India is in one of the largest humanitarian crises in history. The devastating headlines and heartbreaking pictures show that millions are suffering. People are dying on the street, frantically searching for hospitals and oxygen for their loved ones’. Crematoriums are overflowing with bodies. Over 500 doctors have sacrificed their lives to save others. My own grandfather, a dedicated orthopedic surgeon, succumbed to the virus treating his patients.
The entire healthcare system is collapsing. I am horrified at the tragic situation relayed by family members who are frontline professionals. I hear stories of casualties and devastation from my aunt (who is a covid warrior awardee and treats hundreds of covid patients on a daily basis) and uncle (who does covid-related black fungus surgeries). My own grand-uncle passed away from the virus recently.
The second wave of COVID has been catastrophic and the current infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle the recent surge in cases. As of now, India has recorded 28.1 million officialcases with over 330,000 deaths. These are only the cases that have been reported– the New York Times accounts for gross underreporting and estimates 540 million real cases. Every 5 minutes, someone dies because of COVID, unable to find oxygen gasping for breath.
To help those affected by the COVID crisis, we have partnered with Give India, the largest on-the-ground organization providing urgent relief resources. So far I’ve raised $26,600 to provide critical aid to those suffering in India.
The funds will be used for:
Oxygen. Hospitals’ oxygen demand is as high as 700% in some areas. Donations are being used to manufacture oxygen generators, ventilators, and cylinders.
Testing and Vaccination sites. Hospitals are erecting sites near hotspots such as airports to minimize the spread and obtain an accurate count of cases.
Setting up COVID Care Centers. Sick patients are turned away from overcrowded hospitals, forced to treat themselves without proper equipment. Funds are used to set up COVID Care and Isolation centers, fully equipped with quality care services to treat patients.
Food. The World Bank has found that poverty in India has doubled during COVID, as families struggle to pay for treatment. Your donation will be used to provide meals and ration kits to communities struggling to make ends meet. Just $6 is enough to provide an entire week’s worth of rations for a family.
If you are in India:
Please stay isolated and masked up. Follow all COVID protocols to protect others.
Donate blood plasma if possible
Get vaccinated immediately
Do not purchase or sell overpriced medical supplies
Return your empty oxygen cylinder so it can be refilled for someone else
Help your family with continually checking up on family and their symptoms
Report orphaned children to helplines, distribute meals to the homeless, feed stray animals
Practice good hygiene and spread awareness
If you are outside of India:
DONATE. Know that anything that you give can save someone’s life: Donate Here
Share resources on beds, medicines, plasma
Raise awareness on recovery at home
Volunteer at Covid Centers
Help orphaned children get protection, sponsor their education
Help organizations provide oxygen cylinders and concentrators
Check on family & friends
We urge you to donate during this time of need. The suffering will not end unless we make the change. Any and every amount helps! I encourage you to join this COVID support group to interact with others and receive updates and help on your recovery journey: https://www.facebook.com/groups/covidrecoveryjourney/
Yuvraj Walia is a 9th grader at Mission San Jose High School. He is passionate about medicine and hopes to make a difference and save lives during the COVID crisis with this fundraiser.
Every 5 minutes, someone dies because of COVID in India, usually on the street, unable to find oxygen. Fremont High Schooler, Yuvraj Walia has partnered with GiveIndia to provide resources! Donate today @GiveIndia #covidinindia #covid19 #covidindia #covidinfo #indiacurrents
Oxford-educated Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first female solicitor, is a clever, spirited young woman working for her father’s respected law firm in 1921 Bombay. Unable to fully practice because a woman can’t earn a law degree, her father relies on her exacting skills with contract law and her nimble mind for additional legal assistance. Introduced to readers inSujata Massey’s 2015 novella,Outnumbered at Oxford,then launched inThe Widows of Malabar Hill (Book 1) of theauthor’s Mystery of 1920s India series, the success of the second and third installments shows no sign of Perveen’s career being dismissed.
October 1921. Despite being supportive of Gandhi, Perveen accepts a one-time case on behalf of the Kohlapur Agency and the British government inThe Satapur Moonstone (Book 2). Like her interaction with thewidows in Book 1, the Agency’s clients live in purdah and cannot speak to male outsiders. Her task is to hear both sides of a contentious debate between two maharanis—the dowager and the mother of the 10-year-old crown prince—and make a recommendation for the prince’s education.
The catch is, however, she must travel to the princely state of Satapur in the isolated Sahyadri mountains where transportation is by palanquin or horseback. Upon arrival at her lodgings, the circuit house, she meets Colin Sandringham, the political agent overseeing the area. Quickly, Perveen feels uncomfortable. Sandringham is a bachelor who recalls meeting her one evening atOxford; she is the only woman at the circuit house; and the environment is breathtaking but treacherous even in daylight. In turn, unnerving details come to light as she undertakes her assignment. She learns the crown prince’s father and older brother recently died; the palace teems with backstabbing personalities; and the royal children are at risk. Consequently, Perveen finds herself trapped in a deadly royal situation and unable to keep from falling for Sandringham against her better judgment.
November 1921. Perveen finds herself caught in an explosive political situation at home in newly-published Book 3,The Bombay Prince. Anti-British sentiments are in the air, andEdward, Prince of Wales, is set to arrive in Bombay. Days before, college student Freny Cuttingmaster asks Perveen for guidance on behalf of an activist group: Would there be consequences for being absent from school in protest on the day of Edward’s arrival? For the parade, Perveen joins her best friend Alice, an instructor at the college, in the school’s viewing area. Following a disruptive protest by another student, Freny’s body is discovered on the college grounds. The supposition is that she had fallen and suffered injuries similar toan incident 30 years prior at another school.
Because Freny sought her counsel, Perveen vows to untangle the reason for Freny’s death. But without eyewitnesses, Perveen faces major hurdles. Her father restricts her movements by booking them in the Taj Hotel because of the increasing violence. There, she is stunned to encounter Colin Sandringham, who is accompanying Edward on his tour. Meanwhile, police are uncooperative, the press is relentless, and the arrested protester’s lawyer is incompetent. Nevertheless, Perveen forges ahead with her own investigation, questioning everyone’s motives, and becoming a target herself.
In all three books,Massey brilliantly sets up challenges, tension, and danger mixed with reasonable doubt about many characters and their possible motives. Those reasonable doubts are the products of Perveen’s questioning mind and focused labor to fit puzzle pieces together. Without modern investigative methods, equipment, or resources,Massey makes certain her legal sleuth remains firmly within all the boundaries of the 1920s.
Around the mysteries,Massey gracefully weaves India’s diverse cultures, religions, and societal expectations into the novels. She recreates 1920s Bombay with precise attention to detail, drawing out the tantalizing smell of foods, the vibrant colors of clothing, the friction caused by political beliefs, the strict Parsi matrimonial laws, the warmth and loyalty between family and friends, the textures and architecture of the city, the lushness of the mountainous jungle inThe SatapurMoonstone,and the Parsi funeral customs in Bombay Prince.Massey’s awareness of time, place, and community results in Bombay a century ago so vividly that the reader is effortlessly transported.
It is Perveen herself that makes this series such delightful reading. She is rendered with great humanness as a caring, generous role model. Occasionally outspoken, she knows when to reveal her anger or maintain the decorum expected of her.
“Two of India’s early women lawyers, barristerMithan Tata Lam and solicitorCornelia Sorabji, were inspirational for my research,”Massey told me. “Both of them fought for the physical safety and property rights of women. Cornelia went through the jungle to meet female clients who lived in seclusion at palaces and similar locations. Mithan was the guiding force in rewriting the punitive divorce law for Parsi people, but it wasn’t accomplished until 1936.”
Massey is writing Book 4 now, about which she revealed, “I’ve explored British-Indian political themes in Books 2 and 3, and Book 4 is very strongly a woman’s rights themed book.”
Although women still face many struggles in 2021, it was a century’s worth more difficult in 1921. For Perveen, she endures immeasurable pressure as an upper-class Parsi woman who is separated from an abusive husband and who is Bombay’s only female lawyer. Perveen is an early 20th-century champion of truth and justice, women’s rights, and equality. In this way, she easily translates to today.
For mystery devotees, this series is unlike any other. For historical fiction aficionados, the author provides a rich representation of the world in which Perveen lives and works. Bombay in the 1920s, the Parsi community, and the recurring and familiar lovable characters all combine to give the reader a complete and enduring experience.
Newsom, a self-described feminist and the father of four young children, has long advocated family-friendly health and economic policies. Flush with a projected budget surplus of $75.7 billion, state politicians have come up with myriad legislative and budget proposals to make poorer families healthier and wealthier.
They include ending sales taxes on menstrual products and diapers; adding benefits such as doulas and early childhood trauma screenings to Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program; allowing pregnant women to retain Medi-Cal coverage for a year after giving birth; and a pilot program to provide a universal basic income to low-income new parents.
“COVID-19 laid inequity bare for all to see,” Assembly member Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) said in a written statement. She is the co-author of Senate Bill 65, led by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), which would pour hundreds of millions of dollars into family and health care programs annually, focusing on minority groups that Carrillo said were “pushed out of the social safety net by the prior White House.”
Newsom and the Democratic-controlled legislature are unified on major health care and social safety-net expansions, which would direct billions in health benefits and cash assistance to the state’s most vulnerable residents and low-income parents. Legislative Democrats for years have pushed a progressive agenda to help struggling parents and families, featuring proposals like those to permanently end taxes on menstrual products and diapers — expected to cost the state millions.
“We don’t need to balance the budget on half of the population that has a uterus,” said Assembly member Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), who has for years sought an endto the “pink tax” on diapers and menstrual products.
Skinner, chair of the Senate budget committee, is among the powerful lawmakers who’ve put forward legislation to make childbirth safer and parenthood more affordable. Her bill, which cleared the Senate and was up for consideration this week in the state Assembly, has several features that would dramatically expand maternal health care (transgender men also get pregnant and give birth).
Before the pandemic, Medi-Cal covered mothers only up to 60 days after their pregnancies ended unless their income fell below a certain line or they had a mental health diagnosis. Skinner’s bill, part of a broader national push to improve birth outcomes, would expand full Medi-Cal coverage to 12 months after the end of a pregnancy. Other parts of the bill would intensify state reporting and reviews of fetal and pregnancy-related deaths and severe maternal morbidity, expand housing benefits for families that have a pregnant member, and increase training programs for midwives.
Newsom’s $268 billion budget blueprint includes about $200 million a year to fully implement the expansion of Medi-Cal coverage for new mothers, with matching dollars from the federal government until those funds expire in 2027. If the expansion were not renewed, the state would revert to previous Medi-Cal qualifications.
“Not all postpartum issues end at 60 days, and when patients lose insurance, we can’t address them in the usual way,” said Dr. Yen Truong, an OB-GYN who works with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists on legislative issues in California.
About half of pregnancy-related deaths occur during the pregnancy or on the day of delivery, but about 12% take place between seven weeks and a year after giving birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The U.S. had 17.4 early maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2018, according to the most recent CDC data with state figures. California’s rate, 11.7 per 100,000, was among the lowest in the nation, but the state collects data on maternal deaths in a way that could result in underestimates.
California’s overall numbers also obscure stark racial disparities. Statewide, Black infants averaged 7.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with an average of three deaths among white babies. Data from 2013 from Los Angeles County showed Black women had pregnancy-related deaths at rates more than four times as high as the overall rate in the state’s largest county.
“Given our state’s wealth and medical advancements, this is unacceptable,” Skinner, vice chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus, said in a news release.
Democrats also appear unified on another aspect of Skinner’s bill: a pilot program to test a universal basic income program for struggling families. The bill would give $1,000 a month to low-income expectant and new parents with kids under 2 years old in counties that decide to participate. Newsom has also proposed $35 million over five years for pilot programs for universal basic income.
These issues could play well, especially among women, and improve Newsom’s standing going into a recall election later this year, said Rose Kapolczynski, a longtime campaign consultant to former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer who has worked on reproductive health care issues in Sacramento.
Indefinitely rescinding sales taxes on diapers and menstrual products — the taxes have been temporarily lifted since early last year — is a particular no-brainer because of its bipartisan appeal, she said.
“It’s hard for Republicans to attack something that is a tax cut, and sales taxes are regressive, so progressives would like it,” Kapolczynski said.
As for Medi-Cal expansions, Kapolczynski said that even though it wouldn’t affect most Californians, the pandemic has made health care even more important to voters. “The budget surplus is allowing many things that were called impossible to be possible, and that includes health care bills,” she said.
Investing in California’s young families could help close the racial gap in maternal and infant mortality, said Nourbese Flint, executive director of the Black Women for Wellness Action Project, which endorsed Skinner’s bill.
California’s would become the first Medicaid program to include “full spectrum” doula coverage, meaning it would include care for women who have abortions, miscarriages and stillbirths, said Amy Chen, a senior attorney at the National Health Law Program.
“California has always led the country and been a little bit in front of where our federal government is when it comes to covering folks,” Flint said.
California Healthline correspondent Angela Hart contributed to this report.
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.
Yoga has always afforded me a sort of mental vacation that helps recenter my focus and energy. It probably sounds a bit esoteric. But let me explain. I find the routine of a few sun salutations, twists, an inversion, the quiet heaviness of shavasana, and some full belly “Oms” revitalizing. After which I breathe deeply with renewed energy, ready to take on and make the most of the at times, challenge-filled fluidity of working from home and remote school, for instance.
More recently during this anxiety-inducing pandemic, as I worry about our family’s safety in India or read about the ever-spiking cases and crumbling health care system there, my intermittent and improvised yoga practice allows me to calm my nerves and think more positively. I hope for a happy day when we are able to travel to India with our two boys, so they may be able to see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, in-person, and I, my folks.
I am by no means a certified yoga instructor – merely a yoga enthusiast who has turned to this ancient Indian practice every now and then at various stages of my life for over two decades now, reaping its wonderful benefits. Every time I surrender to my mat, I rise in a strange mind-body-soul harmony, gently yet firmly, reminding me ‘to just be’. To accept, be grateful, make the most of ‘now’, mindfully and intentionally going about my day.
While I am cognizant that everyone has their go-to activity or means to de-stress and relax, like listening to music, running, taking a short nap, or reading, yoga is mine. The reason I was drawn to it is because it made me pause and slow down my pace of life and mind. I also very quickly realized that yoga doesn’t have to be complicated or enigmatic. It doesn’t need much equipment, space, or time. It’s easy and beneficial. I can do it whenever I want and for as long as I want (or can).
So, over the years, I have devised my own ‘yoga toolkit’. It has helped me mindfully navigate the curveballs at work and as a full-time parent. And it continues to assist me today, as I, like millions of others navigate this global pandemic, making sense of it, praying for a better tomorrow.
To stay calm, centered, rational, and in control, I often resort to the following yoga tools. I don’t necessarily follow these sequentially or attempt to go through each of them. I simply do what I can.
Breathe deeply for that much-needed clarity.
We breathe all the time. Why not make it conscious and intentional? It’s cathartic and effortless. The two things we all value, especially these days. Focusing on my breath for a few minutes magically helps me hit that reset button. And we all know, taking a pause can help us rationally re-evaluate a variety of situations – personal and/or professional.
When under stress, do the downward dog.
You may end up doing it a LOT. It’s no secret that our current reality possibly fills the most formerly self-assured people with doubts: small, big, and huge. Often! But when has a bit of stretching, sculpting, toning, and blood flowing to the brain been a bad thing? It not only helps us all take that much-needed pause but forces us to see the world from an upside-down (different?) perspective.
Create space between the ears and shoulders.
This is something we don’t even think about but can do all the time – while sitting, standing, and lying down. Just pull your shoulders down and straighten your neck to create some space between the tips of your ears and the tops of your shoulders. Not only check your posture but also feel that stress release. You’ll likely feel taller, more in control, and will look graceful too. Tip – you can add to it by tucking in your tummy, working those abs. But don’t forget to breathe!
Relax in child’s pose.
Again, a little bit of flexibility and stress/ blood pressure reduction can’t be all bad! A time to rest, and reset, and secretly build flexibility and work those abs.
Massage the top of your head and the nape of your neck.
Isn’t that what they did when physically going for a massage was a possibility? Granted, it’s not the same as getting that divine massage, but it’s certainly something. Creating some scalp blood circulation apparently helps with hair growth too.
Lie in Shavasana for that divine sleep and mental reset.
A few minutes of Shavasana prior to a nap or hitting the sack for the night helps me breathe deeply and relax, setting me up for some quality rest time. Tip – a scalp massage with some meditation music prior only makes the sleep deeper and more restful.
Feel free to harness the power of this ‘Yoga toolkit’ alone or with kid(s), your spouse/ partner. It’s relatively simple and doesn’t entail much. Best of all, it’s iterative. Pick what you feel like. Add to it if you want to. If a backbend or headstand is part of your practice, go for it. If you want to just lay down, massage your head, and tune out breathing deeply in Shavasana, do it! It’s also indulgent. Remember to work with your energy levels and time commitments. Don’t endeavor for that perfect pose. These tools can be hugely gratifying, relaxing, and mentally and physically centering. Something we all crave and can benefit from.
Here’s wishing us all the very best, as we surge forward with positivity, gratitude, and mindful intention.
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, Om…….
Nidhi Kirpal Jayadevan is an avid reader and a yoga enthusiast. Her pre-kids life was dedicated to the complex field of Communication Sciences. After choosing to be a full-time mother, reading and playing with her high-energy boys has been a fascinating journey. It has (re)kindled in her a sense of wonder in all things small. She constantly sees the world through little eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen life’s meaning for herself and her family.
The opening story ‘The Entomologist at the Trial’ is at first glance a courtroom drama. Narrated from the perspective of a nephew recounting the details of an interesting case in the professional life of his lawyer uncle, the story touches on issues of sexual harassment and speaks to our “Me Too” moment. However, as it unfolds, the short story reveals itself to be a trenchant social satire on the moribund justice system lubricated by money and power. The fact that justice is served in this story seems to be a serendipitous anomaly in the general routine of corruption. Kumar’s concern with sexual harassment against women spans across classes.
While in ‘The Entomologist at the Trial’, the victim is a middle-class woman who is a social worker, in ‘All the Way to the Twelfth Floor’, Gauri, a servant, faces domestic violence at home and the predatory advances of her employer, Hasmukh Singh.
Kumar focuses on the everyday oppressions of women in ‘Missing’, another story in which the protagonist is a rural peasant whose husband has gone to serve in the army. When he returns on leave, the trauma of his experiences at war creates an invisible chasm in the marriage. The story ends with her husband’s desertion from the army and a continuation of the precarity of the wife’s life in the village.
The precarity of intimate relationships is a continuing thread in this collection and Kumar explores the implications of marital disharmony in rural subaltern as well as urban elite contexts. In ‘Rekha Crosses a Line’, a wife facing a crisis of identity falls victim to the charms of a godman while being aware of his manipulations.
Marital disharmony leads Malati in ‘Dorothy Cries in the Bus’ to leave her husband, Ashok, and board a bus for another town. It is on the bus she develops a sudden friendship with a Canadian female tourist, Dorothy, who is also experiencing her own romantic travails.
While the oppressions and solidarities between women form a connecting thread between stories, some stories are more directly a critique of the current state of Indian nationalism, the erosion of the founding promises and ideals of Gandhi and other leaders.
In ‘The Man Who Played Gandhi’, the power of Gandhi is symbolically diminished to that of fading actor invited to play Gandhi in village functions, who is mistaken not for the original Gandhi but the actor who resembles Ben Kingsley. The invitations to play Gandhi gradually diminish till the protagonist who has spent a lifetime perfecting the details of Gandhi’s mannerisms is forced to succumb to a magician creating the illusion of Gandhi disappearing on stage. The disappearance of Gandhi is a metaphoric invocation of the disappearance of Gandhian ideals in contemporary India, characterized by the regime of neoliberal globalization and the dilution of his secular vision.
Another story that offers a harrowing comment on the failure of the Indian nation-state is ‘Big Fish’, which also invokes the fragility of life for Indians living in coastal areas increasingly subject to violent cyclones as a result of climate change. In this story, we encounter, a young girl Munni who is an internal refugee as a result of a devastating cyclone. The family rescues a stranger from another cyclone, but the guest remains traumatized and unable to speak of his past. In the end, he is taken away by the police since he has no papers to prove his legitimacy. The story dramatizes the hardening of definitions of citizenship, which leaves refugees of wars and natural disasters, displaced and unaccommodated.
While developing some of these serious themes, Kumar never loses sight of the story as a form that entertains even while it presents complex portraits of society. The title story ‘A Sense of Time’ is an interesting rendition of the genre of the glost story, where the drama is played out on a train in a deserted railway station. Like other stories, it is a telling comment on feudal hierarchies and intrigue over the family fortune, while transporting readers into a supernatural experience on a train moving through a desolate countryside.
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
“Everyone in my family is sick, madam, our father has been having high fevers for several days. My wife sickened 5 days ago. She was pregnant and had to have an emergency c-section delivery…baby is in the NICU…now my brother has developed a cough. They were unable to be vaccinated ma’am, they went to the center but by the time they got there, all vaccines were gone…”
On the monitor, the man gulped visibly, obviously distraught. He was the first of several patients whom I would triage remotely – a volunteer effort led by non-resident Indian physicians to help with the COVID-19 surge currently ravaging India. I had already seen many patients with similar stories: recently symptomatic, terrified of having to seek care in overburdened hospitals, and frustrated with the inability to access the life-saving vaccines being administered in other countries.
As the newspaper headlines report on a daily basis, the toll of COVID-19 IS skyrocketing in India. Patients must “hospital shop” to find beds and oxygen. The situation is dire and could have been mitigated if the population had better access to vaccines. It is imperative to promote resource equity: pandemics cannot be managed by political agendas and microbes disregard both party lines and geographic boundaries. This is why I applaud the Biden administration’s decision to support a waiver on intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines. It is a critical first step towards ensuring sustainable access to vaccines, particularly in hard-hit countries like India and Brazil.
Over 80% of the more than 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses distributed globally have gone to high-income countries, while low-income countries have received a paltry 0.3% of the supply. Pharmaceutical companies, profiting from filling orders of wealthy countries first, have not made countries like Brazil and India a priority until now when their monopoly control on the vaccine was threatened by the possibility of an IP waiver. Yet, these are the countries where a resurgence could cause incredible upheaval and are the most vulnerable to the sequelae of this pandemic.
Moreover, there is a growing risk of prolonging the pandemic as the virus rages on unchecked. Science confirms that fact: the longer the virus is allowed to replicate in a population, the greater the possibility of mutation, which ultimately jeopardizes the health of every nation, resource-rich, or poor. History has also shown that since the original SARS epidemic in 2003, there have been dramatic leaps in the genetic variation of these viruses, which have increased transmissibility and virulence. The likelihood is that this pattern will continue into the next decade, creating more rapidly mutating and perhaps more lethal viruses, which is a threat to all humanity. Expanding vaccine equity now will help to combat our current crisis and may even quell the incidence of new mutations in the future.
The U.S. announcement is a humanitarian, practical response to the global phenomenon of a rapidly mutating pandemic. It is a great first step. The hard work is yet to be done. The World Trade Organization must meet to hash out the specifics of the policy. Other nations will need to commit to the waiver in order to for the policy to be actionable. Simultaneously, there must be commitments to compel technology transfer and resource allocation to the countries that are suffering the most.
My hope is that eventually these life-saving health care innovations will not be treated as the spoils of free-market competition and will be available to patients like my own without negotiation, wherever they are most needed.
Maya Nambisan is a physician in San Joaquin County. She is of Indian ancestry and still has many family members there. She has an M.D. from the University of Illinois and an MPH from Yale School of Epidemiology & Public Health. She is currently volunteering her time with eglobaldoctors.com, an effort by nonresident physicians of Indian origin to help with the covid surge in India.
In 2018, when Prince Harry married Meghan Markle, the world watched with awe. The event was a royal departure from the expected for Markle, an American actress. But since then much water has flown under the bridge. The interview given by Harry and Markle to American talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey in March fired up the disturbing issue of racism. Both the guests revealed on the show that the royal family expressed concern over the skin color of their son Archie, leaving shocks and gasps in its trail across the globe.
I have always admired Serena Williams for her sheer strength. Williams, married to Alexis Ohanian, also went through the same ordeal. The tennis queen faced barbs over the skin color of her unborn child at the time of pregnancy. She also penned a letter to her mother on how she faced criticism over skin color and body shape.
The ugliest side of racism shook us all when we heard about the tragic death of 46-year-old George Floyd. The incident received widespread criticism across the world over the way African-Americans are treated in the US and lent much-needed support to the Black Lives Matter movement. As a mark of protest, Bollywood celebrities expressed their solidarity with the movement. Actor Kareena Kapoor Khan went a step ahead by posting on Instagram All Lives Matter, which also received a fair amount of flak.
In Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, the author highlighted how African-Americans are treated solely based on their skin color through the character of an African-American girl, Pecola Breedlove. Pecola also desires blue eyes as an end to her troubles in life, a fact that has been deeply embedded in our young minds through fairy tales where princesses are always fair and beautiful. Dolls for baby girls invariably have blond curls and blue eyes.
However, it is not just the African-Americans who are often at the receiving end, but Asians too. Last month, the brutal killing of four Sikhs in Indiana has sent shockwaves across the community. Sikhs are among the most targeted groups in the US, according to The Sikh Coalition. Anarticle states, “Since 9/11, dozens of Sikhs have been assaulted because of their appearance, often by perpetrators with white nationalist beliefs.”
The ghastly incident, which took place on April 15, rapidly gained solidarity movements providing much-needed comfort in times of racial discrimination. A week later, 10,000 people gathered in a virtual vigil and the message given was Stand Together in Solidarity. The reminder was that America is a multiracial country. Grassroots organization They See Blue, founded in 2018 to advance South Asian engagement, has also come out in solidarity and demanded a full investigation into the incident.
Colonialism has helped foster the belief in white supremacy. Little doubt then that in India, a British colony for over 200 years, fair skin is still desirable. Unfortunately, women are judged more for their skin color than men.
Back in school, many students made fun of a fellow classmate because of her dark skin color. I remember once during an excursion, a male student remarked that as he is a man, it does not matter that he is dark but for women, it matters. The notion that women have to be more desirable is problematic in itself, and skin color is one of the yardsticks to measure a woman’s beauty.
A 2018 study by Itisha Nagar mentioned that fair-skinned attractive people received higher ratings than dark-skinned attractive ones based on profiles shown for marriage. The study also says that Asian immigrants in the West desire lighter skin tone. It is believed that fair-skinned women draw better husbands, a fact amplified by matrimonial ads where the majority wants submissive homely bahus (brides) with fair skin.
In 2018, I went on an assignment to the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. In a small village shop, I found sachets of a popular fairness cream which has now changed its name by removing the word fair. All the ads for this product had the same recurring theme: a dejected dark-skinned girl on the verge of despair suddenly achieving success in life by becoming fair after applying the cream.
But things are changing. The BBC reported how matrimony site Shaadi.com was forced to remove skin filters after major backlash. More such steps are welcome.
Bollywood has also come of age. In the movie Bala, Latika Trivedi, played by Bhumi Pednekar, is finally accepted for being dark even though her Instagram pictures are all airbrushed at the request of her aunt. I hope that with such campaigns, discrimination based on race and color finally ends…
Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi
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.
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.
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.
“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
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.
The first time I met this poet, producer and founder of South Asian poetry collective Matwaala was at a Desi poetry reading moderated by India Currents. It was a surreal moment for a South Asian American teenage girl who grew up on a diet of Mahabharata reruns and idolized authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. My love for South Asian literature always began and ended with the literature itself, but the poetry readings gave me the opportunity to witness the beauty of a thriving community built around this art form. And at the forefront of building this community is Indian-American poet Usha Akella.
The 2019 Creative Ambassador for the City of Austin, Usha uses her platform as a poet and as a storyteller to advocate for immigrant rights and gender equality. When I watched her read for the first time, I was struck by her refusal to mince words. In recent years, the so-called “third-wave feminist movement” is often asked to soften its message, simplify itself, and turn its head at the more implicit forms of misogyny that plague America today. In fact, I’ve often found myself reading and writing poetry wondering whether the forthrightness of my activism will offend, as though the realities of gender inequality need to be sugar-coated to be swallowed.
Usha Akella’s latest poetry book I Will Not Bear You Sons does none of that. This collection of poetry delivers the pain, purpose, and newfound power of marginalized women in their rawest forms. This book dances from the misogynistic expectations placed on South Asian housewives to China’s foot-binding tradition to sexual harassment experienced by working women. Beyond her activism, this book also weaves sharp-witted social commentaries with penetrating glimpses into post-pandemic life. True to her cuttingly honest writing style, in I Will Not Bear You Sons Usha Akella offers an outreached hand to women everywhere — as well as a confident middle finger to the patriarchal norms which silence them.
The book is broken into two sections — I and We.
While I offers autobiographical looks into Akella’s experiences as both a writer and Indian-American woman, We acts on her hopes for intersectional feminism, and tells the stories of marginalized women from other cultures and identities.
“Can women ever cease perceiving their ‘tragedy’ as ‘Mother’?”, Usha writes in Ants — a poem that is dedicated to her Amma but widens into a broader discussion about familial ties and patriarchal perceptions of motherhood.
What is interesting about this book is that Akella recognizes the collectivism buried in her individual narrative; she manages to use her personal experiences to connect with other women and uplift different communities. One of the most memorable poems in I Will Not Bear You Sons, in my opinion, is Women Speak — a matter-of-fact call for justice. Although nowhere does Akella talk about herself in this poem, it grows clear through her strong sense of voice that Women Speak is a command for every woman, Usha included.
Despite her support for intersectionality, however, Akella is also self-aware of the regional and socio-economic divisions which exist within the feminist movement.
From A Brahmin Niyogi Woman to a White Woman toys with the differences between Western and South Asian notions of freedom. “I didn’t dye my hair blue,” writes Akella. “I didn’t say fuck you!,” highlighting this divide with a discerning, humorous outlook on Western and Eastern stereotypes.
As a teenager somehow grappling with both realities, I thoroughly enjoyed her sense of humor, even in its darker moments (think: sardonically dismissive references to AIDS, homosexuality, and divorce). What does a feminist want? Akella’s poetry slyly peels back the layers to this question, while also revealing how internalized misogyny and generational judgment distort a possible answer.
The titular poem of the book, I Will Not Bear You Sons, undoubtedly shines through. In fact, my only critique of Akella’s book was the positioning of this poem, which manages to overshadow shorter, and perhaps underrated pieces like Storm and Harmony. It’s an interesting demise, where I Will Not Bear You Sons may be too good for where it is placed, and we see diluted successors to this poem rather than a powerful lineup.
The piece below, which has been included with Akella’s permission, chronicles Akella’s feelings of isolation and oppression within her own family. Personally, I was drawn to the poem’s strong sense of chronology, where Akella uses specific visual imagery to walk her readers through the most intimate parts of her life. The poem begins at the door, where the readers are introduced to this setting and Akella as a person. She then slowly moves the narrative into different parts of the house, her use of setting paralleling the poem itself — a journey within the innermost pieces of her psyche, which has been damaged by the patriarchy and now seeks to heal through poetry and group empowerment. The very phrase, I will not bear you sons, is unforgettable on its own, yet the way Akella repeats this line gives the poem a defiant and enduring heartbeat. It’s one of the longer poems in this collection, as Akella has plenty to say about the demands to birth a male child, a society which degrades and commodifies women, a history of misogyny which perpetuates this society like a terrible machine — this poem is a lot, and I found myself only getting angrier as the work unfolded. The range of emotion in this book is beautiful. Yet it is Akella’s unadulterated anger, which spreads like wildfire in this poem, that truly brings I Will Not Bear You Sons alive.
What can a door deliver?
The setting of this poem is innocuous—at the door,
A door is innocent of its exits and entrances,
What can a door deliver?
Hellos, bye-byes, blessings, Namaste, a peck on the cheek …
An open door can be the hole in a noose.
I had just celebrated his seventieth birthday,
decorating the house so, so, fit to welcome a God,
the saris draped on the ceiling, cascading rainbows
falling from the sky,
we wore our finery, our ornaments
as if the earth was liberated from every evil.
The food was laid out—kitchen-labor, labor of forgiveness,
I will not waste words on the menu
for I must speak of women, wombs and India.
A poem can glisten like a fresh wound.
In his speech he praised his wife,
his daughter, his sons, his grandchildren,
he omitted his daughters-in-law, and I
stilled my voice on the verge of bleeding red like a period,
and they ate and ate and danced and smiled and smirked,
and all was well with the world.
– Usha Akella in I Will Not Bear You Sons
Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the 2020 summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication.
26-year-old first-generation Singaporean Indian, and a prized member of the Def Jam South East Asia roster, Yung Raja‘s debut foray into the US territory commences with the release of his brand new single “Mami”, alongside Alamo Records, home to some of the hottest hip-hop acts such as Lil Durk and Smokepurpp. The artist, who has been dubbed as Southeast Asia’s next avant-garde hip-hop artist known for his tasteful unification of English and Tamil lyricism, aims to reinvent societal views in and out of his homeland, inspire the next generation of cultural conservators, and elevate Southeast Asian hip-hop to world-class stages through his music. Raja’s past few singles have zeroed in on his heritage, identity, and freewheeling way of life in Singapore. In March, he was included on NME’s 100 lists, appearing as the first-ever Singaporean to make it to the platform’s coveted “artist to watch” list.
In this exclusive interview, he talks about spreading joy, positive vibes through his art and his heritage-influenced music.
You just made your debut foray into the US territory with the release of your brand new single “Mami”. What was the idea and inspiration behind it? What response have you received?
I’m truly inspired by how music can lift people’s spirits, and one of my biggest motivations is to spread joy and positive vibes through my art. “Mami” was a record we made encapsulating that, especially at a time where clubs are closed and people aren’t throwing parties anymore. I really wanted to bring the club to the listener. “Mami” is a banger that’s meant for having fun, and we are super grateful to have the support of Alamo Records in the journey of breaking into the US market.
Tell us how your Singaporean-Indian heritage influences your music.
It’s what and who I am, really. Being a first-generation Singaporean Indian, my DNA is made up of all the wonderful things that make my heritage special. Being a hip-hop artist, it’s all about showing people your real background and story. I’m heavily inspired by my culture and driven to showcase different aspects of it tastefully through my arts.
Your previous songs have largely focused on your heritage, identity, and way of life. Tell us about some of the cultural issues that you hope to bring to light through your music.
Well, for me it’s all about representation. Being a part of a minority racial group in Singapore, I am very grateful to be able to use my voice to inspire goodness in others. Whilst doing so, I’m focused on shining light on various aspects of my culture in a manner that’s palatable to people all around the world.
Humour, color, and a sense of style always seem to mark your fresh and fashionable music videos. Tell us who or what are your musical inspirations.
I’m inspired by many different artists/people from the west and east – Tyler The Creator, Dennis Rodman, Travis Scott, A R Rahman just to name a few. I guess I’m a byproduct of mixing the vividness of my culture, the pride of my roots, my happy-go-lucky personality, and western hip-hop.
What are you working on next?
More vibrations for people! Can’t wait to share more when the time’s right… all I can say for now is stay tuned!
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’.
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.
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.
Dr. Ben Neuman
Dr. Marc Lipsitch
Dr Rosane Guerra
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