The Virus Is Hitting Women in Academia Harder

In the first lesson that Italian social demographer Alessandra Minello recorded for her class at the University of Florence during the lockdown, her 2-year-old son can be heard playing his trumpet in the background. Minello quickly realized that “night and dawn — when he’s asleep — are my only options for recording.”

That leaves her no time to work on the academic research she wants to get published. So when a male colleague told her that the lockdown was giving him more time to focus on his writing, she wanted to scream, Minello wrote in Nature in April.

She’s not alone. 

Around the world, academia has long been weighted in favor of men. Now, the pandemic is threatening to widen the gender divide even further. Between March 11 and April 20, the Journal of the European Economic Association found that:

The number of research papers submitted to it by female authors dropped from 11 percent in 2019 to 4 percent, while male-authored submissions rose from 58 percent to 66 percent.

That may be the most comprehensive evidence, but there is other data that also indicates this pattern — on both sides of the pond. In the United States, the American Journal of Political Science saw a drop in the contribution of submissions written by women from 22 percent to 17 percent between March 15 and April 19. “As a percentage change, that’s substantial,” the editors wrote last month. The journal Comparative Political Studies saw a 50 percent increase in submissions by men during this period, while the numbers for women remained stagnant.

The reasons why female academics are more affected than their male counterparts — even when both are forced to stay at home — are clear, says Jenna Stearns, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Davis. “The pandemic has made families stay at home — without an additional support system. Women generally have more family responsibilities than men — and child care forms a big part of that responsibility,” she says. “So of course, there’s hardly any time to concentrate on academic work.”

This is compounding the stark disadvantages that women in academia already face. Recent research by Stanford University shows that, on average, male faculty are four times more likely than female faculty to have a stay-at-home partner. Women in academia with children spend considerably more time engaging in caregiving activities compared with their male counterparts (35 versus 20 hours per week). Most editors of peer-reviewed journals are men, points out Aniruddha Ghosh, a doctoral candidate in economics at Johns Hopkins University who has previously researched gender pay disparities in academia. Between 1991 and 2010, only 4 percent of editors at the top five economics journals were women, says economist Olga Shurchkov, director of the Knapp Social Science Center at Wellesley College.

The consequences of that divide increasing could play out in the coming months and years — even after the pandemic has passed — as female researchers fall behind men in the number of papers published, thus hurting their prospects of tenure-track positions and promotions. And the impact of gender inequality in research and academics extends to what is taught in the classroom and what research questions are asked, Shurchkov wrote in a recent blog post on Medium.

To quantify the coming crisis, Stearns and Shurchkov are teaming up with Tatyana Deryugina, an assistant professor of finance at Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They’ve scanned 10,000 research papers published from 2018 to April 2020, across major economics-focused journals, and found that submissions by female authors dropped more than 3 percentage points in March 2020, and by 5 more percentage points in April. Because women represent only about a quarter of published authors to start with, this drop actually represents a fall of more than 12 percent for March, and 20 percent for April. And because there’s a lag between when an author works on a paper and when it’s published, “the adverse productivity effects may be even larger in May,” Shurchkov explains.

She points out that because researchers are less likely than other professionals to have lost jobs due to the pandemic, the numbers pointing to lower productivity among female academics is not confounded by changing employment patterns.

Stearns and Shurchkov both emphasize that female researchers have diverse experiences. Some, especially those with older children, have been less constrained by the lockdowns. In families where male partners are primary or equal caregivers, men have faced similar productivity challenges. Minello cites the example of a male economist colleague who take cares of two children — 18 months and 5 years old — while his pediatrician spouse continues to work. The impact on female academics may also vary from country to country, depending on cultural expectations of women.

For now, Stearns, Shurchkov and Deryugina are compiling a more thorough survey for female researchers to understand the problems faced by them during the coronavirus crisis.

It’s critical, the three women emphasize, that policies for a post-pandemic world are designed to avoid exacerbating gender inequality. But Stearns worries that’s going to be even harder if women produce less academic work than usual during the crisis. “The papers we publish lead to broader policy decisions, make students decide what they want to study and do in life and so much more,” she says.

Without that research from female academics, the pandemic could make it even harder than it already is for women’s concerns to find adequate representation in policies. The coronavirus is a universal affliction, and it very much affects gender bias.

Not Just America: The Pandemic Is Deepening a Racial Divide in India Too

It was 9 p.m., and the streets were mostly empty. A 25-year-old woman from the northeast Indian state of Manipur was on her way to her rented room in New Delhi after buying groceries with her friend, through an alley she knew well. A middle-aged man driving toward them from the opposite direction suddenly slowed down and spat in her face, “like I was a pile of garbage or a roadside drain,” recalls the woman, who has requested anonymity.

Before speeding away, the man shouted “corona” at her. 

It was one among a growing set of incidents pointing to a wave of racist taunts, slanders and attacks by Indians against fellow Indians from the country’s eight northeast states, amid the coronavirus pandemic. In the U.S., the virus has fueled racist attacks against people of East Asian origin, including American citizens. In India, nationals from an entire geographic chunk of the country — home to 46 million people — are finding themselves targeted because of their Far Eastern features.

Racial attacks on people from northeast India are not new. But the latest incidents come at a time when more and more people from the region have been migrating to the country’s big cities “in a lot more visible roles” than previously, says Duncan McDuie-Ra, professor of urban sociology at Australia’s University of Newcastle, and author of multiple books on race and Northeast India. And they could strengthen disenchantment and anti-India sentiments, he says, among a section of the population that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has otherwise tried to woo.

Like the New Delhi incident, another 25-year-old woman from Manipur was spat on in April in Mumbai (the accused men — in New Delhi and Mumbai — have been arrested). In Pune, a woman from Mizoram reported in a Facebook post how a supermarket shopper misbehaved with her. In Ahmedabad, police detained nine employees of a dental insurance company for COVID-19, despite having no travel history or symptoms of the disease. They were from Nagaland, which — like Manipur and Mizoram — is in India’s northeast. Angellica Aribam, a race, gender and democracy activist from Manipur, received lewd comments and called a “bat-eater” on social media platforms — a reference to the virus’ suspected animal origins in China.

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A mother and a daughter filling up a sack with harvested grains of rice in Manipur state’s Ukhrul district.

Source Shutterstock

Sanjib Baruah, professor at New York’s Bard College and the author the recently released book, In The Name of Nation: India and its Northeast, says he had a “foreboding that such attacks might happen when I read that Wuhan, China is where this outbreak started.” His concern was justified.

In many ways, McDuie-Ra argues, the racism people from the Northeast face from their fellow citizens is structural, and linked to the often violent military occupation and operations against secessionist groups in the region for most of the 73 years since India gained independence.

I’d rather be a Chinese national than feel excluded being an Indian national.

Sakpui Maram, graduate student

But that “othering” of people from the northeast has been accentuated during the pandemic. Baruah points out that’s in keeping with how outbreaks of new diseases through history have led to “climates of irrationality, fear and suspicion, and stigmatization of groups that are feared to be the carriers of the infectious disease or somehow responsible for it.” President Trump calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” hasn’t helped.

“It becomes normalized. It becomes ingrained into how we speak and communicate,” says Aribam. “And communities like ours which have always been targeted as Chinese and non-Indian bear the brunt.”

The cases of racism that have become public during the pandemic are likely only a small fraction of the total incidents, experts say. J Maivio was a member of the Bezbaruah Committee — a government panel that was set up after the murder of a 19-year-old man from the border state of Arunachal Pradesh to look into concerns of people from the northeast living elsewhere in India. Maivio says 80-90 percent of racist incidents aren’t reported, because people want to avoid long court proceedings.

But McDuie-Ra cautions that this frustration doesn’t endear victims to their nation. Sakpui Maram, a 21-year-old graduate student at Ambedkar University in New Delhi, who was also recently referred to as “corona” by two men, says she sometimes feels she can live with being called “chinky” — a slur often used on people from the northeast. “I’d rather be a Chinese national than feel excluded being an Indian national,” she says.

That’s worrying for Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party, which traditionally had little presence in the country’s northeast, but now is in power in all eight states. It’s a “priority area for Hindu nationalist organizations,” says Baruah. And at a time the Modi government is already facing global criticism for discriminatory laws and attitudes toward the country’s Muslims, the attacks on people from the northeast hurt the nation’s image further. “It’s not good for India to be seen as having minority populations that it can’t protect,” says McDuie-Ra.

The attacks would have also been problematic had they targeted foreigners, McDuie-Ra maintains. But for those whom India calls its own, the stakes are even higher. “It is a question of integration and acceptance that might escalate if it’s not taken care of immediately,” says Maivio.

Yet Aribam argues that any meaningful change will need India to embrace an anti-racism law, which so far doesn’t exist. The Bezbaruah panel had recommended a law to punish hate crimes against people from the northeast, but that proposal remains unfulfilled, points out Baruah.

So what does it finally boil down to? As Aribam puts it: “You either stay back at home … or you accept the racism and push forward.”

Rattled by Chatter? Try a Personal Sound Bubble

The world has changed drastically over the past few months — and if you’re like us, you probably get to/have to work from home. Which could be great, if only the kitchen garbage disposal wasn’t doing what it does quite so often. Same with the vacuum cleaner, leaf blower, car alarms, cats, kids playing in the street, kids playing in the next room, ad noisey-em. If only they weren’t so … loud.

On top of that now you can’t even go to the neighborhood café for a few hours to get that project outline to your boss. And AirPods on full blast are not a long-term solution if you enjoy being able to hear.

Enter Silentium. Last year, the Israeli company hit the Consumer Electronics Show and introduced technology designed to create something to immunize you against distraction: a personal sound bubble.

So now it’s possible to create your very own noiseless space in the comfort of your own home. Meaning you could sit at your dining room table — provided it’s equipped with Silentium’s technology — and within that sound bubble you wouldn’t be able to hear much of anything outside of it.

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Silentium’s Quiet Bubble uses an anti-noise signal to cancel out the original sound.

What are your kids or partners or parents squabbling about? What squabble? You have no idea because you can’t hear anything, literally — it’s the textbook definition of blissfully unaware.

“You can create a silent zone — about half a meter — around your head,” says Silentium CEO Yoel Naor. Creating personal audio experiences for every user, as well as personal listening zones, the technology, according to Naor, can be worked into the desk you’re sitting at or the chair you’re sitting in.

And to counter creeping accusations of being generally antisocial when you’re blocking out the world, it should be noted that Naor’s idea for the technology didn’t really emerge from a desire just to be left the hell alone.

“Our belief is that music is something you should enjoy with family and friends,” he says, “and shouldn’t be juxtaposed with the mind-numbing noise you’re hearing all day long.”

Perfect. So, how exactly does the technology work?

The tech focuses sound transmissions toward one space while minimizing surrounding sound by using a signal-processing algorithm that cancels those extraneous sound transmissions. Unwanted noises and sounds? Gone. What you need or want to listen to? Right there in your personal sound bubble.

As working from home becomes the new norm, this technology could come in handy, giving people some much-needed quiet time and a space to have it in, no headphones required.

“It doesn’t seem so much that [the technology itself] is that revolutionary,” says audio journalist Matt Harper. “But using the technology to customize the air around you? Nice twist.”

Busy working mother making phone calls from home

Shhh …

Source Getty

While the technology is presently only available for aircraft and cars, Naor says that it can be used with “audio infrastructures, such as the built-in speakers within a car,” or used with speakers strategically placed inside a seat or a wall. For airplanes, this could mean not having to listen to the music that the passenger sitting next to you is listening to. In factories, it could mean not having the noise of machinery filling your head.

As for other consumer goods companies, Naor says Silentium is open to working with them. “Since we look at only the technology, we can’t really say if the consumer goods and electronics goods companies are planning to add this technology to their goods, but they can surely reach out to us anytime they want,” he says.

The only drawback to the peace and quiet of your personal sound bubble is that now you’ll have to search for another excuse as to why you didn’t get that project done.


Kim Learned His Disappearing Act From Dad

It was 2008 and North Korea’s then leader, Kim Jong Il, had vanished from the public eye. He was absent from a grand military parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the country’s founding on Sept. 9.

Days stretched to weeks, and weeks to months. Speculation about Kim’s whereabouts and well-being were rampant, recalls Victor Cha, former director for Asian affairs at the White House National Security Council. But the North Korean regime and its media agency, KCNA, never acknowledged that anything was out of the ordinary.

Then, suddenly, after 80 days during which journalists hounded intelligence officers for answers, the North Korean leader emerged in public, watching a soccer game held at the family’s Kangdong residence in Pyongyang. He had suffered a stroke that summer and had been recovering. It was around that time that he started promoting his third son, Kim Jong Un, as his possible successor, says Joshua Pollack, senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. 

Twelve years later, Kim Jong Un — the country’s leader since his father’s death in 2011 — disappeared from public view. Like his father, he was absent from a major national event — the birthday anniversary of his grandfather and regime founder Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, on April 15. Rumors were swirling once again, this time about whether the junior Kim, 36, was recovering from a surgery, ill or perhaps even dead. On Saturday, May 2, North Korea’s state news agency said Kim had appeared at a ceremony in a fertilizer factory, later releasing photos and video.

The ones who know will not speak, and the ones who speak do not really know.

Joshua Pollack, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

For now, the clearest answers might lie in the family’s medical history and its penchant for disappearing acts, rather than leaked intelligence and speculation. The North Korean regime’s track record shows how adept it is at keeping the world guessing, a skill that Kim Jong Un learned from his father.

“In the end, the only way we knew was when he showed up in the fall of 2008 having shown clear signs of a stroke with 30 pounds of weight loss, weakness on the left side and a noticeable limp,” says Cha, now Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about Kim Jong Il’s reappearance.

An official North Korean newspaper confirmed that it had been a tough couple of weeks for the “Dear Leader,” as Kim Jong Il was known. French neurosurgeon Dr. François-Xavier Roux, who was flown into North Korea by the regime to treat the leader, said that Kim had indeed suffered a stroke but was recovering.

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North Korea’s state-run media released a photo of Kim Jong Il watching a match between two military-affiliated soccer teams.

“The uncertainty back then sparked very real, very relevant questions about what might happen in this impoverished, nuclear-armed country where there was no clear chain of succession,” writes Jean H. Lee, the Associated Press’ former Pyongyang correspondent, on the Wilson Center website. 

Those questions are reemerging during Kim Jong Un’s absence, though South Korean officials and U.S. President Donald Trump have suggested that he is still alive.

“While there is very little fact to base it on, it should be kept in mind that he is 5-foot-7 and weighs over 300 pounds,” says Robert Manning, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “He smokes a lot, drinks a lot, doesn’t exercise and the family has a history of heart problems. So it wouldn’t be a great shock if he did have some heart condition or [a] heart attack.”

According to 38 North, a Stimson Center platform dedicated to monitoring North Korea, Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security adviser, told Kim during an April 2018 meeting: “How about stopping smoking? It’s bad for your health.” Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, who was also present, allegedly chimed in, saying, “I always ask him to quit smoking. But he won’t listen to me.”

North Korea’s leaders have also vanished in the past for security reasons. In 2003, Kim Jong Il was missing for an extended period of time. “The best explanation for this is that he was worried that he’d be a target of attack by the United States,” Pollack says.

This time, experts say Kim might be self-isolating to avoid catching the coronavirus. North Korea’s claim that it has zero COVID-19 cases is hard to believe. “The borders with China were open till March and crossover from China is quite a lot,” says Manning. “It is impossible that North Korea doesn’t have a single case.”

Pollack points out how North Korea announced plans in March to construct a new hospital in central Pyongyang by October. “What was the need to suddenly turn one of the few open spaces in the center of the capital into a hospital with such urgency?” he asks. “Of course, COVID-19 comes to mind.”

Something might have happened in the first half of April that appears to have “really spooked [Kim],” adds Pollack.

But don’t expect the North Korean regime to shed light on the matter. Preserving an aura of mystery is a key element of how authoritarian leaders control their civilian population. Sure, some things have changed with time. “Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather were way more reclusive than he has ever been,” says Manning.

Yet experts agree that what happens in North Korea stays in North Korea. “The ones who know will not speak, and the ones who speak do not really know,” Pollack says.

“We will only know,” says Cha, “when [Kim] is present again with some clearly visible ailment. Or, the lady shows up in a black hanbok on KCNA news and tells us he is dead.”

India’s Hydroxychloroquine Machine Was Built to Fight Colonialism

When Prafulla Chandra Ray put his meager savings — all of Rs 700 ($10) — into starting India’s first pharmaceutical company in 1892, he wasn’t looking to save the world from a pandemic.

Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals Limited (BCPL) is today India’s only state-owned firm that manufactures the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. And for the period in April when U.S. President Donald Trump was convinced that the drug — often referred to by the shorter HCQ — helps cure COVID-19, the company found itself in the midst of geopolitical tensions.

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Prafulla Chandra Ray, founder of Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals Limited.

Trump dialed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and demanded that he allow the U.S. to buy HCQ (India produces 70 percent of the world’s supply of the drug), threatening consequences if New Delhi didn’t agree. BCPL, which used to mainly manufacture chloroquine, overnight received a license to produce HCQ. India has since sold millions of doses of HCQ to the U.S., though a growing body of research suggests both chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine can hurt coronavirus patients.

But it was to fight a different enemy that Ray — often referred to as the father of modern Indian chemistry — set up the firm, say historians. It was meant to serve as a model private firm that other Indian entrepreneurs could emulate, with the aim of providing an employment alternative to the country’s middle-class youth who otherwise had to depend on jobs in the British colonial government.

Ray, a professor of chemistry at the prestigious Presidency College in Kolkata at the time, also wanted an “adjustment” between the best of India’s ayurvedic medical system and allopathy, says historian Amit Bhattacharyya, a former professor at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. He was keen on using indigenous plants to make chemical components.

Ray … dedicated his life to rediscovering the scientific geniuses of ancient India.

Sekhar Bandopadhyay, historian

It was a sentiment of self-dependence — or Swadeshi in Hindi — that would sweep the nation, especially after British Viceroy Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal effectively along religious lines in 1905. Bengal, the most populous province and economic engine of British India, was also the heartland of protests against colonial rule. The Swadeshi movement in Bengal at the time had two key elements, says Sekhar Bandopadhyay, head of the history program at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. The plan involved locally manufacturing consumer goods that were otherwise coming from England, and to develop a national education system distinct from the one imposed by the British in India.

“Ray was involved with both and was, in fact, one of the pioneers who had dedicated his life to rediscovering the scientific geniuses of ancient India,” says Bandopadhyay.

By that time, Bengal already had a prominent place in the global production of quinine — the main anti-malarial drug that came before chloroquine. An alkaloid found in the bark of the cinchona plant, quinine was first isolated in Paris in 1820. Cinchona plants and seeds were transported from the Andean forests in South America, where they were native, to colonial plantations in Dutch Java (currently Indonesia) and British India in the 1850s and 1860s, says Rohan Deb Roy, lecturer in South Asian history at the University of Reading and author of the recently released book Malarial Subjects: Empire, Medicine and Nonhumans in British India, 1820-1909. Northern Bengal was one of two locations in India where the British set up cinchona plantations.

Scenes during Mahatma GandhiÕs famous Salt March.

Mahatma Gandhi leading his famous Salt March in 1930, a key moment in the nonviolent resistance to British rule that Ray too joined, in his own way.

Source Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty

But by the early 20th century, north Bengal’s quinine fortunes were in decline, as the Dutch production in Java gained a global monopoly. “In response to this Dutch monopoly, other political powers began funding studies that would yield a synthetic anti-malarial drug” that wouldn’t depend on the cinchona plantations in Indonesia, says Deb Roy.

Enter chloroquine, discovered by chemist Johann Andersag while he was working for German pharma giant Bayer in 1934. HCQ emerged during World War II, as an alternative anti-malaria drug with fewer side effects. By then, Bengal Chemicals was independently also producing chloroquine, documents from the time show, says Bhattacharyya, though it’s unclear whether the firm had its own product patent or process patent for the drug it was manufacturing.

When Ray — who remained a bachelor all his life — died in 1944, it started what appeared to be a death spiral for Bengal Chemicals, recording continuous losses. In 1977, it was taken over by the Indian government, but it continued to bleed money.

Then, in 2016-17, it finally showed a profit that has since grown in the past two years, as the company introduced what it described as better cost-management practices. After Trump’s call — Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro also sought HCQ from India — Bengal Chemicals said it could produce up to 1.1 million of the drug’s tablets per day.

Sure, the company’s global moment might have passed for now. A recent study by Harvard University showed that the condition of COVID-19 patients deteriorated when they were given HCQ. Clinical trials led by the WHO, the Wellcome Trust, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are still in progress. Even Trump doesn’t talk about the drug anymore.

But the temporary spotlight it enjoyed in recent weeks points to the “continuing relevance of provincial, public-funded institutions like Bengal Chemicals,” says Deb Roy, “in producing cheap and accessible drugs for a local market.” Trump might have moved on. But even if HCQ isn’t effective in mitigating the coronavirus crisis, India, Deb Roy says, must not give up on Ray’s labor of love.

India Targets Voices of Truth in Kashmir

Long before the rest of the country entered lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, India-administered Jammu and Kashmir was placed under military quarantine — albeit a hundred times more stringent — last August, when New Delhi unilaterally stripped the region of its autonomy and put thousands under detention. 

Veteran politicians and former chief ministers, such as Farooq Abdullah, his son Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, were among the leaders detained. While the Abdullahs were released in March, Mufti remains in detention.

The internet was suspended for more than seven months, and broadband was restarted only in March at 2G, which the rest of the country gave up a decade ago. 

But through all those challenges, Kashmiri journalists have worked relentlessly to share the stories of pain and tragedy, hope and ambition of the world’s most militarized region with the rest of us. They’ve done so in the face of the toughest odds imaginable. They’ve had to report despite security forces causing hindrances. Without the internet, they’ve mostly had to send across their reports and photos through USB drives carried by people flying out of the region. The government set up four measly computers with internet access for more than 400 journalists in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital. And reporters had to coax and cajole people to speak freely at a time when ordinary Kashmiris knew that even their leaders wen’t being spared, says Srinagar-based journalist and OZY writer Yashraj Sharma.

Words are a writer’s weapons. All I have is: words.

Gowhar Geelani, journalist targeted by Jammu and Kashmir police

Now, with the country’s — and the world’s — attention focused on the coronavirus pandemic, India’s government is taking steps that journalists worry could cut that final information link too. 

In recent days, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has targeted three respected journalists with legal threats that appear designed to intimidate the Kashmiri press.

Last Saturday, Masrat Zahra, a 26-year-old photojournalist whose work has appeared in publications such as The Washington Post, TRT World and Al Jazeera, was charged under an anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), for “uploading anti-national posts [on Facebook] with criminal intentions to induce the youth.”

A day later, the police came knocking on the door of senior journalist Peerzada Ashiq, claiming that a report he had published in India’s second-largest English daily, The Hindu, was fake and that the “news was published without seeking confirmation from the district authorities.”

On Tuesday, police charged 38-year-old Gowhar Geelani, an author and journalist who writes for several publications, including Deutsche Welle, with “indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media.”

Condemning these moves, Aliya Iftikhar, senior Asia researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told OZY: “This is an attempt essentially to snuff out those voices that continue to challenge the government narrative.” But she also cautioned against assuming that this would remain restricted to Kashmir. “Historically we’ve seen that the types of pressure and intimidation that Kashmiri journalists face filters out to the rest of the country sooner or later.” 

CPJ has asked the police to drop investigations against the journalists. “Journalists are not terrorists, and police in Jammu and Kashmir must stop treating them as such,” its statement said. Jammu and Kashmir police, while confirming these incidents, has said that it maintains the “highest regard for freedom of the press.”

Sure, harassment of journalists is not a new phenomenon in the region, over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars, and where the Indian army has fought militants for three decades.

Still, Geelani tells me, things haven’t been this brazen for the past decade — that is, up until last August. “Since then, any journalist who has a voice and some following on social media is being summoned by police, [who are] asking them to reveal their sources” so that the government can control the narrative.

Journalists continued working in the face of those risks. Their stories — and Kashmir’s voices — were being heard around the world, leading to growing criticism of the Modi government in global corridors, where the prime minister was previously feted as a reformer.

Now, with the world fighting the pandemic, the Indian government appears to have decided it has found the moment to throttle the remaining voices emerging from Kashmir. ‘They want to curtail all the voices going out with any considerable amount of following,” says Geelani.

It’s a view shared by journalist groups in Kashmir and across India. The Kashmir Press Club, in their statement, has said the “police needs to understand there is a vast difference between journalism and cybercrime.” The Editors Guild of India has said the only purpose of the police action “can be to strike terror into journalists.”

That’s even more worrisome at a time the region, like other parts of the world, is battling the coronavirus, says Sharma. “Now, panic and trauma have engulfed all of us so much so that it doesn’t even seem like the coronavirus is a big deal,” he says.

Yet Geelani refuses to back down — and therein lies hope, as long as the rest of the world doesn’t forget Kashmiri journalists. “Memory will win. Words are a writer’s weapons. All I have is: words,” he tweeted. “Journalism and words will stay and survive. Censorship won’t.”  

The Pandemic’s Killer Partner: Bootleg Booze

The coronavirus has claimed more than 170,000 lives worldwide, but in Iran, one of the worst-hit countries, there’s a second epidemic brewing.

At least 300 people have died and 1,000 have fallen sick in recent weeks in the Sharia-ruled country after consuming methanol, a solvent also known as wood alcohol. It’s a strange problem for a nation where alcohol is banned, and drinking it — albeit bootleggers do exist — can invite flogging. In these cases, though, there was a very specific reason the victims drank methanol: fake news on social media suggesting that alcohol can ward off or cure COVID-19. “Other countries have only one problem, which is the new coronavirus pandemic,” Hossein Hassanian, an adviser to Iran’s health ministry, told the Associated Press in March. 

But Hassanian was wrong. Iran wasn’t alone. The pandemic sweeping the world is leaving a second trail of death in its wake, fueled by fake news and bootleg booze. In Turkey, 30 people have died and 20 have been hospitalized in the past three weeks after consuming pure ethanol — the untreated, undiluted alcoholic component of liquor. Officials have said the victims rubbed ethanol on their bodies before gulping the rest down in the belief this would protect them from the coronavirus.

The spread of illicit liquor has become rampant.

Anantha Krishnan, excise commissioner of the Indian state of Kerala

In India, meanwhile, a national lockdown to enforce social distancing has also shut down liquor stores. This has pushed some addicts toward spurious bootleg drinks, often with fatal consequences. A total of 26 people — including at least seven each in the states of Kerala and Karnataka — have committed suicide, unable to deal with withdrawal symptoms, officials say.

“The spread of illicit liquor has become rampant — and we are focusing on catching illegal liquor brewers,” says Kerala’s excise commissioner, Anantha Krishnan.

The deaths from the consumption of homemade alcohol or alcoholic chemicals like methanol and ethanol contrast sharply with the experience of Western countries, where there’s growing evidence of people stocking up on liquor for periods of stay-at-home restrictions. Thailand too witnessed lengthy queues outside liquor stores last week ahead of a lockdown.

That’s worrying medical experts as well: In the U.S., the U.K. and other European countries, they have warned that excessive alcohol consumption can reduce a person’s resistance to the coronavirus.

In Iran, Turkey and India, though, that advice is coming too late for many people, who thought the exact opposite was true, especially since it was peddled on social messaging apps as sourced from medical professionals.

“It is dangerous that such floating fake news nowadays are coming in the name of … people who are in the health care profession,” says Aneel Advani, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, police have seized 4,200 liters of methanol from a man who was reportedly planning to make toxic hand sanitizers. Such instances are worrying health experts enough to make top medical schools and research institutions pivot to issuing public advisories.

“Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will not kill viruses that have already entered your body,” the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health says on its website in a bid to bust these myths. “Spraying such substances can be harmful to clothes or mucous membranes (i.e., eyes, mouth). Be aware that both alcohol and chlorine can be useful to disinfect surfaces, but they need to be used under appropriate recommendations.”

But there’s something more that can compound the challenge already presented by fake news, suggests Professor Metin Başoğlu of DABATEM, an Istanbul-based behavior research and therapy institution. “People may engage in unusual or seemingly irrational behaviors out of an intense sense of helplessness and a desperate attempt to gain some sense of control over a life-threatening situation,” he says.

In India, the instances of suicides and deaths from the consumption of bootleg liquor are prompting industry and public figures to seek a rethink from the federal and state governments. For sure, spurious liquor is not a new problem, points out Krishnan. But as veteran Bollywood actor Rishi Kapoor argued in a tweet recently, keeping liquor stores closed is robbing state governments of much-needed tax revenue at a time when the economy is already struggling — without doing anything to stop bootleggers.

Medical professionals, on the other hand, suggest caution. “The way forward is not to supply them alcohol but to get them into de-addiction therapy,” says Dr. Abhay Bang, community health and de-addiction specialist.

The Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies, a network of the country’s top liquor firms, has written to 10 states, urging them to allow sale of alcoholic beverages. It’s cited the sale of illicit and spurious liquor and losses to the exchequer.

But even when governments appear willing to demonstrate flexibility, they’re finding courts hard to convince. The Kerala high court, for instance, struck down a proposal from the state government to deliver alcohol to those addicted if they can provide a prescription from a therapist, says Krishnan. 

The good news? Some patients are going to hospitals where they can be treated for their alcohol addiction. The Institute of Mental Health in Hyderabad has seen several hundred patients come in since late March. Doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, India’s top public sector hospital, are now producing videos to help addicts deal with the crisis.

But burglaries at liquor stores are on the rise too in India and South Africa — countries with particularly strict lockdowns where almost all businesses are barred from operating.

So even if bootlegging is curbed by strict measures, we might see a new problem — that of increasing crime by the alcohol-dependent amid lockdowns. Governments around the world — already overwhelmed by the fight against the virus — had better watch out.

The Weirdo Conspiracy Theory About Earth Day and Lenin

In April 1970, James L. Bentley, comptroller general of Georgia, sent out about $1,600 worth of telegrams warning that Earth Day — which got its start that year — was a Communist plot. His evidence: It fell on April 22, the same day as the centennial of Vladimir Lenin’s birth.

Bentley eventually admitted he’d sent the telegrams at the taxpayers’ expense and agreed to cough up the $1,600 himself. But the theory that Lenin’s birthday and Earth Day are intertwined — while nonsense — has enjoyed support in certain corners for the last 50 years. At the time, as venerable a group as the Daughters of the American Revolution saw the environmental movement as deeply subversive. And the suspicions continue to this day.

“I believe the young anti-capitalist students knew precisely what they were doing in selecting April 22,” wrote Robert J. Smith, former director of the Center for Private Conservation, on the blog of libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute in 2015. “Was it sheer coincidence they would select Lenin’s 100th birthday — out of 365 days in the year — to celebrate the first Earth Day? I find it hard to believe.” Smith wasn’t the only person to express sentiments about hippie environmentalists having communist sympathies, even long after the end of the Cold War. Capitalist Magazine published an essay in 2004 maintaining that Lenin’s aversion to private property was “obviously shared by environmentalists.”  

This odd conspiracy hasn’t aged particularly well, as environmental causes become more and more central to saving the planet and the future of the human race.

Spring kind of gives this notion of rebirth and regeneration — kind of coming to life bursting forth.

Dorceta Taylor, University of Michigan and Earth Day Network

But in the 1960s and ’70s, the far-left did gravitate toward the environmental movement, though it wasn’t the only factor — witness President Richard M. Nixon being the one to set up the EPA in 1970.

And Earth Day wasn’t founded by barefoot Communists but was the brainchild of conservationist Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who proposed it as an environmental version of anti-Vietnam War protests known as a teach-in. He tapped activist Denis Hayes to organize it, and 20 million Americans came out to demonstrate in support of environmental causes.

The original date proposed for celebrating Earth Day was actually a month earlier. In 1969, green activist John McDonnell had proposed March 21, 1970, as Earth Day, coinciding as it did with the spring equinox. The event was held, but it wasn’t the official Earth Day that year — that fell on April 22, as it has every year since.

The selection of the date had much to do with the academic year. “April in the U.S. comprises nice spring days, and in many parts of the country, the apple blossoms are out, beetles are blooming,” explains Dorceta Taylor, professor of environmental justice at the University of Michigan and a member of the Earth Day Network. “And so, spring kind of gives this notion of rebirth and regeneration — kind of coming to life bursting forth.” An Earth Day in the summer, when kids are out of school, could have been harder to organize. April 22 not only dodges spring break for most schools, but it also comes too late to conflict with major spring holidays like Easter and Passover.

Unfortunately, it bumps right smack into stupid conspiracy theories. In Nelson’s 2002 book, Beyond Earth Day, he recalled the radical far-right John Birch Society claiming that Earth Day was simply an “ill-concealed attempt” to fete Lenin’s birthday. “Obviously,” he wrote, “the John Birch Society was more informed about Lenin than I was.”

Taylor, too, laughs off the rumored communist link. “Those students who are working on environment, climate justice, environmental justice are too engrossed in finding ways to save lives to focus on the Lenin rumors,” she says. “They’re really not spending any time thinking and talking about conspiracy theories.”

Coronavirus Is Killing the World’s Last Great Newspaper Industry

Chhanda Dey woke up, made herself a large mug of tea and walked toward the balcony of her house to pick up the newspaper — a habit she has followed for years. But the resident of an affluent housing society in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata was in for a surprise.

There was no newspaper on her balcony floor. 

She soon found out that the residents’ association had barred newspaper vendors — and, in turn, newspapers — from entering the complex amid fears that they might spread the coronavirus. They’re not alone.

For the past decade, India’s newspaper industry has stood out as a rare beacon of hope for the print media, which has seen sharp declines in readership in the West. According to the Indian Readership Survey (IRS), the overall readership of newspapers had grown from 407 million readers in 2017 to 425 million readers at the end of the first quarter of 2019. Now, the coronavirus is threatening to do what the Great Recession of 2008 couldn’t: deal a crippling blow to the industry.

Like Dey’s complex, a growing number of residential societies, condominiums and high-rises across India’s biggest cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and others — are stopping the delivery of newspapers. While some are worried to let vendors in, others are responding to a forwarded WhatsApp message making the rounds in the country. The forward, which lacks any scientific citation, maintains that a newspaper surface can carry the virus, which can remain on it for 24 to 48 hours. 

The ability to touch and feel, which was earlier an advantage, has become a liability today.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, veteran journalist and media analyst

That’s making worried newspapers put out advertisements pointing out how the WhatsApp claims are unsubstantiated. The Times of India, the world’s largest English-language newspaper, has created television commercials to bust the myths propagated in those forwards. To be sure, India’s top newspapers are trying to adapt in real time, dropping online paywalls and offering free PDF versions of the print publication to try to keep their audiences intact. But none of that’s helping earn revenues at a time the economy is in the doldrums and advertising is low.

Major publications like The Indian Express, among the country’s premier investigative publications, have announced deep wage cuts. And the Indian Newspaper Society — an industry body — has written to finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman seeking a two-year tax holiday and the removal of import restrictions on newsprint. “The domestic Indian newspaper industry is now … in very real danger of turning sick,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, a 21-day national lockdown — which started on March 25 — has deepened the hit the industry is taking. While newspaper deliveries are allowed, newsprint supply isn’t — a pointer to the haphazard and unplanned nature in which the lockdown was announced. The result? Even independent houses and neighborhoods that haven’t banned newspapers are reporting that they aren’t getting them. And in some cases, distributors are concluding it’s not worth their while to try to sell newspapers at the moment.

“The hawkers’ association has now decided to stop circulating newspapers [in the northeastern state of Assam] until things subside,” says Jishu Das, a leading newspaper distributor in Assam.

Traditionally, governments in India have subsidized newspapers — including through advertisements — as tools to help improve literacy, says veteran journalist and media analyst Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. That’s helped the country’s newspaper industry ride out economic storms in the past. “It used to be said that the newspaper is like the sun — it sinks in the West and rises in the East,” he says.

After the Great Recession of 2008, ad spending growth decelerated in India, and as in other parts of the world, younger audiences have moved to access their news digitally. But, he says, “the elite and the elderly still like the touch and feel of paper,” and they continue to be drivers of the industry in India. “It’s not as if people stopped reading.”

That’s what makes the coronavirus a particularly significant threat. It’s the affluent neighborhoods that — fearing the spread from vendors or the newspapers — are turning away. And the elderly — loyal readers otherwise — are the most vulnerable against the virus.

INDIA-HEALTH-VIRUS

A security officer reads a newspaper in front of a closed shop during the 21-day government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Chennai, India.

Source ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty

What’s worse, the absence of newspapers allows fake news to further dominate the mainstream discourse, experts worry. “Newspapers continue because of the credibility of the information they provide, even though the business model and the revenue model is completely broken,” Guha Thakurta says. 

Raj Jain, chief executive officer of Bennett, Coleman and Company Limited, India’s largest media conglomerate and owner of The Times of India, concurs. They’re circulating as many newspapers as the company is confident will be sold. For the crisis staring at the industry, he blames the wave of “misinformation doing the rounds.” 

Experts say there’s little evidence that newspapers actually contain the virus. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the coronavirus loses half its potency every 66 minutes, and that potency drops to 2 percent after six hours. The study further states that it lasts longest on smooth, nonporous surfaces and can stay alive on plastic and stainless steel with steadily lowering potency for two to three days. The virus does not last on cardboard after 24 hours and lasts even less on newsprint, which is far more porous than cardboard.

Dr. Aneel Advani of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says it is critical in these times of fear and panic to “live intelligently.” After all, he says, “the virus could be anywhere — but that’s not stopping you from eating food bought from outside, right?” 

He believes hand hygiene is of utmost importance. “If you’re worried about newspapers containing fomites or the virus, make sure you wash your hands after [handling them] as a precaution,” he says. People should be doing that whenever they “touch anything foreign at all.”  

But newspapers aren’t immune from a broader shift Guha Thakurta points to. “The ability to touch and feel, which was earlier an advantage,” he says, “has become a liability today.” India’s newspaper industry will hope that’s temporary.

Why the Indian Namaste Is Going Viral

Prince Charles extended his hand to greet Sir Kenneth Olisa, the lord lieutenant and Queen Elizabeth’s representative in Greater London, earlier this month — but then quickly withdrew it. Instead, he folded his hands, pressing the palms together in an intrinsically Indian way — also known as the “namaste” gesture.

The heir to the British crown isn’t alone. As the outbreak of the coronavirus, which experts say spreads through physical contact and has so far infected more than 665,000 people in 177 countries, the centuries-old Indian form of greeting is slowly sweeping the world, especially diplomacy.

And while it didn’t help Charles — who tested positive last week — the namaste is fast emerging as the new handshake in foreign relations. At a time diplomatic visits and global summits are being postponed or canceled because of the crisis, the greeting is allowing world leaders to at least hold the most essential meetings. The namaste gesture does not involve skin contact and lets people maintain a distance — without compromising on politeness.

During their meeting in Washington on March 13, American President Donald Trump and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar folded their hands together in the namaste posture to greet each other. After the meeting, Trump, who visited India in February, said: “We didn’t shake hands today, and we looked at each other and said, What are we going to do? Sort of a weird feeling. We did this [joined hands]. I just got back from India, and I didn’t shake any hands there. It was easy.”

A day earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron joined his palms in a namaste while greeting Spain’s King Felipe and Queen Letizia at the Élysée Palace in Paris. Emmanuel Lenain, the French ambassador to New Delhi, tweeted out in excitement how Macron had “retained” the greeting gesture from his India visit in 2018.

[Namaste] has become a necessity.

TP Sreenivasan, former Indian diplomat

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu too has been advocating the use of namaste as a way of greeting. He has asked his fellow citizens to greet people with the quintessentially Indian gesture, and, during a press conference, said that “small steps such as adopting the Indian namaste could help in controlling the spread of the virus.” 

The decision by these world leaders to pick up the Indian gesture in diplomatic settings where the handshake was the norm represents a new reality, suggests TP Sreenivasan, India’s former permanent representative to the U.N in Vienna.

“[Namaste] has become a necessity — it is not because they [world leaders] found it admirable,” he says. “And of course, Trump’s words in the encouragement of the gesture also had an impact — people are curious about that.”

A combination of two Sanskrit words, namaste translates to “we bow to you,” says historian Wendy Doniger, one of the world’s best-known Indologists and a professor of South Asian languages and civilization at the University of Chicago.

The original gesture, she explains, involved stooping down and gathering dust from the feet of the person one wanted to honor using cupped hands, “then standing up and putting that dust on one’s own head.” The current form of the gesture that’s widely used in India — and now elsewhere — is a “simplified version of the original gesture,” Doniger says.

Historically, the gesture has had no religious or scientific meaning — but it has long been a deeply cultural symbol of respect and honor, especially for people who are older, or people such as “a teacher, a person with power [such as a king],” she says.

Sreenivasan cautions against the romanticization of the namaste, especially in the world of diplomacy. But ironically, one man who needs to adopt it more and more is the leader of India himself — Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who, before the virus outbreak, was known to tightly embrace fellow world leaders. “Modi needs to change and stop hugging people,” Sreenivasan says.

Of course, namaste is a common form of greeting in countries such as Thailand as well. Other ancient civilizations have their own forms of greeting. In Japan, you bow. And in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, new and other unique ways to greet are coming up too — for example, the fist bump, the elbow bump and the foot shake.

But Dr. Aneel Advani of Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health believes namaste is “healthier than the other options” that have emerged. Using knuckles or elbows means you’re coming in really close to a person to greet them because “no one has 3-foot-long hands. And that’s not clean.” 

Other greetings common in traditional societies — such as nodding one’s head or bowing — are fine too, from a health perspective, Advani says. “All of these alternatives to handshaking are good because the palm of your hand touches your face the most,” he says. Palms can carry droplets with the virus from one’s face or mouth.

Namaste, though, has an added advantage — it can appear more natural. One often cups hands in greeting while walking toward the person one is honoring, and so can make the gesture several feet away without needing to make a special effort to stop and bow from a distance.

Sreenivasan is confident it’s going to gain more momentum globally. Millions around the world practice namaste as a part of yoga, in any case. Now, they — and their leaders — might take to it in daily life too.