Leaks and deluges

What connects South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh? All these regions were, at some point of time or the other, hailed for their deft handling of the covid-19 crisis.

Some of them, such as Vietnam and Singapore have continued to do well. New Zealand has also done rather well, and it continues to keep its border closed. However, shit has hit the fan in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in terms of number of cases. All the diligence in containment earlier seems to be of no use now, only delaying the inevitable.

So what happened?

Essentially the way you deal with a leak and the way you do with a deluge are vastly different.

When you have a leak, you know that there is a good chance that you can try to stem it. You first put in some temporary measure to slow it down so that the hole doesn’t become bigger, and then you find something – a rubber patch, or some M-seal, or a piece of string, or some plaster (or a combination of these) to plug the leak.

Once the leak has been plugged you are safe. There are no more leaks in the foreseeable future. The damage is likely to have been limited.

When the flow of water from the damaged source is too heavy, though, stemming leaks just doesn’t work. You can try to stem it, but the pressure is so intense that the water finds its way around it. And the more the effort you put in stemming, the more the likelihood that when the water breaks through it is going to damage you.

When you are dealing with a deluge, the optimal strategy is to not try and stop the deluge. That is usually futile. The focus needs to be on mitigation and management – take the deluge as a given, and that some damage is guaranteed, and try to figure out how best you are going to limit the damage to the extent possible.

Some states in India, such as Karnataka or Kerala or Andhra Pradesh, had been blessed with “thin inlet pipes” in terms of the covid-19 virus. The initial case loads in these states was low, so a strategy of a lockdown (which was national anyways) combined with strong contact tracing and testing kept the disease under wraps. The “models” of these states were lauded at one time or another.

And then inter-state borders opened up. As people streamed in from neighbouring states that had not been blessed by thin inlet pipes, the pipes into these hitherto thick states became thick. Not realising this happened, these states continued with their old “trace and test” strategy. It doesn’t seem to be helping.

Cases are exploding in these states. And the same old strategy is being persisted with. Bangalore even did a week-long lockdown that ended on Tuesday, putting many livelihoods at risk.

I have come to firmly believe that there are no “good strategies” in terms of combating the disease unless strict border controls can be maintained. Anything any government does in terms of tracing and testing and locking down will only slow the inevitable – it doesn’t make the place safe from the disease itself.

The only purpose of containment measures, I have come to believe, is to spread out the severe cases over time, so that hospitals are not overwhelmed, and those who can be helped by medical care can get that help.

In fact, if you remember, this was the original meaning of “flattening the curve”. Over time, people have come up with their own definitions of the phrase, looking at the number of new cases, number of cases, number of deaths and what not.

The original purpose of lockdown was to let the infection spread in a controlled manner, not to prevent the spread of the disease altogether (which is near-impossible). We would do well to remember that.

Coming back to life

On Sunday, I met a friend for coffee. In normal times that would be nothing extraordinary. What made this extraordinary was that this was the first time since the lockdown started that I was actually meeting a non-family member casually, for a long in-person conversation.

I’m so tired of the three pairs of shorts and five T-shirts that I’ve been wearing every day since the lockdown started that I actually decided to dress up that day. And bothered to take a photo at a signal on the way to meeting him.

We met at a coffee shop in Koramangala, from where we took away coffees and walked around the area for nearly an hour, talking. No handshakes. No other touches. Masks on for most of the time. And outdoors (I’m glad I live in Bangalore whose weather allows you to be outdoors most of the year). Only issue was that wearing a mask and walking and talking for an hour can tire you out a bit.

The next bit of resurrection happened yesterday when I had an in-person business meeting for the first time in three months. Parking the car near these people’s office was easier than usual (less business activity I guess?), though later I found that my windshield was full of bird shit (I had parked under a tree).

For the first time ever while going into this office, I got accosted by a security guard at the entrance, asking where I was headed, taking my temperature and offering me hand sanitiser. Being a first time, I was paranoid enough to use the umbrella I was carrying to operate the lift buttons, and my mask was always on.

There were no handshakes. The room was a bit stuffy and I wasn’t sure if they were using the AC, so I asked for the windows to be opened (later they turned on the AC saying it’s standard practice there nowadays). Again, no handshakes or anything. We kept our masks on for a long time. They offered water in a bottle which I didn’t touch for a long time.

Until one of them suggested we could order in dosas from a rather famous restaurant close to their office (and one that I absolutely love). The dosas presently arrived, and then all masks were off. For the next half hour as the dosas went down it was like we were back in “normal times” again, eating together and talking loudly without masks. I must say I missed it.

I took the stairs down to avoid touching the lift. Walked back to the car (and birdshit-laden windshield) and quickly used hand sanitiser. I hadn’t carried my laptop or notebook for the meeting, and I quickly made notes using the voice notes app of my phone.

Yes, in normal times, a lot of this might appear mundane. But given that we’re now sort of “coming back to life” after a long and brutal lockdown, a lot of this deserves documentation.

Oh, and I’m super happy to meet people now. Given a choice, I prefer outdoors. Write in if you want to meet me.

covid-19 and mental health

I don’t know about you but the covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdown have had a massive (negative) impact on my mental health. And from the small number of people I’ve spoken to about this, I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Before I continue I must mention that in the past I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety and depression, though I haven’t been under medication for any of them for a long time now.

For starters, there’s the anxiety related to the disease itself. Every three or four days I suffer from what I’ve now come to dub “psychological corona”. Most of the times this is triggered by an allergy I get (I’m allergic to pollen from the tree in front of my house, a fact I conveniently forgot until I had bought this house). I start sneezing and coughing, and start imagining the worst.

One time, though, this “psychological corona” was legit thanks to my own stupidity. I had accepted a sample that a nearby baker had offered me, taking off my mask to eat it, and then remembered that he had been coughing before I entered the shop. And then panicked. I had thought later that I should write a blogpost on “the importance of keeping a consistent risk level” but then forgot.

The next level of anxiety is work-related. I’m lucky enough that I had a medium-term ongoing project at the time the lockdown started. This anxiety is regarding whether these clients will continue to pay, and if so, for how long. I don’t think I want to comment much on this issue (beyond bringing this up).

What I have mentioned so far is possibly what everyone has been going through. And then there is the “next layer”.

I have a 3 3/4 year old at home, and her school has been shut for over three months now. We don’t employ any help to take care of her (in other words, we use her school as our “child care”), and in normal times, we had worked out a method where we could get work done while still hanging out with her adequately.

Now, with the lockdown, this is doubly hard. We have settled on a method where the wife and I work in alternating 90 minute bands, with the person who “isn’t working” in that time band hanging out outside the study with the child. One of the responsibilities of the “person outside” is to ensure that the child doesn’t knock on the door.

This worked fine for me as long as I mostly had “fighter work” to do, as I could switch on and off at will as I entered and exited the room (though sometimes I found it harder to switch off when exiting). For the last month or so, my work has been more stud than fighter, and this band-based system has been a disaster. Most times, by the time I get into the zone, my slot is over.

And not getting work done in my slot is the least of my problems. The thing is that I’m “always working”, either trying to work on my work, or parenting (school meant that the total hours of work were far fewer). And it can be tiring. And from the point of view of my ADHD (I can easily get distracted and lose my train of thought), getting constant outside stimulus (even if it’s from close family) can be extremely draining.

What makes the problem really bad is that most outlets that help me normally deal with life are now absent. All sport has been shut, though nowadays football has been trickling back to life (yes, next Sunday I’m staying up late to watch Everton-Liverpool).

Getting regular exercise has been a part of my usual protocol of managing my mental health and it doesn’t help that gyms are closed (my gym wants to open, the state government wnats to open gyms, but the union government isn’t giving permission).

Children under 10 aren’t allowed to go out here “except for essential purposes” (I don’t understand the reason behind this, since the pandemic hasn’t really been affecting children). This means we can’t go out as a family. My wife and I can’t go to a shop together. I can’t take my daughter to a park (which is a big way in which I’ve bonded with her over the years).

The list is not complete but I’ll stop here since this is turning into a long rant. I’m pretty sure you have your own list of how the pandemic has hurt your mental health. And the lockdown isn’t helping one big on this.

Oh, and if there are therapists you recommend, please recommend.

Zoom in, zoom out

It was early on in the lockdown that the daughter participated in her first ever Zoom videoconference. It was an extended family call, with some 25 people across 9 or 10 households.

It was chaotic, to say the least. Family call meant there was no “moderation” of the sort you see in work calls (“mute yourself unless you’re speaking”, etc.). Each location had an entire family, so apart from talking on the call (which was chaotic with so many people anyways), people started talking among themselves. And that made it all the more chaotic.

Soon the daughter was shouting that it was getting too loud, and turned my computer volume down to the minimum (she’s figured out most of my computer controls in the last 2 months). After that, she lost interest and ran away.

A couple of weeks later, the wife was on a zoom call with a big group of her friends, and asked the daughter if she wanted to join. “I hate zoom, it’s too loud”, the daughter exclaimed and ran away.

Since then she has taken part in a couple of zoom calls, organised by her school. She sat with me once when I chatted with a (not very large) group of school friends. But I don’t think she particularly enjoys Zoom, or large video calls. And you need to remember that she is a “video call native“.

The early days of the lockdown were ripe times for people to turn into gurus, and make predictions with the hope that nobody would ever remember them in case they didn’t come through (I indulged in some of this as well). One that made the rounds was that group video calling would become much more popular and even replace group meetings (especially in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic).

I’m not so sure. While the rise of video calling has indeed given me an excuse to catch up “visually” with friends I haven’t seen in ages, I don’t see that much value from group video calls, after having participated in a few. The main problem is that there can, at a time, be only one channel of communication.

A few years back I’d written about the “anti two pizza rule” for organising parties, where I said that if you have a party, you should either have five or fewer guests, or ten or more (or something of the sort). The idea was that five or fewer can indeed have one coherent conversation without anyone being left out. Ten or more means the group naturally splits into multiple smaller groups, with each smaller group able to have conversations that add value to them.

In between (6-9 people) means it gets awkward – the group is too small to split, and too large to have one coherent conversation, and that makes for a bad party.

Now take that online. Because we have only one audio channel, there can only be one conversation for the entire group. This means that for a group of 10 or above, any “cross talk” needs to be necessarily broadcast, and that interferes with the main conversation of the group. So however large the group size of the online conversation, you can’t split the group. And the anti two pizza rule becomes “anti greater than or equal to two pizza rule”.

In other words, for an effective online conversation, you need to have four (or at max five) participants. Else you can risk the group getting unwieldy, some participants feeling left out or bored, or so much cross talk that nobody gets anything out of it.

So Zoom (or any other video chat app) is not going to replace any of our regular in-person communication media. It might to a small extent in the immediate wake of the pandemic, when people are afraid to meet large groups, but it will die out after that. OK, that is one more prediction from my side.

In related news, I swore off lecturing in Webinars some five years ago. Found it really stressful to lecture without the ability to look into the eyes of the “students”. I wonder if teachers worldwide who are being forced to lecture online because of the shut schools feel the way I do.

A trip to the supermarket

Normally even I wouldn’t write about a trip to a supermarket, but these aren’t normal times. With the shutdown scheduled to go on for another two weeks, and with some “essential commodities” emptying, I decided to go stock up.

I might just have postponed my trip by a few more days, but then I saw tweets by the top cop of Bangalore saying they’re starting to seize personal vehicles out on the road during the lockdown. I needed to get some heavy stuff (rice, lentils, oils, etc.) so decided to brave it with the car.

Having taken stock of inventory and made a longlist of things we need, I drove out using “back roads” to the very nearby Simpli Namdhari store. While I expected lines at the large-format store, I expected that it would be compensated for by the variety of stuff I could find there.

I got there at 230 only to be told the store was “closed for lunch” and it would reopen at 3. “All counters are open”, the security guard told me. I saw inside that the store was being cleaned. Since it’s a 3 minute drive away, I headed back home and reached there at 3:15.

There was a small line (10-15 people long) when I got there. I must mention I was super impressed by the store at the outset. Lines had been drawn outside to ensure queueing at a safe distance. Deeper in the queue, chairs had been placed (again at a safe distance from each other) to queue in comfort. They were letting in people about 10 at a time, waiting for an equal number to exit the store each time.

It was around 335 by the time I got in (20 minute wait). From the entrance most shelves seemed full.

The thing with Namdhari’s is that they control the supplies of a large number of things they sell (fruits, vegetables, dairy, bread, etc.), and all of them were well stocked. In times like this (I can’t believe I’m using this phrase!), some sort of vertical integration helps, since you can produce the stuff because you know the downstream demand.

(in any case, for things like vegetables and milk, where there is a large gap between “sowing” and “reaping”, production hasn’t fallen at all. It’s a massive supply chain problem and plenty of stuff is getting wasted while people don’t have enough. Stuff like bread is where vertical integration helps)

In any case I took two trips round the supermarket with my trolley, checking items off my checklist as I put items into the trolley (unusual times mean even disorganised people like me make checklists). Again the vertical integration showed.

Stuff that Namdhari’s owns upstream of, like staples and oils, were well stocked. High demand stuff for which Namdhari’s is only a reseller, like Maggi or crisps or biscuits were poorly stocked. Interestingly, “exotic stuff” (like peanut butter or cheeses, around which Namdhari’s has partly built its reputation) was reasonably well stocked, for which I was really thankful (we consume far more of these than the average Indian household).

How much to buy was a dilemma I had in my head through the shopping trip. For one, there was the instinct to hoard, since I was clear I didn’t want another shopping trip like this until the shutdown ends (milk, vegetables and eggs are reasonably easily available close to home, but I wasn’t there for that).

On the other hand, I was “mindful” of “fair usage policy”, to not take more than what I needed, since you didn’t want stockouts if you could help it.

The other thing that shortages do to you is that you buy stuff you don’t normally buy. Like the other day at another shop I’d bought rice bran oil because groundnut oil wasn’t available. While you might buy something as “backup”, you are cognisant that if you get through the lockdown without needing this backup, this backup will never get used.

So even though we’re running short of sambar powder, I ignored it since the only sambar powder on offer looked pretty sad. On the other hand, I bought Haldiram’s Mixture since no “local mixtures” are available nowadays, and mixture is something I love having with my curd rice.

I was a little more “liberal” with stuff that I know won’t go bad such as dry fruits or staples, but then again that’s standard inventory management – you are willing to hold higher inventories of ┬áitems with longer shelf life.

I might have taken a bit longer there to make sure I’d got everything on my list, but then my “mask” made out of a hanky and two rubberbands had started to hurt. So, with half my list unfulfilled, I left.

Even at the checkout line, people stood a metre away from each other. You had to bag your own groceries, which isn’t a standard thing in India, but enforced now since you don’t want too many hands touching your stuff.

Oh, and plenty of people had come by car to the store. There were cops around, but they didn’t bother anyone.