The Indian paradox
conundrums & bargaining chips
Welcome to The Chief Brief. Every Sunday, I spotlight global, diverse, and innovative female leaders, and the news influencing them to change the world. The CB curates news from around the world, breaks down the story, and helps you connect with the women making news! It is my first step in a passion project to build a globally connected community of women leaders.
Let’s talk about
The great Indian paradox
When I wrote about my worry two Sundays ago that crowded unmasked election rallies, and the two million strong Kumbh Mela was going to lead to disaster in India, I had hoped to be proven wrong. But science rarely is. Even as we’re bombarded globally with desperate stories of sourcing oxygen, pictures and statistics of India’s dying, my family and friends are living the nightmare of India’s Covid cases reaching eyewatering, global records - 400,000 cases a day, and that’s the ones we know about. The idea sold by the country’s government that Indians were less susceptible to death by Covid, repeated ad nauseam in 2020 by friends has dissipated.
Almost half of India’s population is under the age of 19. The urban poor are mostly young and less obese, therefore with a lesser risk of severe Covid or death. We know last year’s wave mostly hit the urban poor (cases that we know about). They worked through the lockdown, unlike the more well heeled who could afford to isolate. The vulnerable elderly mostly seem to fall in the latter category. That meant those with the highest risk of dying made up very few of India’s cases. Reported positive cases seemed manageable, and death rates were low compared to the western hemisphere, which has a higher percentage of elderly people in its population.
Some studies exploring the paradox pointed to these demographics as an explanation of the disparity. Others pointed to the abundant Vitamin D in India’s climate, and immune systems accustomed to severe viruses. Thus was born the idea of an Indian paradox. That paradox allowed the Modi government to literally drop masks, conduct crowded rallies and festivals.
While many are contemplating the possible depletion of antibodies from the first wave as a cause, there are, and continue to be big gaps in India’s data. Asymptomatic young carriers, others with no access to testing, the many who attended rallies and festivals literally disappearing, and the underreporting of deaths. Death certificates seem rarely to carry the cause, and the diverging data from hospitals versus crematoriums and cemeteries are glaring. Data from rural areas, where the majority of India’s population lives was, and continues to be almost non-existent. People are just dying at home.
Most Indians also live in generational families. My own friends reverted to a relatively normal life after India’s 2020 lockdown. Flights were taken, family gatherings restarted, large weddings hosted, offices visited, and dinner parties were back. But many also spoke worryingly about crowded festivals and rallies, social distancing being forgotten, and people no longer wearing masks. When March 2021 rolled around, unsurprisingly reported cases surged. These younger family members had brought the virus into their homes, where the most vulnerable lived.
But even now, as we see pictures of the Indian skies darkening with smoke from funeral pyres, the positive case to death ratio still seems very skewed (see the graphic above). Are demographics still at play? Is incomplete data a factor? Does there really exist a paradox in India? Are mortality rates going to catch up to cases? Did the government ignore scientific calls? India’s scientists are now appealing to the government to release all the data they may have, which hasn’t been shared openly before. For them it’s the only way to create a roadmap to end this tragedy.
What’s different this time?
In this wave worryingly, the mutated virus seems to be making younger patients seriously ill. It’s also made its way into more affluent homes, where the elderly live. But the humanitarian crisis in India is still less about the virus. Most families are seeing their loved ones die, not because of the severity of Covid cases but a healthcare system that has been decimated and flattened. There are no hospital beds or oxygen. This despite warnings of shortages from the Prime Minister’s own Covid response team, and leading healthcare providers as far back as April 2020. Today, while the government continues to allow elections, the lack of heeding of that warning, and of any buildup of medical infrastructure needed to save lives, is glaring.
As I write this, my 71 year old mother has put herself in self-imposed isolation, and my young niece and nephew have isolated themselves to help care for her, and their other grandparents. Since the government isn’t imposing a lockdown, self imposed closures have meant the businesses of my sister and friends are on pause. My WhatsApp has blown up with group texts from around the country sharing oxygen, blood and hospital bed availability, as has my Instagram. Even friends with significant monetary resources or any “influence” in the healthcare sector say, they can’t access medical care for loved ones. And what about vaccines? I’ve been told quite frankly, forget about that now! There are none available.
India is today the story of a devoted son, or daughter fighting for their parents’ lives. Of a loving spouse, caring grandchildren, and brave grandparents. It is a story of corporates setting up private Covid treatment facilities in their own offices. It is now a battle to survive. ‘Atma Nirbhar’ (Self Reliance) is what India’s Prime Minister asked of his people. He seems to have meant it, even in life or death situations.
If you’d like to help
If you’d prefer to help those making a real impact on the ground - these organisations have been vetted by the Alumni Association of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), India’s top management school. You can find the list of organisations they are supporting here.
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Yolisa Phahle is CEO of General Entertainment for MultiChoice Group Africa. She oversees the channel acquisition, channel production, sales and distribution, and local production for the group. A successful British-South African musician, she switched to a management role by moving to South Africa in 2005, and taking on M-Net’s Channel 0. She successfully turned it into Africa’s leading music channel, before moving to her role at MultiChoice.
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Almost time to soak in some culture!
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Sunday Long Read
Robots are animals, not humans
Humans are strange. Despite working with animals for a millennia, we seem obsessed with comparing robots to ourselves. With Artificial Intelligence (AI) being developed at lightening speed, it is important to put it into perspective. Research specialist at MIT Media Lab and the author of ‘The New Breed’ Kate Darling argues, robots in our society, are more animal than human. Read her fantastically thought out explanation here.