just how bad it can get

Written by a correspondent in Delhi from The Economist:

Correspondent’s diary


India’s second wave of covid-19 feels nothing like its first


Holed up in Delhi, where friends are falling ill too fast to count


Diary


Apr 30th 2021


DELHI


WE ARE AMID an ocean of human suffering but cannot see it. Having returned abruptly to the kind of isolation we hoped we had put behind us months ago, my wife, our two little boys and I are staying put in our nice flat, in a leafy “colony” near the centre of Delhi. Our new rule is strict: we do not go outside for any reason. The past 12 months have trained us well enough for that; these routines are well-worn, for parents and children. We grown-ups however cannot stay away from our phones, and so peace of mind is a distant memory. My wife just called from downstairs. Her friend’s brother-in-law needs an oxygen concentrator or he is likely to die at home. If we find one for him (and she is already working her connections), can we scrounge enough cash to buy another, for ourselves?


The mind’s eye is filled with pictures of desperate families scrambling after oxygen cylinders, failing more often than not. All day the early-summer heat has me picturing bodies, bagged and stacked on the pavement, waiting their turn for the pyres that burn everywhere across the city. Sometimes I switch off the screen in my home office on the second floor and step onto the roof terrace to water potted plants and scan the neighbourhood below. All is quiet and green. Smoke from the crematorium down the street has disappeared into the usual haze of the season. Our small park is more leaf-blown than usual, but someone has been watering there too. A security guard at the corner is wearing his mask, but he’s been doing that for a year now, as if the past month were nothing new. In contrast to the first lockdown, the milkman is still coming and newspapers are being delivered.


Yet everything has changed, with a speed that we still cannot comprehend. My family had hunkered down much harder than most. We kept our social life in forfeit and wore masks outdoors, if not always at the playground. We had come to seem like laggards within India. Most of this country began to relax after September if not earlier, as the caseload started to drop. Just last month I started travelling again—I was road-tripping through weekly markets, sampling country liquor offered by strangers for a cute feature story, then watching a jubilant political rally fill a small town’s bazaar. Days later I was dandling my two-year-old on my lap at an airport, sharing his first iced lolly. Those were the before times. A fortnight later, back in Delhi, I find that more than half of my friends have covid-19, in their families if not in their own bodies. Acquaintances are dying faster than they can be counted. I read in the papers that the forestry department is clear-cutting parkland to feed more wood to those pyres.


The official news outlets also bring the daily statistics: 386,000 new infections today, 208,000 dead counted since the pandemic began. Between the lines, it is possible to read the disclaimers too. If only 1.7m tests are being conducted per day, what can that 386,000 really mean? Is it that 0.0004% of the country has come down with the virus since yesterday, or that nearly 23% did? That would be 314m people, nearly the whole population of America. Obviously, the true number lies between those absurd extremes, but who knows where? The statistics about death tolls are more nakedly false. It is plain that thousands are dying every day, but who, where and exactly how many we cannot know, thanks to some petty deceptions but mostly sheer confusion. I get a better sense from the piecemeal reporting in Indian websites covering, say, the smaller towns and cities of Uttar Pradesh, where none of the official line can be trusted, than from my fellow observers forced to stay in the capital.


But the saddest and also the most terrifying accounts all come via the phone, in texts or panicked voices. Everyone is ill and no one can find medical help. Stating the obvious, the American embassy mass-messages, “Access to all types of medical care is becoming severely limited in India due to the surge in Covid-19 cases” and concludes that my fellow Americans should make plans to leave the country “as soon as it is safe to do so”. Social-media feeds are an endless list of pleas on behalf of the dying. A friend from Lucknow, living in New York, writes elegant, almost daily obituaries for friends from his hometown—three of them, I can’t help noting, are my age, and at least one was, also like me, fully vaccinated.


I have a nightly ritual of phone calls to check on friends within a two-mile radius. An elderly woman has recovered, but feels distraught that her neighbours across the street both died. Another friend’s aunt is still ailing but in the meantime her husband died—I hadn’t heard he was infected. Newborn twins, their parents and their nanny are all running a fever in tandem. A WhatsApp group set up by foreign journalists to discuss visa issues has become another place to plead for help finding medical supplies. It informs me that the clinic where I found my own second dose of AstraZeneca a week ago has run out of vaccines. Only 1.8% of the country has been fully vaccinated and it is anybody’s guess how long it will take to manufacture or import the roughly 2bn doses we are left wanting.


Watching the other international correspondents fall ill and scramble to leave tends to make me want to stay behind these locked doors, with my potted plants and boisterous little kids. Appliances may be breaking down, but our groceries keep coming and the WiFi works. An NGO in Delhi counts more than 100 Indian journalists who have died of covid-19, 52 of them this month. For their bravery, I am able to read about those pyres, without having to risk seeing them for myself.


This horror is noticed abroad. Messages from faraway friends I haven’t seen in years convince me of that. They are worried for us and I am happy to reassure them that we four are fine, relieved to be talking about the situation from the bird’s-eye view of my terrace. Much easier on the nerves than ringing up the next-door neighbour to find out whether our mutual friend is still alive.


But my long-distance conversations convince me that something has been lost in the transmission. These well-read friends in Europe, America and East Asia never understood how different the past year of covid was, here in India—and so they cannot understand what it feels like now to hit the vertical wall of this so-called second wave. I struggle to convey that we have not been on a wavy ride, like Britain’s or some American states’. Look at the shape of our graphs. Our first surge was scary, but tapered away like the tail of a paper tiger. The virus had spread everywhere during 2020, no doubt, despite a brutal lockdown and other efforts at containment. Sero-positivity surveys conducted in some cities showed that majorities of large populations had been exposed to the coronavirus and developed antibodies to it. But Indian bodies resisted it, perhaps, they say, because of “cross immunity” gained unnoticed over lifetimes lived amid the barrage of everyday germs. The rickety hospitals stayed afloat too, and eventually their covid wards emptied. By the beginning of 2021 we were saying that 150,000 Indians had died. For perspective: three times as many die from tuberculosis every year. “At the beginning of this pandemic, the whole world was worried about India’s situation,” the prime minister, Narendra Modi, recalled in a triumphal mood only in February. “But today India’s fight against corona is inspiring the entire world.”


India fought a phony war and—by dumb luck—it won. Then suddenly, less than three weeks ago, our world turned upside down. Having taken credit for his country’s divine good fortune of last year, Mr Modi will want to shrug off blame for the second wave, as if it were an act of God which no preparation could have averted or even lessened. There is a lot to say about what could have been done instead. Yet without any of the government’s self-serving intentions, many of the rest of us feel convinced that a different disease has emerged since our year-long dry run began. Covid-21 I find myself calling it.


The facts one would need to build that case stay stubbornly out of reach. The available genomic analysis shows that the distinctively Indian “double mutant” variant, B.1.617, is prevalent in some parts of the country but not in Delhi, where the Kentish B.1.1.7 is like wildfire. India is woefully behind in sequencing its strains, having only announced a genomic consortium in December 2020 and then funding it only in March.


What is clear to clinicians, as opposed to the boffins, is that covid-21 is more transmissible than the kind we saw last year. A doctor friend tells another friend in her podcast that this is “much much more contagious, much much more transmissible than the wild variety of covid-19.” It used to be that just one member of a household might catch it. Now everyone does. In our extended family, in Kolkata, 13 of 15 people under one roof became infected before any showed symptoms.


Its “immune-escape” mutations are formidable. Being vaccinated, I am sensitive to the stories of inoculated people falling ill—which could not be more common, in my social circles—and even dying. The vaccines are saving lives, no doubt. Deaths among the fully vaccinated are rare; I hear of them only among friends of friends of friends, like the poor 25-year-old lab technician in a hospital whose best friend teaches German to a pal of mine over Zoom.
Which brings us to the fact that this time young people and even children are developing symptoms, including an erstwhile quarantine-playmate of our four-year-old. Younger adults are becoming severely ill, as they did not last year. Finally, those people who have had the disease twice, a plentiful category thanks to that “immune-escape” feature, say that the reinfection feels different. The fever comes quicker and they are more prone to developing pneumonia.
Dumb, divine luck with covid-19, and now the bad luck of covid-21, as if it were retribution. That is the way it feels to those of us who find ourselves without access to reliable aggregations of information, but awash in personal anecdotes. I suspect that someday biomedical research may prove that the two kinds of luck were connected, but we will have to wait years for that.


For now there is much outrage. Maybe Mr Modi’s government will pay a price for its blunders and complacency. I suspect that this is mostly expressed as a wishful diversion, in tragic pursuit of a silver lining. That would be a way for my part of Delhi, those who have the privilege of sitting at home and contemplating escape, to take a break from our primary occupations: fear and sorrow.

important people, get important awards, say important things

My Guests and I didn’t watch the Oscars and simply don’t care.  We love old movies and old Hollywood.  Now everything sucks.  So we don’t watch, and would rather examine different kinds of beach sand in a laboratory than learn who won.

The Oscars used to be alongside the Super Bowl as a much watch event for the whole country each year.  But that was decades ago.  I can’t fathom a human being who still watches this running joke.  Though I’m sure plenty of decent, good people do so for their own reasons.  Hey we all have our own guilty pleasures, folks!  Mine’s beer, and more beer.

Anyways, we’ve come up with some belligerent guesses on how all this played out:

1) Most of the awards went to obscure arthouse projects and actors for films that almost nobody saw or will ever see

2) The ceremony dragged on for a bloated five plus hours as these self-identified very, very important people stroke their own egos with delicious hot fry oil

3) A celebrity made it a point to show and/or state how rich they are compared to YOU, the poor shit eating masses

4) Various, multiple, one-sided, unneeded, petulant, militant comments were made about the current state of American politics

5) Conversely, no mention was made about China’s current, daily crimes, because Hollywood wants China’s money and supporting evil helps with that

6) One or both Clooney’s offered a remark that made the audience desire to shoot one or both of them into the Sun via giant clown cannon

7) Bogart’s ghost appeared on stage and stated deadpan, “I hate the lot of ya.  You’re not real people.  I wouldn’t ever have a drink with any of ya.”

8) A woman clutched the Oscar statue, and quoted 37 Me Too platitudes, all without understanding the same statue is still held without shame by an acknowledged child girl rapist

9) George Lucas showed up, and tried to get everybody to shake his hand so it could be remembered that he is, in fact, still alive

10) Militant anti-film luddites stormed the stage wielding plastic bats and proclaimed a return to a “Heroic Book Future” before being subjected to tasers

Fin

live by the sword, and die by it

All the best battlefield commanders of our generation are in Africa. All the West’s haughty generals and admirals are only good for losing wars for the last 20 years while simultaneously running their hallowed institutions into the ground.

Perhaps the absolute best battlefield commander alive on the planet is Paul Kagame, Dictator & Overlord of Rwanda, Teddy Bear Darling of the International Development Community, If You Like Your Teddy Bear to be Really Stabby, Stranglee, and Shootee.

Another is Idriss Deby of Chad. Deby lasted over three decades and probably woke up every single one of those days wondering who was trying to kill him or who he was trying to kill. Photographs can tell quite the story. Just get a load of this photo, this was not a man you messed with:

Chad’s army on both paper and in photographs looks like a bunch of kook losers.

Don’t be fooled. Chad’s army is one of the most base lethal on the planet and it’s because of Deby and the fact he’s kept them at war for 30 years straight.

Well, now his luck has finally run out. Apparently Deby was killed on the very day of his sixth presidential “election” up in Chad’s north by the 427th round of rebellion against him. The details are very vague and strange and I’m super skeptical here. It just doesn’t make sense. Personally, I think somebody inside his own circle did him in, but I’m just straight guessing. If his battle death was legit, it would be super appropriate and a proper end to Deby’s life if he died on his 1,317th completely meaningless skirmish.

Now all the generals have rallied around Deby’s son, who is in his late 30’s and happens to be a four star general (I wonder why). I don’t know anything about this guy, he could be awesome on the battlefield too. But just look at this photo, I can’t make up my mind:

I can’t decide whether this photo is of a subdued, calm killing machine, or of a little man who will struggle all his life to replace his Father. It’s probably both.

Meanwhile, after three decades of Deby’s rule, Chad remains mostly destitute, with grinding, unspeakable poverty for at least 1/5 to 1/2 of the population. Granted, Chad is on the Sahel, and so not all of this was Deby’s fault. But after three decades in power anything that happens to your country is your fault.

Deby was a brilliant general, but a terrible president. Now, onto the son. It’s positively medieval.

soon, Mars will be your holiday destination

So the new Mars rover (there are so many now it’s hard to keep track of which is which) brought a helicopter with it. Or more accurately, a little drone that weighs four pounds and is probably so brittle your three year old could break it whilst holding a candy cane.

Mars’ atmosphere is so thin the two twin blade props on the thing had to spin at an insane rotation rate to attain the necessary lift. You can see the NASA video here:

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Succeeds in Historic First Flight | NASA

Pretty cool. That’s no kidding a human creation in flight on another planet.

Essentially this is a test bed for future airborne drones which could be used to explore Mars far more effectively than a ground based rover crawling around at 1.73 kph.

But I’m insane, so all of this is minor scraps for me. What I REALLY want to know is:

1) When will the NASA airborne drones be armed with guided missiles and chain guns?

2) In keeping with Humanity’s desire to destroy everything including ourselves, when will these armed drones be used to exterminate all remaining life on Mars?

3) After extinction, when will Mars be available as your pristine holiday destination?

These are important things to consider. Too harsh? Wrong. After all, Mars started it. We’ll make sure Earth finishes it.

quick boss changes are fun

I’m constantly amazed at how human organizations so easily decide to spike their own success. We do it to ourselves. It’s not like one of those science fiction episodes where the slug in the brain makes people do dumb things. In real life, the alien slugs would take a hard look at us, then set up shop in Bermuda and get wasted while we do their work for them.

My good boss has been in the job for three years. Now he’s leaving, and they’re replacing him within one week. Do you think one week is enough time for a solid turnover between bosses? Well, our executive leadership sure thinks so. Which is another mark against them for why I wouldn’t let them walk my dog for three seconds unsupervised.

The other thing is the new boss has zero experience doing this job. So we got that going for us too. It’ll be a long six months as we drag this poor bastard across the bureaucracy of our asinine cubicle hell work environment. We’re gonna have to hold this guy’s hand every step of the way.

Here are some examples:

1) Boss makes a statement, as fact, when in reality it is fiction because he hasn’t the background

2) Boss makes his escape and attends a meeting without the subject matter expert to keep him honest and unknowingly destroys project

3) Alien slug monster calls boss on phone to verify ineptness continues, when confirmed, slug hangs up phone and orders another martini

4) Boss gets angry and yells at and demeans fellow human being in frustration at inability to comprehend knowledge he does not possess

5) Boss attempts to make up for lack of experience by ingratiating himself with executive leadership, thus removing the blocking powers of prior good boss, and causing all the executive’s bad ideas to become our problem

6) Slug monster sends a false pretentious, patronizing thank you not to new boss with the name of an old friend, slug writes that new boss is the best, smartest person in the world, and needs essentially no advice to excel

7) New boss awkwardly attempts social contact at mandatory (and covid illegal) work greeting event by telling humorous (to him) stories from things he did 17 years ago

8) Boss asks question, we give answer, boss asks same question 11 days later

9) Old good boss asks us how we’re all doing when we run into him in the hallway, extremely awkward and inaccurate comments are uttered and old good boss feels bad

10) Alien slug monster wants to speed up the pace of disaster, tells us that we must give bad advice to the new boss and that if we don’t, slug monster will set off a fusion bomb underneath a city, when we discover that the bomb is in Brussels, we shrug and laugh at them

Nagasaki – reborn

In going through the few photos I have of Nagasaki, the other major bunch are of the hypocenter or peace park. That post will be a long one on history, with a lot of the photos from the park and my thoughts on the museum. However, today is just one shot. I came across this photo and I was shocked I had it. This is at the hypocenter. I had to go back and look it up, I was in Nagasaki in April of 2004. So this is Nagasaki in the Spring, 59 years after a nuclear weapon exploded right above this location. I’ll leave any conclusions and thoughts to you.

Nagasaki – Confucius Shrine

Not sure why I ended up at this Shrine, it’s not entirely popular but I’ve got pictures of it so I guess I went there for a reason. I guess?

Constructed in 1893 by Nagasaki’s Chinese residents the place has 72 statues of Confucius. It’s a reminder that Nagasaki was always the ancient gateway into Japan.

Note the differences in architecture from Japanese shrines from some of my previous posts.

disconnect everything you can

Recently, a town of 15K people near Tampa, Florida nearly had their entire water supply poisoned by a hacker. Somebody hacked the system and increased the lye content of the water to poison levels. Only the actions of a very alert employee (who should be the guest of honor at the next Super Bowl) saved 15K people from drinking poison.

Guess what, nobody cares. To me, this should be front page news for a week. To others, the Brittney Spears documentary and the Aunt Jemima rebrand are more important. These news articles go above the near poisoning of 15K Americans, which is off the front page after less than a day. So this is another reminder of how debased and useless the modern media is.

I can’t stress this enough, disconnect everything you can. I’m a former loser computer science major. I’ve never used computer science, but am still a loser. If you have four hours, give me a shout and I’ll explain to you in intricate detail just how unsecure the Internets is.

You cannot secure the Internets. At its most basic 0 and 1 level, it can’t ever be totally secure. This goes back to how the founders of the Internets designed the backstage to be totally open and freewheeling. When these dudes made the Internet’s core coding and theory, security wasn’t even on their top 100 concerns.

I was helping my Ma troubleshoot her fridge this weekend, spoiler alert, never buy an LG fridge. In the manual they have Wi-Fi instructions. Why does your fridge need to connect to the Internets? Soon your freaking pacemaker will be. What the fuck are people thinking? I think they don’t understand just how unsecure this all is. The “Internet-of-Things” is a fucking dystopian nightmare in waiting.

You need a phone and a computer to connect to the Internets. Oh, and a gaming console, if that’s your thing. Disconnect everything else. As the bumbled coronavirus response has shown, if you’re counting on the government to protect you, you have the wrong idea. You have to protect yourself.