate but also “respect” all religions. Remarkably, 80% of the respondents believed that respecting other religions is a “very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community.” 

This “Religious tolerance” is a Western and liberal representation and interpretation of a more nuanced Indic notion of sambhāva. “Respect” for ‘other’ religions is ingrained in the Indic value system. It comes from the quintessential Indic belief that there are many truths but only one Reality. The Rig Veda, one of the most ancient texts of the Hindus, proclaims:

ekaṁ sad viprā bahudhā vadanti 

(Truth is one, wise speak of it differently.)

Another critical finding of the Pew survey was that an overwhelming majority of Indians, almost 80% members of every faith community, reported that they felt free to practice their religion. In an overwhelmingly Hindu majority (80.5%) country of about 1.4 billion people, 89% of Muslims and Christians (each comprising 13.4% and 2.3% of the total Indian population, respectively) also said they were free to practice their religion. 

However, suppose one pays attention to the commentary in the Western media, including the Left-dominated American press and religious/human rights advocates. In that case, it is hard to reconcile with the findings of the Survey. The survey results were in sharp contrast to the portrayal of India in Western media; and seminars and conferences in various centers of South Asian Studies, think tanks, etc.

SN Balagandhar (Balu), a professor of Comparative Science of Cultures at the Ghent University in Belgium, alluded to this chasm in perception and reality in his address to the 2014 Maulana Azad Memorial Lecture organized by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). While recounting his 40-year academic research journey, Balu said that he discovered very early that there were many problems in his understanding of Indian history. Most of the knowledge about India that makes it to Indian textbooks is a description of India by foreign traders, travelers, and the Christian Missionaries, he noted. He further said that the perception of India these textbooks gave based on those accounts was not the India he “lived in.” Most Indians can easily relate to this statement.

In the last 200 years or so, foreigners and Marxists have dominated the study of India, its culture, traditions, texts, religions, and more. Indology, once a foremost enterprise for the study of India, for example, was based on neo-Protestant theology and their debates over scriptures and their racial prejudices. These prejudices over time, but consciously, were applied to the study of Indian texts where one can easily trace the antecedent of “anti-Brahmanism.” 

The British colonizers played an essential role in, first, creating and then institutionalizing their perception of India based on their understanding and prejudices. In British presentations, Hindus were condemned as “degenerate” and as “slaves.” The need to portray Hindus as primitive, savage, uncivilized, or vicious arose from the urgency of the colonizers to present themselves as civil and enlightened. As a result, what we ended up getting, according to Arvind Sharma, is a “situation in which a people were made more primitive than they were, or presented as more primitive than they were, or perceived as more primitive than they were, either deliberately or out of ignorance.”

On the other hand, Marxist historiography distorted and weaponized Indian history and the idea of India with its ideology of conflicts and divisions. 

The Pew Survey is one crucial step in setting the record straight and reclaiming the agency in representing and defining India and Indian culture.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.


 

India at the 1948 Olympic Games in London (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

India at the Olympics

This article is a two-part series on India’s participation in the previous Olympic games and the upcoming Olympic games. 

Like millions of others, I am eagerly looking forward to the resumption of the 2020 Olympics after an unfortunate postponement from last year due to Covid-19. It starts on July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan a rare break from the quadrennial routine. Only thrice earlier (1916, 1940, and 1944) were the Games canceled and it was due to the two World Wars. 

The Modern Olympics, a brainchild of the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was inaugurated in Athens, Greece in 1896. The Baron was surely fired up by grandiose visions of reviving the Ancient Olympics in Greece which had come to an end in 393 AD. The venue of Athens was appropriately chosen to remind all about this ancient heritage.

The Olympic Games, which has grown into a mammoth sports spectacle, had rather humble beginnings. In the First Olympics, there were only nine sports: Athletics, Cycling, Fencing, Gymnastics, Shooting, Swimming, Tennis, Wrestling, and Weightlifting. Fourteen countries were listed (some with one competitor.). Greece had a large contingent (169), followed by France, United States, Great Britain, and Germany. In 2016, there were 11,000 competitors from 107 countries. Presently, the total number of sports stands at 28.

India, as a nation, first made its appearance in the Olympics in Antwerp in 1920*.  They sent 6 competitors: four athletes and two wrestlers. Since then, India has sent teams to all the following Olympics. It has been a particular attraction to see the Indian team march during the opening ceremonies along with all the other countries. The men in turbans and the women in sarees are a joy to watch. In 2021, India will send its largest-ever contingent of 69 men and 55 women who will compete in 18 sports, including Men’s and Women’s Field hockey and Rifle Shooting. 

*In the 1900 Paris Olympics, Norman Pritchard, a British resident of Calcutta, won two silver medals in Track and Field (200 meters and 200-meter hurdles).

India has won a total of 28 medals over the years. Its crowning glory has undoubtedly been in Field Hockey, where it won 11 medals (including 8 golds).  Its last medal was a gold in 1980.

List of Olympic Medals Won By India

Medalists at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Left to right: Sushil Kumar (silver), Akzhurek Tanatarov (bronze), Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu (gold) and Liván López (bronze). (Image by Akira Kouchiyama on Flickr and under Creative Commons License 2.0)
Medalists at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Left to right: Sushil Kumar (silver), Akzhurek Tanatarov (bronze), Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu (gold) and Liván López (bronze). (Image by Akira Kouchiyama on Flickr and under Creative Commons License 2.0)

Field Hockey: 11 (Gold: 1928 – 1936, 1948 – 1956, 1964, 1980;  Silver: 1960; Bronze:  1968, 1972) 

Freestyle Wrestling: 5 ( Silver: Sushil Kumar, 66 kg, 2012;  Bronze: K. D. Jadhav, Bantamweight, 1952; Sushil Kumar, 66 kg, 2008; Yogeshwar Dutt, 60 kg 2012; Sakshi Malik, Women’s 58 kg, 2016)

Shooting: 4 (Gold: Abhinav Bindra, Men’s 10m Rifle, 2008; Silver: Rajyavardhan Rathore, Men’s Double Trap, 2004; Vijay Kumar, Men’s 25 Rapid Fire Pistol, 2012; Bronze: Gagan Narang, Men’s 10m Air Rifle, 2012)

Track and Field: 2 (Silver: Norman Pritchard, 200 meters and 200 meters hurdles, 1900)

Badminton: 2 (Silver: PV Sindhu, Women’s Singles, 2016; Bronze: Saina Nehwal, Women’s Singles 2012)

Tennis: 1 (Bronze: Leander Paes, Men’s Singles, 1996)

Weightlifting: 1 (Bronze: Karnam Malleswari, Women’s 69kg, 2000)

Boxing: 2 (Bronze: Vijender Singh, Middleweight, 2008; Mary Kom, Women’s Flyweight, 2012)

I have also presented below a list of competitive competitors, in my opinion, but did not win a medal. They are often separated by inches, milliseconds, or the third places of decimals and on a given day, they may have made it to the podium.  

List of Individual Athletes Who Were Competitive But Did Not Win a Medal

Track and Field: Milkha Singh (4th in 400m, 1960); Gurbhachan Singh Randhawa (5th in 110m Hurdles, 1964);  Sriram Singh (7th  in 800m, 1976); Shivnath Singh (11th in Marathon, 1976); PT Usha (4th by one-hundredth of a second in Women’s 400m Hurdles in 1984);  Anju George (5th in Long Jump, 2000); Krishna Punia (6th in Women’s Discus Throw, 2012); Vikas Gowda (8th in Men’s Discus Throw,  2012); Lalitha Babbar (10th in Women’s 3000m Steeplechase, 2016).  

Women’ Gymnastics: Dipa Karmakar (4th in Vault, 2016)

Tennis: Sania Mirza (4th in Mixed Doubles, 2016); 

Shooting: Abhinav Bindra (4th in Men’s 10m Rifle, 2016)

Notable near misses — much-heralded fourth-place finish by the recently deceased Milkha Singh in 400m in Rome, PT Usha missing the bronze by one-hundredth of a second in the 1984 Olympics in Women’s 400m Hurdles, and Dipa Karmakar’s nearest of misses after landing the legendary Produnova Vaul — will forever be etched the memories of all Indian Olympic aficionados.

I do not recall anyone in men’s or women’s swimming making the grade, but I am aware of several wrestlers who came close to medals in the 1960s or 1970s. 

As for team sports, apart from our legendary run in Field Hockey, the only competitive team may have been the 1956 football team which finished fourth; this was back when Olympic football was still strictly limited to amateurs. 

Read the second part of this story! Other Indian Olympic candidates to look out for: Deepika Kumari and Bajrang Punia.


Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write and can be reached by e-mail at psircar@yahoo.com.


 

The Elephant Stable with its homogenous group of chambers, high arched facade and lofty domed roof is one of the masterpieces of Hampi’s Indo-Islamic architecture.

Temples of Hampi: The Lost Kingdom

From the breezy, cavernous verandah of my guesthouse, the blue waters of Tungabhadra gently wind their way through the desolate landscape strewn with gigantic red and ochre boulders. Over a delightful breakfast of crispy dosas and fluffy idlis, I watch the daily ritual of bathing of Laxmi. She is the resident elephant of the nearby Virupaksha temple. A few minutes earlier, her attendants have ceremonially led her to the river. As the pachyderm rolls around in the shallow riverbed, the sprayed water catches the pale morning light. The scene looks like an ethereal holdover from Hampi’s magnificent, forgotten past.

“I never saw a place like this,” wrote Nicolo de Conti, the Venetian merchant who arrived in Hampi in 1420, the first European to set his eyes on the Vijayanagara empire. Another century would pass before this mighty southern kingdom would reach its pinnacle of glory. In those early years of the 16th century, Hampi was the second-largest city in the world after Beijing, and dripped with a glitzy splendor. Sprawled on the banks of the River Tungabhadra, the city bustled with its bazaars teeming with merchants from different parts of the globe. From the chronicles of these overseas merchants, the opulent palaces, magnificent temples, imposing fortifications, and dainty riverside pavilions of Hampi became the stuff of legend.

The glory was short-lived though. In 1565, an alliance of the Deccan Sultanates invaded. For five months, Hampi was plundered, the majestic monuments were razed and citizens were tortured and bludgeoned. But even this crudest form of mayhem and carnage could not completely obliterate the magnificence that was Hampi.

The still-used Virupaksha temple, a 160-foot-high, cream-white pyramidal structure that nestles intricate columns, stone statuettes, a pillared mandapa, and orange-robed monks silently gliding through the temple’s layered interiors, is my start-off point. From there, I take a walk that takes me down a stony trail along the bank of River Tungabhadra. The 2-km stretch feels like a time warp, marked with rock carvings, natural overhangs, cliffside chambers, and obscure monuments hidden behind huge boulders. It is here I find Hampi at its most primitive, and most evocative with its herd of striped squirrels and droves of monkeys scampering about the random, abandoned structures. About midway along this stretch lies Achyutaraya temple. Time seems to stand still since the days when this grandiose temple complex was built in 1534. The long, covered boulevard that stems off the temple is in crumbling ruins. This was a grand bazaar with shops dealing in pearls, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds. The temple today is a derelict complex of red-capped structures that are now homes to groups of black-faced langoors, but the exquisite carvings of the towers and arched passageways speak of a glorious past.

From Achyutaraya temple, a 15-minute walk takes me to Vittala temple, the eternal symbol of Vijayanagara kingdom. The crowning glory of the Hampi temple circuit mesmerizes me with its architectural brilliance, and its unmatched craftsmanship is reflected none better than in the exquisitely carved musical pillars of the rangamantapa. My guide Shankar shows me around the set of 56 monolithic pillars of the pavilion. He taps gently on one of the fluted columns with a sandalwood stick and a strange thing happens. The pillar emanates an unmistakably rhythmic, musical note that sounds like a faint ringing of a bell. “These are the SaReGaMa pillars.” – Shankar says with an elaborate sweep of his hand. A geological analysis has revealed that these pillars were sculpted from the granite rocks that litter the landscape around Hampi. It was nothing short of a medieval engineering marvel to utilize the resonant properties of the rocks, rich in metallic ore and silica, and turn them into pillars that would not only emit the seven basic notes of Indian classical music but also the higher and deeper pitches of wind and string instruments!

The arched openings of the two-storied Lotus Mahal.
The arched openings of the two-storied Lotus Mahal.

Awestruck, I come out from the semi-dark chamber of the Rangamantapa. Shankar leads me to another architectural marvel inside the Vittala temple complex: the iconic stone chariot. A miniature temple dedicated to Garuda (the carrier of Lord Vishnu), the chariot was immaculately sculpted on a wheeled platform. Legend has it that four wheels of the stone chariot could be made to turn on their axis.

On my second morning in Hampi, I head towards the Queen’s Bath, the 15th-century structure built for the royal women of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Shankar points towards the deep, dry trench that runs around the palace. “It used to be a moat filled with water, and crocodiles.” – he smiles. It was evidently a design to ward off the trespassers as the bathhouse was used by the king’s consorts. The simple exterior of this zenana enclave belies the charm of the dainty interiors. A cool gust of air blows as I walk around the arched corridor that rings the rectangular-shaped pool in the center. The vaulted ceiling still bears traces of exquisite stucco designs. Sitting on one of the ornate balconies that hang over the colossal bath, I try to imagine the heady days of this open-to-the-sky aquatic pool five centuries ago, when it was filled with laughter, frolic, and scented water. 

My next pit stop is Lotus Mahal, the leisure palace of the royal household that also worked as a council chamber of King Krishnadevaraya for his ministerial meetings. The two-storeyed palace stands amid a lush green compound, resplendent with its symmetrically equal projections on four sides. The breezy mahal with its open pavilions, cusped arches, and clusters of decorative panels is a brilliant example of Indo-Islamic architectural style. A short walk away I find the Elephant Stables, a linear building with rows of domed structures – homes of the royal elephants. The large central hall used by troupes of musicians during royal procession has a temple-like tower, while the chambers on both its sides reflect the Islamic architectural motifs and style. 

After a sumptuous lunch at a local eatery that is a typical North Karnataka affair with boiled rice, kosambari ( a salad with dal, fresh cucumber and carrots), sambar, and a tangy, aromatic fish curry, I decide to take a coracle ride. These circular-shaped country boats have been plying on the swirling waters of the Tungabhadra to ferry people since the days of the Vijayanagara Empire. As the coracle moves downstream, I find the ride a delightful way to explore Hampi from a riverine perspective as my helmsman, while deftly negotiating the currents and ravines of the river, delves into the history and architectural details of the temples as they pop into view over the boulder-strewn banks.

 A coracle on River Tungabhadra.
A coracle on River Tungabhadra.

As the slanting rays of the afternoon sun starts lighting up the textures of the rocky hills in a mellow glow, I take a short auto-rickshaw ride to the base of Matanga hill. A 45-minute hike through the stepped ramp that zigzags its way up takes me to the top, the highest point in Hampi. From up here, the vast swathes of granite-strewn landscape that was once one of the richest kingdoms on earth looks magnificent, oozing a crimson glow in the soft light. The architectural wonders dotted across this landscape, untouched by modernity, are now ablaze, their chiseled contours more radiant than ever. And amid that solitary wilderness, I can almost feel that the place is frozen in time. The din and the bustle of the lost empire can come alive at any moment, just the way it had been, more than half a millennium ago.  


Sugato Mukherjee is a  journalist based in Kolkata with bylines in The Globe and Mail, Al Jazeera, Nat Geo Traveller, Fodor’s Travel, Atlas Obscura, Mint Lounge, and The Hindu Business Line, among others. 


 

Letters to the Editor: Response to Instagram Filters

Dear India Currents and Medha,

Medha, may I take the liberty of stating you looked so much better and more natural with no filter than with it?

I love your points about society deeming certain White physical traits as attractive ones, however, we don’t have to pander to it. We can simply ignore those standards and learn to feel comfortable in our own skin. No one is holding a gun to the heads of Indian women and forcing them to get blonde highlights, or worse, go totally blonde, yet many Indian women do. It will be a while before Indians feel pride in their nation, their religion, their dress, their food, their customs, and their languages. It is the unfortunate aftermath of the toxic British colonialistic legacy that still lingers on and makes us belittle ourselves.
It has nothing to do with White culture, and everything to do with how we Indians feel about ourselves. Let’s take accountability for it and begin the change from within. Kudos to you for your candid self-expression.
Go ahead and eat that idli-sambar and lick your fingers clean!

Sincerely,

Gayathri Chakravarthy

Cupertino, CA

Usha Dhupa's Father - Dr. A.N. Bowry

In a World of Giants: Remembering My Father

Father, in this contemporary sketch of a place in the world where giants roamed, warrior-like you entered tall, confident, and armed with science and humanity.

A profile of courage and integrity.

Into this wild, untamed Kenya, on the east coast of Africa, you marched in, in step with the raw power and magnificent bearings of the lions, the towering herds of elephants, the elusive cheetahs, and a superabundance of the wild creatures of this natural world.

Born and raised in Hiran, Punjab, trained as a medical doctor, you, Dr. Amar Nath Bowry, embraced the Hindu philosophy of ‘Karma Yoga’. At 23, you and Lila Wati, your young bride of 17, left your beloved families behind to sail across the Indian Ocean.

Soon you discovered that because of the inhospitable living situation for the native populations in Kenya, death and disease were common occurrences. Along with poverty and lack of resources, the scattered rural populace was preyed upon by a plethora of diseases like Malaria, Sleeping Sickness, Bilharzia.  

Ready to face the challenges head-on, with a fervent zeal, you embarked on a mission to help and heal this land. Undeterred by hardships, to fulfill this noble mission, you dedicated 35 years of your life to Kenya. While accomplishing your goal brought you unlimited satisfaction, it all came at the cost of pain and separation for your young family.   

Respect All. Love All – was the Mantra that propelled your compassionate heart.

India was always Home. After 35 years, you returned, finally, to be part of that revered Indian soil.

A REMEMBRANCE  

Sixty years!  Time must be playing some tricks!

Father, I cannot believe, you have gone sixty,

Long-stretched years.

I still know you as being around me

You are still with me!

 

Your joy in being alive; your healing, nurturing soul

That won over a vast array of patients and admirers.

Your serene, calm composure, your engaging smile

You truly knew how to listen.

 

We just spoke.

We told you of our unfathomed lives

Innocent pranks

Our brow-creased misgivings.

 

In your bright, knowing eyes

Read safety in a protective gaze,

A guidance, a gentle nod of approval.

There, and then, I vowed never to disappoint you.

 

You perhaps knew you were dying!

We were with you for the last four months

Watching and rejoicing in your company;

Your fun and games with Nishi and Achal

Your youngest grand-children.

 

 We did not know you were in pain

You looked frail, yet so dignified

With a mischievous twinkle in sunken eyes.

Your pale lips said a lot; only if I knew how to read them!

But you did not let a shadow cast.

 

The luminosity of your eyes, deep blue!

The doctor asked if they were always

That intense, ocean blue!

Was it ‘The Brightest Flame before It Extinguishes’?

 

My heart knows: The sparkle of my life

Still is enkindled by your gentle, joyful nurture.

Your Love has encompassed

My whole being!

 

In my new beginnings with Dhruv

You launched my life on a personal journey

Of Wellness, of Abundance

I thrive in your blessings.

 

You will be twenty and a hundred, in two months.

The world is richer, the earth full of loving warmth

For you journeyed through it once

Sowed and nourished seeds of life

With an eternal spring of joy!’

— Usha Dhupa


Usha Dhupa (Nee Bowry) was born in Kenya to Indian parents and has lived across Four Continents. She studied English Literature at Delhi University and a published author of ‘Child of Two Worlds’. She loves to write poetry and stories in English and Hindi. 


 

Dhokra art

Dhokra Art is a Sustainable Tribal Legacy

The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.

When we talk about Mohenjo-Daro, immediately the famous statue of the dancing girl appears in front of our eyes. It is one of the earliest known ‘lost wax casting’ artifacts and this technique of non-ferrous metal casting, known as Dhokra (or Dokra) is 4,000 years old and still popular and in use. 

Influence of Tribal Themes

Dhokra art is the famous art of Bastar, Chhattisgarh, a state of east-central India, whose rich tradition of craft and culture has always attracted art lovers from all over the world. This art is influenced by tribal themes related to animals, mythical and human creatures, and nature. The folk characters used to make the artifacts make this handicraft more valuable and that is the reason in every household or office, we find these pieces decorated as a pride possession. Dhokra artists make each piece with delicate attention to retaining its authenticity. The process involves manually casting brass and bronze metal with the help of a wax varnishing technique. 

The unknown beauty of this art, in which metal crafts are made through wax casting techniques, is that it is eco-friendly! Most pieces are made with waste and scrap metal. 

Dhokra art (Image from Wikimedia Commons and under Creative Commons Licence 4.0)
Dhokra art (Image from Wikimedia Commons and under Creative Commons Licence 4.0)

History Tells a Tale 

The Dhokra craft has been discovered in the relics of the Mohenjo-Daro and Harappan civilizations and is proof of its historical and traditional importance as an art form.

Today in Bastar region, the small artisan group of the Ghadwas produces brass or bell metal objects. In Bastar, many folk stories are told about the origins of the Ghadwas. According to one most popular story some three hundred years ago, the ruler of Bastar, Bhan Chand, was presented a gift, a necklace crafted in Dhokra craft, for his beloved wife. He was so mesmerized with the beauty of craft that to honor the craftsman, he decided to bestow the title of Ghadwa on him. Ghadwa, derived from the word Ghalna, means to melt and work with wax. 

Fascinating Process

Natural raw materials are used in the process of making Dhokra pieces. The famous Dhokra artist Rajender Baghel explains that the basic mold is made with fine sand and clay. Goat and cow dung or husk is added to it, which is then layered with pure beeswax found in the jungle. Then wax threads are prepared and wound around the clay mold until its entire surface is covered uniformly. Then it is cooked over a furnace while the wax is drained via ducts. The wax burns in the furnace leaving a free channel for the metal to flow. Molten metal (mainly brass and bronze) is poured inside the mold. The molds are taken out and water is sprinkled to cool them, once the metal is melted. By breaking them the cast figures are removed. It can take up to nine days to complete a three-foot-high sculpture.

Dhokra art styles
Dhokra art styles

Themes and Inspirations 

This art is unique, not only because of its process or intricacy, but because no two Dhokra artworks are alike. Every single sculpture is crafted to be different from another and exquisite. Inspiration and themes generally come from mythology, nature, and day-to-day traditions and rituals. Intricate works of the local deities, sun, moon, jungle, flora, and fauna are used to give a decorative look to it.

One of the popular themes is the local deities – Jhitku-Mitki and an interesting story accompanies these characters. Jhitku-Mitki were deeply in love with each other but their families were against their relationship. As a result, Jhitku was killed by Mitki’s brothers, when she refused to stay away from him. The people of Chhattisgarh worship them and usually make their figures.

Tribal Legacy

Dhokra Jewelry, which is crafted using motifs of gods and goddesses, floral shapes, and rustic designs, is a creative and contemporary expression of an ancient technique. These days Dhokra artists are experimenting with designs to give it a stylish and international look. A woman can match it with her both ethnic and international styles.

Not only jewelry, items like decorative platters, containers, vases, photo frames, tea light candle holders, wall hangings, dining accessories, and cutlery and sculptures are also in trend. These objects are a smart mix of tribal designs and contemporary styles – each piece tells the enchanting story of the tribal legacy, culture, daily lives, and environment-friendly orientation.

Each Piece is Unique 

Dhokra art is also practiced by the artists of Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal also. No one can make the same Dhokra piece as every object is exclusive because each artisan of each state, creates it in his distinct way. Thin hands, legs, and a slender body – if you look closely, you will find that this tribal art is not perfect, body parts aren’t proportionate but it reflects its own history. Simplicity mixed with intricate work and tribal designs are the beauty of this art form.


Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 12 books on different subjects and translated around 150 books from English to Hindi. 


 

Bajrang Punia wins the gold in Rome.

Bajrang Punia: Fighting for Gold at the Tokyo Olympics

He wrestles with all his might and communicates in immaculate Hindi. 26-year-old freestyle wrestler Bajrang Punia is among the foremost Indian stars for the upcoming 2021 Summer Olympics.

On March 8, 2021, after fighting his first big match in Rome since the pandemic struck, he’s re-secured the 65-kg weight category number 1 spot in the world.  Doing the unthinkable, he defeated his Mongolian opponent in a nail-biting last 30 seconds of the match to clinch the Gold! High on positivity about repeating the same at the upcoming Olympics, he had been training in Michigan.

Awarded with some of the country’s highest honors since 2015, including Padma Shri, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, and Arjuna Award, Punia started wrestling at age of 7 years by playing in the mud in his village in rural India; he hailed from a financially poor but deeply encouraging family. 

Punia took out time from his challenging routine to speak to India Currents about his devotion to discipline, training during the coronavirus lockdown, and why he has released statements urging the Indian government to resolve the 2020 farmers protest.   

Bajrang Punia shows off his Gold medal in Rome.
Bajrang Punia shows off his Gold medal in Rome.

IC: The announcement of nationwide lockdown in India and the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics came within hours of each other on March 24. What were your first thoughts? 

BP: First thoughts were definitely saddening – we were just three months away from the Olympics and preparing hard for it. But on second thought, we didn’t know such a virus would arrive and everything around the globe would stop. Lockdown gave me more time to work on my performance. Life is important, the Olympics can come again. 

IC: Tell us about your daily routine. 

BP: The most essential quality for a good athlete is discipline. Without discipline, you are a zero. And the next important thing is – diet. Maintaining these is crucial. If we are at a training center – like now – we have to wake up at 4-4.30 am. I wake up, bhagwan ka naam leta hoon (pray), get fresh, and have bananas or an apple before heading out. We have to be on the mat for the first match by 5 am irrespective of the season.     

During training, we take munakka (currant) and supplements. We drink badam (almond) being made right there in kundi sota (a traditional Indian grinding instrument set). It’s strengthening and body cooling. These are specific to Indian wrestlers. After training for 2-3 hours, go back, take lunch, shower, have milk, and sleep. The same routine is repeated in the evening. I sleep by 10 pm. About 9 hours of sleep is essential. If I’m at a local training camp (when at home), the routine is a little delayed, but the same.  

IC: How was lockdown spent? 

BP: The first month was disturbing. As players, we had never stayed at home before. Now, we had to appeal to people to stay indoors and set an example too. But then I started making arrangements so that my training doesn’t suffer. I took a room for rent near our house in Sonipat and got my partner Jitendra to practice with me. I requested our community in my village Khudan in Jhajjar district, Haryana, for the wrestling mat – which they immediately sent me and we set it in the room. I bought and set up gym equipment worth Rs6-7 lakh ($8,154-$9,153); my physiotherapist Manish Konwar Chetri was with me. And the training started! 

IC: When you are playing in the ring, do you feel connected with the audience and hear them? 

BP: No. When I am on the mat, I think nothing. My full concentration is on kushti. At world-level matches, all players are good. If at all I hear someone shouting/cheering, I think it’s for me; it cannot be for the opponent! 

IC: What is your favorite food? 

BP: Churma (a traditional sweet made with wheat and ghee) made by my mother is my favorite food but I cannot eat it often due to a restricted diet. I relish it after returning home from tournaments. 

IC: Which is your favorite wrestling match? 

BP: It was at the 2013 World Championship. This was my best ever and one of the first senior matches. I won a medal (bronze). Whenever I watch that bout, I think I have to do more. At that time, India had fewer medals in the world championship. If I can win this at the age of 18, I can definitely win it at the Olympics. 

IC: What facilities at your American training center for the Olympics would you want your Indian facility can accommodate?

BP: Indian centers have it all too in my opinion. But here at this center (Cliff Kleen Wrestling Club, Michigan), everything is under one roof – a gym beside the mat, basketball, football, steam, sauna, massage…everything. It helps. 

IC: You have released messages on social media for the government to resolve the largest ever ongoing farmers’ protest in India. What is your opinion on it?

BP: If the farmers are not happy with something, why try to force it on them? If the government believes it is beneficial to them, then sit with them and explain it. Why would farmers not understand? I come from a farmers’ family and thus I understand. If you go to my home, you will see my parents work in the fields. There isn’t a single family member in the job sector. Only I am an exception, a sportsman. Farmers won’t be on the road if there is a benefit in the three farm acts.  


Suruchi Tulsyan is a freelance journalist from Kolkata, India. 


 

Will They? Won’t They? What Parents Think About Giving Kids A Covid Shot

By September this year, children as young as two may be eligible for a Covid vaccine. While many parents welcome the prospect of protection against a deadly virus, some parents aren’t so sure.

What do parents think about vaccinating their children?

“In my circle”, says Anjana Nagarajan, a Los Altos parent with two high school age children, “parents are gung-ho.” Her 16-year-old daughter is fully vaccinated while her 14-year-old son just received his first shot.  Her view is largely shared by parents in her area where, according to CA data, almost 87% of the population have received one or more doses of the vaccine.

But for Priya Nair Flores, a management consultant in San Antonio, TX, the vaccine is still out of reach for her son who just graduated fifth grade. “My son is 11 years old,” says Flores, “so he’s one year from the age at which CDC recommends children start getting the COVID vaccine, which is 12 years old. I and other parents of his friends talk about how much we wish they could get the vaccine. I believe in science.”

The science says that the vaccine is safe. Clinical trials have demonstrated even higher efficacy rate among adolescents than young adults (16-25 years old). The FDA just approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for emergency use in adolescents 12 to 15 years old. Moderna just announced that its TeenCove study was highly effective at preventing COVID-19 in adolescents ages 12 to less than 18 and will request FDA emergency authorization in early June. By this fall, children ages 2-11 could potentially be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. It will be the next major milestone in containing the coronavirus pandemic.

Even so, though vaccine availability across the US is going up, some parents are refusing to vaccinate their children, citing concerns about the newness of the vaccine and its potential side effects in the future. Public health experts fear that vaccine hesitancy will prolong the fight against Covid19.

In a White House briefing on May 19, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy urged parents to protect their children from Covid 19 and help turn the pandemic around.

Why Parents are Hesitant

Scientists and doctors emphasize that vaccinations are safe and offer protection from COVID-19. The CDC reports that some people may experience short-term side effects which subside after a few days but are normal signs that the body is building protection.

However, at an Ethnic Media briefing on May 21, Dr. Jose Perez, Chief Medical Officer at the South-Central Medical Center in LA, identified misinformation spreading on the Internet as a troubling cause of vaccine hesitancy in his patients.

Dr. Perez’ view was supported by surveys which found that fear and uncertainty about the Covid 19 vaccine ranged from its safety and efficacy to myths about infertility, and fetal cells in vaccines that could change DNA. Among 48% of people ages 18-49 , fear of future infertility was a top concern.

There was uneasiness that the vaccine was created too quickly, even though the technology for mRNA vaccines has been in development for decades and processed through the same FDA clinical trials for all other vaccines.

The Institute for Policy Research reported that young mothers aged 18 – 35 were largely driving the resistance among parents who indicated they were ‘extremely unlikely’ to get their children vaccinated. In contrast, said Matthew Simonson, a researcher with the COVID States project, fathers have become less resistant to the idea of vaccinating their kids.

A KFF survey found that while 30% of parents with children aged 12 to 15 will get them vaccinated right away, nearly 23% definitely will not.

 

When it comes to vaccinating their children, households which have an annual income of under $25,000 or people who have only high school diplomas are the most vaccine resistant, added Simonsen, compared to most pro-vaccine people who tend to live in households making $150,000+ a year or hold a graduate degree.

But, for many parents explained Dr. Perez, whose clinic serves primarily Latino and African American working families, vaccination hesitancy is not a choice. Rather, socio-economic barriers keep many from getting the vaccine.

“One of the major reasons for lack of vaccination, is access to time off from work,” he explained. Parents who have just returned to work low-income jobs as day laborers or in restaurants, have to juggle taking an extra half day off to get their children to a clinic. Most of Dr. Perez’ patients use the bus, so it’s difficult to access public vaccine centers without a car.

“It’s a tremendous barrier,” he stated when “our patients are being asked to choose between earning a day’s living and or vaccinating their children.”

The KFF survey also confirms that underlying socio-economic factors cause vaccine hesitancy. People worry they may have to pay out-of-pocket costs for the vaccine. Fears about immigration status and vaccine eligibility have created vaccine hesitancy because of requirements for a social security number or government-issued identification to get vaccinated (34%), a lack of trust in the provider (32%), or travel difficulties reaching vaccination sites (15%).

Allison Winnike of Texas-based Immunization Partnership told KERA news that their data showed increased vaccination rates in communities of color who were initially skeptical, but that there were higher hesitancy rates among some people that self-identify as more conservative or evangelical.

As a parent himself, with children aged 3 and 4, Vivek Murthy empathized with the challenges of parenting kids in a pandemic which has percolated into kids’ lives in an extraordinary way. “Parents have had to have difficult conversations with their kids about why they can’t see friends and family or have to go to virtual classes.” But parents also worry about the risks of taking their children to the playground or back to school, he said, which is why vaccinating them should be the highest priority.

Why Parents Should Worry

A joint report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association found that Covid is now one of ten leading causes of death among young people who make up 22% of all new Covid cases, compared to only 3% a year ago.

“It’s a significant disease. Kids are also at risk,” said Dr. Grace Lee, Professor of Pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. She has personally seen children hospitalized and dying from the virus. Lee pointed out that less attention had been paid to the ‘burden of infection’ on children, though AAP data has confirmed that 4 million children have tested positive for Covid 19 since the onset of the pandemic. She warned that the CDC noted that when adjusting for under-reporting or under-testing on children, at least “22 million children and adolescents 5 to 17 years have been infected in the US since the pandemic began.” Forty percent of children who are hospitalized have no high-risk conditions like asthma, diabetes, obesity or developmental delay or immune compromise issues, said Dr. Lee, “So, we cannot predict who will be hit more severely by Covid 19 infection.”

“We have to protect children from Covid disease,” Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a principal investigator at Stanford Pfizer trials told NBC. She reiterated that vaccines are necessary for herd immunity. Reports of long-term side effects in teens are only rumors spread by anti-vaxers she added. “There is no evidence that vaccines cause fertility issues – it’s an idea that “has been disproven over and over again.”

In Texas, Priya Flores agrees. “We are a family of scientists and I strongly believe that facts should impact your decision making.” As a healthcare professional, she was in the early wave of those vaccinated . “I felt lucky and grateful I could access the best of what science could offer.  When my extended family who wasn’t vaccinated got sick with Covid, I was able to help them because I was better protected by the vaccine. It was challenging because I wanted my husband and kid to get it too.”

How to Move Forward

Getting that shot in the arms of adults and children means that “The role of people of color like me and professionals like me becomes very important,” said Dr. Perez. Providers who are POC need to dispel misinformation and encourage parents to vaccinate themselves and their children, because when “patients trust people that look like them, the more likely they are to listen to our voices.”

“We have paid a heavy price” said Dr. Murthy, referring to the unprecedented toll on human lives by the virus, but the US has a pathway out of the pandemic with its arsenal of vaccines that time and again, have proven effective.

In Texas, the CDC reports that 51.73% of Texans are fully vaccinated. But Priya Flores says her family is only ‘half protected’ from the virus as she waits for her son’s age group to be approved.  “I often tell my husband our job has shifted from constant vigilance in general to vigilance for our son. We have relaxed a bit, but once again, …the virus hasn’t disappeared, and our fellow Americans haven’t decided to help our children gain herd immunity. So here we are again.”

“If someone asked my son to be part of a vaccine trial I would say yes. I believe in this vaccine and that it is safe and effective for almost all, with the understanding that there will always be vulnerable populations that need higher monitoring and consideration before deciding to take it.”


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents
image source: CDC


 

COVID19 Outreach Program in India by Trinity Care Foundation.

Vultures and Values: Reporting on COVID in India

India is a country that is not unfamiliar with disasters. Earthquakes, tsunami, political unrest, religious violence…they’ve hit this country with deadly force periodically. In fact, India is like that one unfortunate kid in daycare who gets every single illness that enters the room, and furthermore, gets it the worst.

This exaggerated disaster-prone nature of the country often receives bad press internationally. And each time one of these calamities strike, the world has a field day. The sheer color, contrast, and variety that India offers in every single aspect of life are then splashed across newspapers and television screens throughout the world…of course, through the prism of the disaster du jour.

This COVID pandemic is no less and no more than the usual scenario, providing striking pictures and stories – the mass rallies of the election, the colorful and fascinating pictures of the Kumbh Mela, the horrifying snapshots of oxygen being administered in front of hospitals, the macabre visuals of rows and rows of cremation pyres, and so on.

To me, this catastrophic situation has once again delivered a number of lessons. It has shown the best and the worst of people and their behavior. 

The COVID crisis in India has certainly exposed the country’s vulnerable areas, it is true. But to my mind, it has also exposed the hypocrites of the world. While watching the vultures with hindsight or political commentators and gurus feed on the living, a bleeding country that is in the throes of a disaster of epic proportion, I feel what I can only call a sense of disgust mixed with awe. While I do not seek to defend any political party or government, I want to ask some questions of all the people who were quiet before the disaster unfolded, but are now out baying for blood.

Yes, the government and authorities didn’t act fast enough. But can you imagine a disaster that wells up in days, out of practically nowhere, and turns into a tsunami?

India should have stockpiled vaccines, oxygen, drugs and revamped the entire medical infrastructure in the country. Agreed. Hell, they should have begun building more electric crematoria, instead of cutting down all the trees in the land for the cremation of the dead.

How long did they have before the disaster struck? Two weeks.

When you take into account the size and population in this great country, you will admit that it can’t be expected to turn on a dime. And it is not like this situation ever had a ‘yes or no’, straightforward, one-dimensional solution. The truth is many miscalculations were made that became magnified when the situation headed south, resulting in an unforeseen tragedy.

As for the government, they were truly stuck in the worst of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ scenario. They had immediately imposed a lockdown last year, and people have called it ‘draconian’. They enforced the total lockdown, and people called it authoritarian. They shut down mass gatherings and people called it a blow to basic rights. They shut down non-essential industries, and people howled that the economy was devastated. When the numbers began to come down, they began to open up which people are calling it disastrous handling of a terrible situation. 

It is not like any country has really shown the right way to handle the pandemic. There is no handbook, rule book, or manual that shows the perfect way out of this maze.

How remarkably short are the memories of these political pundits! The United States conducted its elections in the teeth of the pandemic and aside from a few aspersions thrown at Donald Trump, the whole world watched avidly. But India shouldn’t have conducted elections.

Many of the Republican party’s rallies were attended by maskless people, but awww, that’s okay. But, gasp, Indian rallies were maskless! By all means, let us forget the rallies in the US and European countries where people were protesting against masking. I do agree that it was stupid to have vast rallies with people without masks, but honestly, all laypeople thought the pandemic was over. Our numbers were way down. Many countries were loosening regulations too. What else were we to think? 

Recent experiences have embittered me and given me a hatred of journalists and commentators. All they seek is sensationalism and sound bites, headlines and graphic pictures, forums, and platforms to puff themselves off and justify their own existence. Articles and opinion pieces blasting the Prime Minister and his decisions…predictably all dating to the time when the situation had gone way out of control.

One wonders: where exactly were these people in the months of February and March? But for a few, whose genuine warnings were unfortunately ignored, the rest had crawled out of the woodwork to dance around the pyres of the burning disaster. 

Other scums of the earth have also emerged. People who reserve beds in the names of unknowing asymptomatic patients only to turn around and sell them to symptomatic patients for Rs. 50,000, people hoarding and selling vital drugs and oxygen, hospitals overcharging desperate patients…these ‘entrepreneurs’ are also flourishing to some extent.

On the other hand, this calamity has once again brought India into focus. Last year, when many countries including Italy and the US were in need of ventilators and other medical supplies, India stepped in to help out. Among other reasons, it is the goodwill that this country has built up that is now ensuring that the entire world is coming to help it in its hour of need. 

Meanwhile, within the country, age-old values are emerging again. Neighbors are helping out by providing food for those stricken by the disease. People are actively using social media to connect those in need of medical supplies and help those that can provide them. Volunteers are helping out the poor by supplying food and daily necessities. Religious and community groups are coming forward to establish medical and oxygen supply field hospitals.

There is fear and panic in every heart, but on the streets, there is still human decency and respect for each other. As always, we will ‘adjust’ and we will ‘manage’. The wonderland that is India will endure.


Lakshmi Palecanda moved from Montana, USA, to Mysore, India and inhabits a strange land somewhere in between the two. Having discovered sixteen years ago that writing was a good excuse to get out of doing chores, she still uses it.

Featured image license here.


 

Can COVID Burst America’s Bubble While The World Battles The Virus?

On May 13, after combating three waves of the coronavirus, the CDC released guidelines stating that  Americans who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 can resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing in most settings, indicating that the pandemic may be near an end.

“If you are fully vaccinated you can start doing the things you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” announced CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

But experts at a May 14 Ethnic Media Services briefing questioned whether it was too soon to go back to normal.

“Bubbles are beautiful, but bubbles do not last long in this world,” remarked Dr. Ben Neuman, Chief Virologist at the Global Health Research Complex at Texas A&M University.  “Any vaccine bubble that may exist is going to be fragile, unfortunately.”

As Covid-19 outbreaks occur in Michigan, Florida and Puerto Rico, the AMA reports  there is potential for a fourth pandemic surge.

And yes, the Indian B.1.617 variant is here, says the CDC. It’s monitoring the Indian mutation that the World Health Organization classified as “a variant of concern at a global level” because it may spread easily. According to the CDC, new mutations of the virus are more transmissible and are resistant to treatments or vaccines. These include five notable variants – B.1.1.7: (UK),  B.1.351 (S. Africa), P.1 (Japan/Brazil), B.1.427 and B.1.429 (identified in CA).

Going back to normal could expose adults and children to deadly new strains of the virus and its variants, rippling across the US and elsewhere in the world.

 

Can America survive in its Covid-19 bubble?

Variants can burst our bubble said experts, voicing concerns about our vulnerability to virus mutations and the prospect of ever reaching herd immunity.

Dr. Neuman has been sequencing the virus strains in Texas, and has identified different variants thriving even locally. At the peak of Covid-19 in January, he found that 30% variants of concern were from the B.1.1.7. UK variant. By late April and early May however, he added, “every single virus …has been a variant of concern.”

The virus is changing in unexpected ways, explained Dr. Neuman, driving certain lineages of the virus out of existence.  It’s a Darwinian process that  showcases “an increase in viral fitness.”

But, without any checks or balances on the virus which operates on a short-term risk-reward cycle – a 6-to-8-hour timetable – scientists find it difficult to predict long-term movement.

You can trust a snake, a chicken, or a cat to act in its own best interests to the best of its ability said Dr. Neuman, but “a virus has no such impulse.” Instead, it has an evolutionary incentive that drives it not in the direction we would hope or expect, but in the direction of more severe, sustained disease.

Over time the virus will continue to mutate, and vary unpredictably, warned Dr. Neuman, and solutions will have to be updated continually.

“In this particular place and time, there is approximately a 100% chance that you will run into something that grows faster, and has the potential to spread farther, and perhaps hit harder than one would be expecting otherwise.”

The world has underestimated the virus over and over by relaxing restrictions and causing a virus resurgence, reiterated Dr. Neuman.

 

The question is, “Can we do the wrong things and still expect the right results?”

One outcome that scientists predict could keep the virus at bay or banished altogether is Herd Immunity, a popular concept that is mired in misconception and misunderstanding. Dr. Marc Lipsitch, Professor of Epidemiology and Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, described herd immunity as a state in which completely immune completely or partially immune people in a population slow down transmission by making it impossible for the virus to pass through them from one person to another in a sustained way, “till the virus essentially goes away.”

Will vaccinations and infections create herd immunity in the current phase of the pandemic? Dr. Lipsitch believes that’s an unlikely scenario – even with the vaccines we have.

At the start of the pandemic, before lockdowns and social distancing, a person infected up to 21/2 or 3 people each. But compared to early versions of the virus, contagious new variants have increased transmissibility by up 4 to 5 persons each. To reduce transmissibility by a factor of 5, explained Dr. Lipsitch, means immunizing 80% of the population,  a challenge that may be impossible given a number of factors.

At the moment, every variant in the world is present in the US.  Immunizing the nation won’t be easy because vulnerable populations – especially racial/ethnic minority groups and economically and socially disadvantaged communities – lack equitable vaccine access, children under the age of 12 are ineligible, and vaccine hesitancy is prevalent.

In the US vaccine hesitancy is based on a lack of trust in its efficacy. At issue also, is that all vaccines currently available in the US do not offer 100% protection. But added Dr. Neuman, “I trust the virus less!”

While Yale Medicine rated Pfizer-BioNTech at 95% for preventing symptomatic disease, its stability depends on strict storage requirements; Moderna has a similar high efficacy of 90% upon full immunization, while the single shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a 72% overall efficacy.

There is also concern about waning immunity and about revaccination. Limited studies that exist clarify that antibodies decrease over time, but there is uncertainty about at which point a person is no longer protected.

Annual boosters may be necessary at a minimum, confirmed Dr. Neuman, but although each of the vaccines is reasonably effective against each of the variants, there is definitely a lower effectiveness against some, like those coming out of Brazil and South Africa.

It’s more the virus changing than waning immunity that will drive the vaccination cycle.

 

Defanging Not Defeating the Virus

In the wake of the CDC’s new mask guidelines, Dr. Neuman noted that people calculating what precautions to take – to mask, social distance, or get vaccinated – are making decisions predicated on the original versions of the virus.

As ‘stay-at-home’ lockdown measures gradually ease, NIH reports also say that much of the population may return to spending increasing amounts of time in inadequately ventilated workplaces, offices, schools and other public buildings, where they may be exposed to a risk of acquiring viral infections by inhalation.

So, in the midst of an ongoing epidemic, as social barriers to transmission are lowered without reaching herd immunity, and high-risk populations in the other parts of the world face vaccine shortages, we are “in some sense “ said Dr. Lipsitch, “not ‘totally defeating, but simply defanging the virus,” – just making it less dangerous to have transmission.

He predicts “a quiet summer” followed by “some virus resurgence in the fall” as people move indoors and continue to lower their guard.

 

Fighting the Virus at Warp Speed

All the experts argued that the only way out of the pandemic is to ensure that more vulnerable populations across the world get vaccinated.

Peter Maybarduk, Director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines Group, called for a global response at warp speed for the world – a catalyst for more funding, sharing resources and technical assistance, more manufacturing, and a definite plan to vaccinate everyone, everywhere, with at least 8 billion doses of MRNA vaccine within a year to make up the global shortfall.

Apart from the moral argument, added Dr. Lipsitch, “we like having interactions with the rest of the world, and for all the reasons we value the rest of the world, we should value their health as well.”

Dr. Neuman called for a single global solution to vaccinate everyone within a window of six months to a year.

Maybarduk, an expert on the Covax initiative which partners with the World Health Organization to get vaccines to low-income countries by sharing vaccines equitably, pointed out that wealthy countries have purchased much of the global supply of doses in bulk, so less than 5 % of the world’s population – only 340 million (one quarter of the doses already administered in the US alone) – have been vaccinated worldwide.

In Brazil only 17% of Brazilians have been vaccinated, said Dr. Rosane Guerra from the Department of Pathology, Biological and Health Sciences Center at the Federal University of Maranhao (UFMA). Brazil does not have an adequate supply of medication to prevent or control the virus.

Covax aims to vaccinate 20 percent of the world with a 2 billion dose target for 2021 but has only been able to ship 64 million doses, stated Maybarduk.  Worldwide access to vaccines is hobbled by the lack of manufacturing capacity, inefficient distribution channels, and low production volumes, access to raw materials, export controls, meeting regulatory requirements for safety and efficacy, obtaining qualifications from WHO for manufacturing facilities, and by politicians prioritizing their own citizens for vaccination first.

Sharing vaccines and vaccine knowledge (like the Trips waiver) is imperative to overcome the vaccine shortfall Maybarduk suggested, and getting vaccines to those who desperately need it in other countries..

“We should not cross our fingers and assume all is going to work out.”

Fighting the virus is like mobilizing for a world war which requires collective, integrated human effort towards achieving one goal. “I don’t think halfway solutions are going to get us there,” said Dr. Neuman. Getting to the next stage requires an integrated effort that scientists know is doable but is ultimately a political decision that world leaders must make.

“It’s impossible to have any kind of bubble in a world when people can move between countries in the middle of an epidemic. We have to close every border to control the disease,” Dr.Guerra concluded.

The bubble could burst as restrictions are relaxed before the pandemic is under control, said Dr. Neuman. “I don’t think that is the path that leads to the fastest extinction of the virus.”

“Get the vaccine, wear a mask, and when the numbers go down, then you know it’s safe to relax!”


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents

Photo by Marc Sendra Martorell on Unsplash

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash