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Yesterday, the death toll in China due to the novel coronavirus reached 811, surpassing the number of people that had died during the SARS epidemic. In the first segment, Sowmiya Ashok talks about what China and Kerala are doing to stop it from spreading and what we have learnt about the virus so far. Next, Seema Chishti talks about the concerns that the Genome India Project raises, an ambitious Rs 238 crore gene-mapping project that was recently cleared by the government (11:15). And last, Tabassum Barnagarwala talks about the 23 year old poet who was taken to the police station by his Uber driver for talking to his friend about the anti-CAA protests (17:18).
Hi, I’m Shashank Bhargava, and you’re listening to 3 Things, The Indian Express news show.
In this episode, we will talk about the government clearing an ambitious gene mapping project and the concerns that it raises. We will also talk about a 23 year old poet who ended up being interrogated by the police because he was talking to his friend on the phone about the anti-CAA protests.
But first we talked about the Coronavirus.
Yesterday, the death toll in China due to the novel Coronavirus reached 811, surpassing the number of people that had died during the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003. Overall, the Coronavirus has affected more than 37,000 people so far. In India, after 3 people were tested positive for it in Kerala, the state has been taking various measures in order to stop it from spreading. In this segment, Sowmiya Ashok, who has been reporting on the story, joins us to talk about how Kerala and China are tackling the virus and what we have learned about it so far.
Sowmiya, could you first talk about the Kerala government and its attempt to control the spread of the virus in the state. And how are those three persons that have tested positive for the virus been treated?
So the way the Kerala government is approaching this is actually having prepared for it much before it even hit them. So that is, you could say, the beauty of the way the health machinery there functions. That they were alerted based on the situation in China. By January 17, they started to get their infrastructure in place, which was sort of easy also to do because they had been through something quite significant a couple of years ago through the Nipah virus. So, the entire machinery was focused on trying to put together different strata. So you can easily control what is about to hit them, because they knew that there are a lot of students from Kerala studying in Wuhan. They were bound to come back home and you needed the state to prepare for such a, I suppose, the reality of this.
So at this point, we have three positive cases in Kerala but at all of them have been quarantined and under observation and stable. So there’s no worries about the health of the three students. But what the Kerala government has done, is go back and actually do, so they sat and interviewed all of these candidates, these patients. They actually spoke to them about how did they travel to India? What was the route they took? How many people did they, you know, come in contact with? And they’ve actually managed to trace back most of the patients, almost all of the patients who are contact patients. So they’ve also put down like, throughout this last few weeks, they have done training for all of their medical officers. They’ve put down teams at every district. So even though the Niaph only affected two districts, this has actually affected more than that. And they’re not taking any risks. They’ve sort of rolled it out throughout the state. So that’s really where we are at where you’ve got a health ministry in Kerala who has managed to, I suppose, put down the foundation for what could be a pretty critical situation. So at this stage, they went from declaring it as a state emergency to then rolling it back because they feel like they have it under control and that says a lot.
Okay, now if we were to talk about China, there are more than 34,000 people have been infected, at least 723 people have died. What are the measures that they are taking and what is the situation in the Hubei province, which of course, is under a lock down right now.
So actually for China, February 10, Monday, that is tomorrow, would be a very important day for them because across the country, the Chinese New Year holiday, the Spring Festival holiday is actually been extended, Feb 10th is when everybody’s meant to come back to work. So it would be interesting to see what happens from this week onwards because what we’ve seen so far has been an effective lockdown, a quarantine, a restriction on movement in many parts of the country and specifically in Hubei. Now Hubei who has almost, like, 59 million people in the entire province. And late on the 24th of January and early 25th January, the local authorities and many parts of Hubei province decided to clamp down on any day. They basically said people cannot go out, this is a full blown, like, outbreak now. Everyone stays home, wash their hands. If you step out, you have to wear a mask or you get fined or told off. You have to like follow instructions. Every family member can’t just walk out to buy groceries, there will be a system in place. So the way Hubei has been operating as if effectively under lockdown for more than a fortnight now. And in many ways one would say like, you know, you would have read also about sacrificing a whole province to basically deal with the outbreak. Like how do we figure this out? How do we stop this from spreading. But the real challenge is this coming week when workforces and people start going back to their work units, wherever that is in the country. And apart from Hubei, you would see that the surrounding provinces, whether you’re right next door to who they are, whether you are still 800 kilometres away, there are certain governments that have started to put restrictions on movements. In the last week itself, we saw four more cities in Zhejiang province, which is about 800 kilometres away from Hubei.
So, it’s been in fits and spurts I suppose, like, people are taking measures or someone has gotten sick in the neighbourhood or there is a person would come from Wuhan, so like immediately there has been an immediate intervention on what you can and cannot do. And not just I think the interventions are also different based on whether you’re in the city and in the village, because a city going a person dwelling in like urban areas also tends to check the news a lot more. And also, because of it, there’s a lot more panic in some ways. And there’s a lot more of checking of temperatures wherever you go. So if you are roaming around even in Beijing, for instance, if you need to go to the supermarket, you will get checked. As you leave your apartment you get checked as you enter the supermarket and then on your way back as well like this is happening in many parts of the country. But the other side to it is the rural areas in smaller towns where maybe people are not actually reading the news being on social media all the time. So, one of the interventions is that you’ve got teams going to these places with loud speakers and gongs, like olden days where you would disseminate information to people, so similar thing of like stay home and like wash your hands and wear a mask. So, at this stage, like, from what I’ve understood and spoken to people last week and even some of my friends in Beijing, it sounds like everything is still quiet till February 10 when the real, perhaps, the real challenge will begin for China.
You mentioned, you know, the whole angle of China sacrificing one province for the larger good. What has been the reactions of some of the people, like, there like, because I mean sure, one of the things about the lockdown is you’re trying to not let the virus spread. But that also means that people in the region who are not infected, they get potentially more susceptible to the virus. Right? So with those restrictions, have you seen any kind of backlash about this move, about the lockdown?
Um, definitely, there is a lot of panic. You could say that you’re not very sure when this is all going to end. So, there is no, it doesn’t seem like there is an end to this at this stage right. Like if you’re in your house, waiting for something, there doesn’t seem to be a clear path, like, this is when this is going to end. So when it comes to backlash, there have been people trying to get out of the province even before it was you know, the days it would have was about to be locked down. There have been attempts after that even by, like, foreign nationals to get out and it’s incredibly difficult because all of the transportation has stopped. So, with the whole way the province is been cut off at the moment, it will remain like this.
There doesn’t seem to be any announcements about people from Wuhan and larger Hubei area leaving to go back to work, because, I think, they are the most affected at this point. So, you are looking at weeks ahead where they might not be a real answer to this, when is going to end. And the person I had interviewed from this very small town in northwestern Hubei, she’s actually a student in Beijing, she happened to go home for Chinese New York and then just got stuck and couldn’t get out. She continues to be there. It’s a different matter that her University has an open back in Beijing. So it’s not like she needs to get back to classes. But on Saturday, she sent me a message on WeChat saying, two people in her neighbourhood have been infected and the ambulance came to like, take them away. So I think people are also getting information in like, small doses here and there. And it’s definitely affecting communities which have no way out at this point.
Since the time the virus was discovered what all have we learned about it? We of course call it, the novel coronavirus, because it’s new, we haven’t dealt with it before.
So, there’s always a comparison made with SARS, because that was also something that affected China. And, when you look at Wuhan and Hubei, it seems like there are a lot more cases obviously, but the mortality rate outside the province is actually very small. So today, I was reading a piece by an expert who said something like the mortality rate outside is just 0.2%, and common like flu, like an influenza would be about a 0.1% mortality rate. So, it doesn’t seem that much of a scare, I suppose, or like a danger to life. But, recently also Shanghai health authorities had put out a study or a report that said that the way this is spreading is to aerosols. So what that means is, if I am an infected person, it doesn’t mean that so if I sneeze, the infection goes into the air, and I can leave the area, the infection will still remain in the air, which makes it much more complicated than before where you be assumed that the infected person has to be in your vicinity.
So considering that information, how concerned Do you think people should be in India?
With India, it’s all, it’s definitely like, I feel like we have it under control at this stage. And also people who have come back are under quarantine. So I don’t think we should worry too much. There’s been an attempt to trace everyone who came back just before the lockdown and the people who are brought back on the two flights are also in isolation camps at this point. So I don’t think we need to massively worry. But of course, it’s always good to like take precautions, and I suppose wash your hands regularly and like if you can wear a mask, but I don’t think there’s any major, like, message sent out from our government at this point saying you’ve got to do this or that. So, I think it’s not a worrying situation at this point. Also because it seems like the biggest chunk are from Kerala and Kerala definitely sounds like they’ve got things under control.
Next, we talk about gene mapping. The government has recently cleared a gene mapping project that has been described by those involved in it, as the first scratching of the surface of the vast genetic diversity of India. The project called the Genome India Project is estimated to be worth rupees 238 Crore, and it’s supposed to be the most significant of its kind in the world because of its scale and the diversity it would bring to genetic studies.
Now, just to quickly refresh our eighth grade science lesson. In humans, each cell consists of 23 pairs of chromosomes and chromosomes at thread like structures made of nucleic acids and protein that carry genetic information in the form of genes. There are estimated to be over 20,500 human genes. And gene mapping simply means finding out the location of these genes in a chromosome. In the past, this has enabled scientists to gather evidence if a disease transmitted from the parent to the child is linked to one or more genes. But gene mapping has been a controversial area of study as well. Seema Chisthi, who broke the story about the Genome India Project, joins us to talk about it and the concerns that are associated with it.
Seema, what do we know about the Genome India Project? What exactly is the idea behind it?
Well, the Genome India Project is something that has the blessings of the Government of India. So the Government of India will be leading the charge as it were, the Department of Biotechnology to be precise, but it’s going to be coordinated by the Centre for Brain Research, which is an autonomous Research Centre, located at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. So it is a project that hopes to form a grid and look for the representative Indian Genome. While we’ve all heard about gene projects or genetic information related projects in the West, particularly, this is the first time that attempts are being made to collect 10,000 samples from across the country and arrive at a catalogue, a grid, enabling you to classify and to arrive at what could be ways of preventing disease situations. So, the minute you know that, for example, if people in the northeast have a proclivity or a tendency to get, say, bone diseases, so we don’t know why, but we know that as a case, we can flag it earlier and public health can step in to help certain groups with certain traits in advance. So, this has been touted as the first step towards personalised healthcare.
Could you also talk a bit about the learnings that have come out from previous gene mapping projects.
Gene mapping in the past has been a controversial area. It’s been a busy area of late and particularly after the discovery in the 50s of the double helix and the Crick Watson, a very famous, a model of it is still in Cambridge University. You know, genetics has been talked about even before the DNA was discovered. And it often had social connotations, which are not very brilliant. And you have things in World War Two, the whole Nazi eugenics project, for instance, talking about selective breeding, or looking at what is only hereditary or inherited has always been contentious. But medicine, and particularly the recent developments in terms of biological discoveries, along with technological inventions and computational successes, have meant that there’s been very growing, rapid interest in even some gene editing tools, which have been put in practice. There was in fact, the malpractice in China when a doctor was arrested. He’s behind bars currently, so actually he has produced a set of twins who he said we’re now you know, saved from certain diseases, and he used CRISPR, which is a gene editing tool on them. So there’s been much talk of this and various kinds of experiments on human beings have also been talked about. But the project, we’re talking about talks, only terms of cataloguing and understanding the data on this, or this gene editing, etc, is, of course, or treatments, are of course, interventions, which is a completely different ballgame.
Since this news broke out, what are the kind of concerns that we have seen people raised about this specific project, you know, when it comes to privacy when it comes to implications that you talked about, that have previously been associated with Gene mapping?
So the first level of implications that I spoke to you about, is about accepting that some things are hereditary, so the whole idea of racially different people, etc in a country like India, where politics to a large extent is now increasingly being spoken of the indigenous people, the foreigner, etc. This could have implications about who is an Indian or what is an Indian, who’s an indigenous inhabitant. That’s one level of problems, social, political, which could have implications. At the other is of course also medicinal, which I hinted at. That once you know stuff, to what extent do you intervene? What is the level of information and knowledge you have about what is existing and how much you want to change it. So there is that medical thing. But of course, with data privacy, it’s huge. India still has not kind of passed this data privacy legislation Where all the data of the 10,000 samples taken will be stored? Will it be anonymized? On what basis are you picking these people as samples? Will it be saved in a cloud computer? Will it be done elsewhere? So there are a whole range of issues that they will have to deal with, once this genome India project is operationalize or is started.
Have you tried to reach to people who are involved in the project and raise the concerns with them? Did they have anything to say about it?
I’m in the process of kind of studying this deeper and trying to understand exactly what the government of India is doing and so far it is purely medical. And yes, I am speaking to scientists and other people associated with this who are directly associated and others will know about it. And there are concerns, no doubt, but I think it will be first important to understand exactly what the scope of this project is and how it’s being presented. There are 20 Indian institutions involved in this which includes IISc and the Centre for brain research. So variety of IITs are connected with this and will be helping.
And last we talked about an incident that took place in Mumbai last week. A 23 year old poet from Jaipur, Bappaditya Sarkar, had taken an Uber ride in the city. During the ride, he’d been on the phone talking to his friend about the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. And before he knew it, he found himself in a police station with the cops interrogating him about it. He later posted about this incident online and the story went viral. Tabassum Barnagarwala, who reported on the story, joins us on a call to talk about the incident.
Bappaditya Sarkar was travelling from Juhu Silva beach to Kurla. The time was between 10:45 to 11 o’clock when he booked the cab and he got into it. He was constantly on a phone call with a friend from Jaipur, so, the Uber driver Rohit Singh came, Bappaditya Sarkar sat inside the car and then the conversation basically with his friend on the phone was realing around the Shaheen Bagh protests, the Mumbai Bagh protests, what Laal Salaam means. That, you know, how these protests could sort of be made better in terms of sloganeering or in terms of attracting more crowd. This person, the driver was listening to the entire conversation.
He claims that somewhere in between he started recording the conversation that Bappaditya was having with his friend. He claims that Bappaditya said that “poore desh ko jala denge” and that he’s a communist. Now these are themes that Sarkar has refuted. Sarkar did not know that the Uber driver was recording him. He continued to have this conversation. 20-22 minutes into the drive, the driver stopped the car. He asked whether he could go withdraw some money. Now Sarkar is not from Mumbai so he didn’t know whether driver had stopped the car. It was actually Santa Cruz police station.
The driver went inside, he informed two constables that there is a guy who’s having a conversation on phone in, you know, he feels that there’s an anti national conversations happening. So the constables come out, they asked Bappaditya Sarkar to get out of the car, and that is when he realises that this is actually Santa Cruz police station. This was around 11-11:30, and for the next two and a half hours they questioned him on various issues. On the books he reads, the poems that he writes, what he thinks about communism, which countries practice it, how much does his father or everything possible that they could sort of get out of him they started digging.
And after two and a half hours, they did realise that there was nothing anti national, he’s just a 23 year old artist and a poet, and he’d come to Mumbai to perform in Kala Ghoda Festival, so they did not even file an F IR or register a non-cognizable report and they let both of them leave. He later share this experience with some of his friends and that is when this whole thing went viral. We also spoke with the driver Rohit Singh and he claims that he recorded a seven to eight minute conversation, which is handed over to the police. He actually said that he wished Sarkar was behind bars, for his anti-national comments. And he doesn’t regret reporting him to the police. Uber has meanwhile, sort of started an inquiry. They’ve suspended the drivers account until the inquiry gets over. I think, which takes 48 to 72 hours for the inquiry to get over.
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