Friday, November 27, 2020

When the cloud goes dark: Amazon’s Cloud Servers goes down and people complaint they can't use their doorbell or Vacuums

Amazon Web Services (AWS), Amazon’s cloud service is the backbone of many websites and apps across the globe. And when it encountered a multi-hour outage this week, it sent the digirati and media buzzing. 

The multi-hour outage on Wednesday before Thanksgiving impacted many popular services like Adobe Cloud Software, 1Password, Flickr  that tweeted about AWS outage impacting their services - - 1PasswordAcornsAdobe_SparkAnchorAutodeskCapital_GazetteCoinbaseDataCampGetaroundGlassdoorFlickriRobotThe Philadelphia InquirerPocketRadioLabRokuRSS PodcastingTampa Bay TimesVonage.

AWS' brief outage highlights the risk of IOT dependent services

Internet of Things (IOT) describes the network of physical objects - "things" - that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the Internet. Many of our modern devices, gadgets and Smart Homes are IOT enabled by sensors and software and are dependent on access to the internet. 

An outage like this can disrupt the functioning of IOT and internet dependent devices and services. Not surprisingly, consumer tweets didn't mince words, highlight the sign of our times and how dependent we are on uninterrupted internet services:  

Comments on social media sites like Reddit were equally pithy

yoloman0805 posted "The future is here. Can't wait for smart toilet paper dispenser which connects to to the internet." and  CaptainFunktastic added "Our houses could be filled to the brim with all kinds of stupid things wired and connected in such a way that they do everything we think a chip in our brain could do, but somehow having vaccine crosses the line." 

Butwinsky posted

Public: The government wants to put chips in our brains!
Amazon: oh no! Anyways, here's our new Alexa enabled literally everything
Public: Shut up and take my money!

As of 4:18AM ET on Thursday morning (26th Nov) , Amazon announced that the service has been restored. AWS Service Health Dashboard posted an update: 

“We have restored all traffic to Kinesis Data Streams via all endpoints and it is now operating normally. We have also resolved the error rates invoking CloudWatch APIs. We continue to work towards full recovery for IoT SiteWise and details of the service status is below. All other services are operating normally. We have identified the root cause of the Kinesis Data Streams event, and have completed immediate actions to prevent recurrence.” 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

What is the main cause of corruption in India? Here is a recent story that explains one reason

The main cause of corruption in India? Ambitious people who want to desperately get their way; at any cost.

Let me explain with the following news article I came across a few days ago - “Retired Bangalore University professor kills himself

According to the article, A 64-year-old retired professor from Bangalore University and former registrar of Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences (RGUHS) committed suicide by hanging himself from the ceiling of his residence at KAS Officers’ Colony, Mico Layout on Sunday morning.

NS Ashok Kumar, who was serving as registrar of Garden City University for the last two years, was earlier a professor at departments of communication and later electronic media at BU. Police said the incident came to light on Sunday morning after his family members entered his bedroom around 6.30am. The jurisdictional police were informed around 8.30am. Mico Layout police found a note, in which Kumar stated that he alone is responsible for his death and no one is behind it.

Prof. NS Ashok Kumar

This was followed up by another article (link) that described a few more details:

Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president D K Shivakumar on Monday demanded a judicial inquiry into the death of retired Bangalore University professor NS Ashok Kumar. Shivakumar claimed that Kumar (64), who was found hanging at his Mico Layout home on November 8, had paid Rs 2.5 crore to “influential people” in exchange to get appointed as vice-chancellor to four new universities.

On November 7, a day before Kumar was found dead, the state government appointed vice-chancellors to four new universities - Gomathi Devi L (Maharani Cluster University), Harish Ramaswamy (Raichur University), Shrinivas S Balli (Nrupathunga University) and Puttaraju (Mandya University). “Kumar was told that there was some problem with his file and his money wasn’t returned,” Shivakumar said.

He borrowed loans and was made to wait 5-6 months. But, he did not get the position. Therefore, he took the extreme step. This is what’s being discussed widely,” Shivakumar told reporters.

“The appointment of vice-chancellors is mired in corruption. In every university, the staff and students talk that the V-C’s post is for sale. People go to Vidhana Soudha and ministers’ homes for this,” he said.

After retiring from Bangalore University where he headed the department of electronic media, Kumar was the registrar of Garden City University at the time of his death. He was also registrar (evaluation) of the state-run Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences and his tenure there was marred by alleged tampering of marks cards.

Here are a few thoughts

While the media may or may not follow up on the true cause of Prof. Kumar’s suicide, these articles highlight the sad state of affairs in modern India:

  • Appointment to top public offices and positions are mired in cronyism and corruption
  • If Sivakumar’s allegations are to be believed, Prof. Kumar borrowed Rs 2.5 crore (about $330,000) to bribe decision makers for a position he didn’t get.
  • Prof. Kumar had seemingly reached the pinnacle of his career as the head of department of electronic media at BU. It seems like his ambition at a late-career got better of his judgment, and he took on substantial debt to bribe his way for a post he couldn’t attain
This is just one story of an extreme step by a person whose attempt at bribing his way to a top public appointment failed. There are millions of such cases of people trying to get ahead of their fellow countrymen, even if it means bribing their way, and millions who are willing to facilitate them in the effort!

Monday, October 12, 2020

Yet another suicide: unsung victim of COVID shutdown and downturn

 We have all been reading about the impact of COVID-19, shutdown and financial loss suffered by millions. The story hit closer home recently when a neighbor committed suicide. 

The victim was our neighbor Babu, a 40-something techie working for a multinational at a Tech Park in Bengaluru who also had a thriving side-gig: investing in real estate with his brother-in-law who is a local contractor. 

The Babu family is well-to-do - by Indian middle class standards - with a couple of houses and plots that his dad and uncles had invested-in a generation ago. During the past couple of decades, their properties had grown in value exponentially, and Babu had mortgaged the properties to invest in additional real-estate projects.  

On the surface, Babu led a fairly normal middle-class life with his wife and young daughter. His parents in their eighties, lived with them in their old duplex house that Babu had built a couple of decades ago. He had also built a couple of shops on his property facing the street that was let out, generating additional income. Babu’s only sister, married to the contractor also lives a few blocks away and the families would frequently meet up.

Our subdivision is adjacent to a private mega-university that has been expanding considerably over the years. Many independent houses and plots in the neighborhood have been converted to commercial enterprises including multi-story Paying Guest (PG) complexes that accommodate the influx of out of town students.

A couple of years ago, Babu and his brother-in-law decided to jump the bandwagon and tore down a couple of old houses that the family owned in the area. Babu financed the construction of the multi-story PG complexes spanning 200+ rooms, and the construction was supervised by his contractor-BIL. 

The project took nearly two years to complete and they had a grand inauguration in February. And then came COVID-19 and the lockdowns. 

The buildings remained vacant for the next six months while Babu began to struggle to pay off his loan and mounting interest. During the past few months, he unsuccessfully tried to liquidate a few other properties that the family owned, and Babu continued to fret over the complex web of finances that were starting to unravel.

Last weekend, Babu’s wife went to visit her parents with their daughter and on returning found him dead, hanging from the ceiling fan. 

The family quickly corralled together to finish the inquest and funeral, but this incident didn’t even make the local news. 

#RIP Mr. Babu

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Experience in buying a Pet Dog in Bangalore - in 2020

Like many nuclear families coming to accept the new normal of work and study from home, we were looking for an outlet for our 11-year old. A couple of months ago, our son began asking for a pet that would be his companion. Many of his zoom classmates and friends had begun to acquire pets and Vijay didn’t want to miss out on the bandwagon.

It has been a little over a week since we got Max, our Labrador Retriever home and we took him for his first vaccination. In the week since he came home, Max has been settling in and winning the heart and the minds of our family. And did I say he is a bouncy little pup who is more than a handful?

If you are looking to acquire a pet dog, there is a tremendous amount of information online, but most of that is generic. Therefore, I thought I’d take some time to share some of my insights on acquiring a puppy in Bengaluru in 2020.

How much is that doggie in the window?

Unlike Patti Page’s old classic song, it is not easy to spot litters of puppies at pet-shops in Bengaluru. One may spot the occasional litter of stray (Indie) puppies in neighborhoods around the city but picking up a puppy from the street is not everybody’s cup of tea.

Some local pet shops stock an assortment caged birds or rodents, but very few puppies. It took me a few weeks of searching online and making calls before we finalized on Max.  Here are a few observations

·       Arm yourself with basic knowledge of dog breeds – there are 8-10 popular (common) dog breeds and as a buyer, you should be aware of what you want based on your budget, temperament and ability to manage. Most agents offer two kinds of dogs – ‘pet quality’ and ‘show quality’. The latter comes with KCI papers and a microchip and show-quality dogs can cost almost three to four times the price. There are several online resources and YouTube listings to familiarize you with dog breeds and their traits.

·       There are a wide variety of breeds and varieties of pups and the prices are all over the place. The demand for puppies shot up post-COVID and the puppy mills, many of them operating in shoddy conditions, are operating in full-swing out to make a quick buck.

·       Dealers out to make a quick buck - while experts suggest weaning away pups from moms after 8 weeks (about 2 months), it is all too common to see dealers touting 21-28 day old pups. Early weaning of puppies is not only detrimental to its growth, but can lead to a lot of anxiety for buyers who have to spoon or bottle feed it till it gets stronger.

·       One can find a number of online forums and listings, but there is rampant fraud. The most common fraud is the listing-and-shipping switch where puppies are listed online for a rather attractive price and after the buyer sends the amount, the seller asks for an astronomical fee for ‘shipping and handling.’ The enticed client might end up paying an arm and a leg.

·       Sifting through online listings can be overwhelming. Pet-dealers and agents continually barrage online forums to entice prospective buyers and those who evince interest are hounded online and offline. The dealer whom I eventually dealt with began sending me WhatsApp updates of available puppies on a daily basis, following up with phone calls.

·       Puppy-mills are too busy breeding and farming young pups and are content to leave the marketing to shoddy agents and pet dealers. Finding a reliable pet-dealer is hard since those who have been swindled are hesitant to share contacts of their agents. When I asked a few acquaintances who had bought pups recently, they simply said they got it from a ‘friend’ preempting further queries about their experience with a pet-dealer.

·       The market for pups is gray with several layers of shady breeders, agents, and middlemen. Breeders and Kennels don’t encourage visitors. Most probably operate with cages our of garages or rooftops in their homes and the conditions would horrify many of us. Link to a few recent articles on the topic - After 10-day-old maimed husky dies, activists start #AdoptDon’tShop || Social media fury over animal abuse leads to FIR on breeder


How did I end up choosing Max?

I began my search for a pet online and after some preliminary research I got an idea of prices that were swinging all over the place. A pet-quality Lab, for example was going for 12- 18 K, German Shepherd for about 20 K etc.

After calling a few online pet-sellers, I decided to check if local pet-shops would have a listing of local pet vendors. I stopped by a pet-grooming center that had a contact of Sanjay, a pet dealer who was operating out of our neighborhood.

I gave Sanjay my requirements and he began to send me listings of available pups with prices. I wanted a male black Labrador puppy and I decided on this breed for a couple of reasons. Labs seem to be the most popular pet breed, akin to Pomeranian that were ubiquitous a generation ago. These are easily available and seem to be relatively easy to maintain. Beige or Fawn colored Labs are very common, and I wanted a Black for a bit of differentiation.

After a few weeks of back-and-forth, Sanjay sent me a picture of a seller with four black labs, out of which one was a male. We agreed on the price and I decided to drive down to check out the puppy and pick it up. We reached an underpass near a Metro station at the designated time and the sellers drove in a scooter with a pet-carry box. They handed the puppy over to my agent who showed it to me before we finalized the ‘deal,’ and I paid the amount before driving back with Max.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

What do you think of the forced exit of China’s ByteDance from the U.S. and the transfer of Tik Tok to Microsoft?

This was an interesting question that came up in a social media platform. To me, this seems to be yet another case of Business and Geopolitics playing out in front of us.

Let me start with another example before I answer this question. Some years ago, I worked for Syngenta, a multinational that had large operations in the US too. (footnote) The company, worth more than $45 Billion, had intellectual property in key areas of agribusiness - including specialized hybrids and GMO corn, soybeans seeds and pesticides, herbicides and insecticides.

The Chinese have over 1.4 billion people to feed. And to feed the growing masses, they need a lot of livestock. They need a lot of corn and soybeans to feed industrial farms producing pork and beef (to feed the pigs and cows).

To produce a lot of corn and soybeans they need modern agricultural technology, that companies like Syngenta have. Before bidding for the company, the Chinese began refusing entire shipments of Corn/soybeans grown using Syngenta’s technology (Reuters: Syngenta risks fresh China corn dispute with unapproved trait).

American farmers began lobbying the congress to get Chinese to allow shipments of their Corn/soybeans. After a bit of back-and-forth, the Chinese ‘relented,’ and then ChemChina, the country’s national Chemical company made a bid to buy-out Syngenta

There were murmurs from US congress whether to let the strategic deal pass, but they remembered China’s refusal of corn shipment and relented. Syngenta was bought out by the Chinese. (Fortune: ChemChina Clinches Its $43 Billion Takeover of Syngenta).

Fast forward to the present. Tik Tok has morphed into a hugely popular social media App that has also been used for social activism.

Recently, there was a lot of coverage about how TikTok was used to inflate the number of attendees at President Trump’s political rally, throwing organizer’s plans for a toss. (NYT: “TikTok Teens and K-Pop Stans Say They Sank Trump Rally”).

This was perhaps a wake-up call for the Trump administration: How a social media platform controlled by Chinese could be used to manipulate American election rally.

The Americans seem to be using a chapter from China’s playbook back at them: Threaten to ban the Chinese owned Tik Tok and then get an American tech giant (Microsoft) to make a bid for it.

Footnote: I am using publicly available information to draw the analogy between these companies

Friday, June 19, 2020

Dear Indian, you want to exit the Chinese Dragon? Easier said than done!

This week, Indians watched footage of gruesome hand-to-hand combat between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the inhospitable, high-altitude terrain in Galwan Valley, the "Chinese occupied" part of Laddakh. After watching video snippets of Indian soldiers brutally attacked with iron rods and clubs, passions in India are running high.

While most Indians await the government’s promised military retaliation for the killing of 20 of its soldiers in Laddakh, there has been a rush for a grassroots movement to boycott Chinese goods, services and investments.

Rush to boycott “Made in China”

The clamor to boycott Chinese goods began even before this week’s gruesome killing of Indian soldiers. Amul’s long running advertisement campaign, that is known for its timely reaction to current events had its Twitter account briefly blocked in early June after its anti-China message “exit the dragon?”

China has been fledgling its economic muscle around the globe and its economy is largely dependent on exports. With nearly 11% of its imports coming from China, India currently has a $59.3 Bn (£47.7 Bn) trade deficit with the Dragon. Therefore, there is an argument to be made for an economic retaliation.

Plan for an economic retaliation? 

Anti-China protests have broken out sporadically all over India, with effigies of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, set on fire. The Indian news outlets have begun carrying footage of local political leaders and activists going from shop-to-shop handing out pamphlets about boycotting Chinese products.

The central government, sensing the mood of the public has jumped on the boycott Chinese bandwagon. After the attack on its soldiers this week, the central government ordered telecom providers (including BSNL) and other private companies to ban all future Chinese deals and equipment upgrades. Chinese companies will also be banned from participating in tenders for future projects, which is likely to include plans to upgrade 4G services in India. (NDTV Article)

Can Indians really boycott Chinese products and services?

The Chinese have a direct or indirect footprint on almost all the products, gadgets and service you touch. If you look around you, you can probably spot trinkets, household gadgets, smartphones and computing devices that are marked as “made in China,” which are easy to identify (and target for boycotting). However, identifying products and services from startups and Indian enterprises may not be as easy as it seems.

A recent report by foreign policy think tank ‘Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations,’ has estimated China linked investments in India’s tech start-up sector alone at $4 billion.
Many startups that Indians are familiar with have major Chinese investments, including Big Basket, Byju’s, Delhivery, Dream 11, Flipkart, Hike, MakeMyTrip, Ola, Oyo, Paytm, Paytm Mall, PolicyBazzar, Quikr, Rivigo, Snapdeal, Swiggy, Uddan, Zomato.

Does #BoycottChineseProducts include boycotting these startups that employ hundreds of thousands of Indians?

Most multinationals make and assemble products with complex supply chain that includes manufacturing of components in dozens of countries that include China. These components travel from one Distribution center to the next across geographic boundaries before being assembled in a specific country.

Products that we associate as American or European like Apple’s iPhones, iPads, Amazon’s Kindle or even Levi's, Nike and Adidas’s apparel are all either assembled in China or made with Chinese made components.  Identifying the ‘country of origin’ of products or even components that go into assembly of such end products is not as easy as it sounds.

And then there is a matter of practical consumerism that is hard to wean away from. For example, OnePlus, a China-based smartphone maker, saw its latest model sold off within minutes in India this Thursday, despite growing calls for boycott of Chinese goods following a border conflict between the Asian neighbors.

Bottomline: While #BoycottChineseProducts makes for a nice sound-bite, and a few local politicians, activists and digirati will get a 15-minutes-of-fame ripping up a “Made in China” trinket, these actions may not have real economic consequences on Chinese exports or China’s trading surplus with most nations.

Monday, June 15, 2020

RIP Gopi: Local cable guy electrocuted

A week ago, I heard that Gopi, the neighborhood cable guy had been electrocuted while surveying cables tangled on the roof of a house nearby. He suffered sever burns, and after a couple of days in the hospital, he passed away.

I was saddened to hear about the tragic death of the affable 26-year-old who worked hard to keep the neighborhood cable operations running.

After a sever thunderstorm, customers had complained of cable outage and Gopi had gone to the roof of a house in the neighborhood to check the wires. The severed cable wire had apparently tangled over a live electrical wire on the railing. When the unsuspecting Gopi tried to remove the untangled cable, he was instantly electrocuted.

RIP Gopi: DOD: 4 June 2020 (Sanjay Nagar area, Bengaluru, India). After Gopi's funeral, neighbors came together to hold an impromptu memorial. Some laminated a printout of his obituary and posted it on poles near the cable operator's office.

In urban India, it is all too common to see broadband and television cable wires hanging over electric poles and running over rooftops of houses and buildings nearby.  It is common for such tangling of wires to lead to frequent accidents and electrocutions. According to a TOI article,
Every year thousands of Indians are getting electrocuted in freak accidents on streets dotted with damaged power cables. In 2015 alone, 9,986 electrocution deaths were recorded across the country with Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan each witnessing over 1,000 casualties, according to latest data available with the National Crime Records Bureau.

Tangled Electric Wire Stock Video Footage - 4K and HD Video Clips ...

Monday, June 1, 2020

Encroachment in the neighborhood. Experience with #BBMP Sahaaya : Thumbs up for the response

I recently came across an 'encroachment' on a covered Storm Water Drain in my neighborhood, and as a conscientious neighbor, decided to act on it rather than just mull it over.

This was a rather blatant attempt to encroach on a public land on a busy thoroughfare. New BEL Road, for those of you know North Bengaluru, has morphed into a rather tony commercial thoroughfare. 

Someone or a group had decided to encroach on that prime space and erected a 'structure' on the foot-path facing the main road. Left un-attended, the folks would soon start a shop/commercial enterprise, and the illegal structure would eventually be accepted as a part of the landscape. 

I noticed this during my morning walks and was in two minds about complaining to the local civic authorities. From my past experience, I knew of BBMP's Sahaaya app and portal that is actively monitored by the civic authority. (My past experience with BBMP

I started by logging a complaint and uploaded a mashup of the picture and google-map location, briefly explaining the problem.

I got a SMS notification about my Grievance#:200369xx that had been logged. During the next few weeks, I continued to get messages on my smartphone while the Grievance was escalated through their hierarchy. 

During the past couple of weeks, I also got a call from a couple of officials confirming the location of my complaint. I explained the details of the issue and landmark to the oficials. 

I eventually got a message "Grievance#: 200369xx regarding footpath encroachment status has been changed from Registered to Resolved By Staff(Desg): Eranna(AE). Remark: Encrochment is cleared ." During my recent walk by that area, I noticed that the structure was indeed gone! 

Kudos #BBMP Sahaaya and the team for acting on a resident's complaint. Let's keep our neighborhoods clear of encroachments ! 

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Indian Migrant crisis – an avertable failure of business, government and society ?

The world has been fascinated by stories of migrant workers caught in the unforeseen COVID-lockdown in India. After Indian government announced a drastic country-wide lockdown on 24th March, stories of the plight of migrant workers began making the rounds.

Netizens around the globe were captivated by the plight of workers through pictures – thousand s of migrants marching on desolated highways with a few personal belongings and toddlers in tow. Indians were appalled when foreigners like Ivanka Trump tweeted pictures of the crisis - the picture of a migrant girl cycling thousands of kilometers with an ailing father.

We were also shocked but helpless to read about dozens of tired migrants being mowed down by a speeding train. (link) The plight of migrant workers was front-and-center during the initial phases of lockdown in India.

Failure of business, government and society

There is a lot of hand wringing and finger pointing about this crisis from politicians of different stripes and government officials. Much of it is attributed to the failure of government and bureaucracy; some of it justified. This was after all an unintended consequence of lockdown intended to save scores of Indians from the impending pandemic. What went unsaid was the role of business leaders and commercial enterprises in contributing to this fiasco.

 © Danish Siddiqui | Credit: REUTERS

The other day, I was zooming with a friend who owns a mid-sized steel rolling mill near Jaipur in Rajasthan. He was lamenting over the plans for reopening his plant that was challenging since most of his workers – migrants from Bihar – had returned back ‘home’ and were reluctant to come back to work.

When I casually asked why he couldn’t hold them back during the lockdown, he admitted that he had stopped paying them after the plant shut in March. Afterall he had a business to run and couldn’t pay workers when he wasn’t generating revenue. What went unsaid was the fact that his business generated tremendous profit margins during normal times, that was sufficient for him to tide over this crisis easily.

Businesses have been unwilling or unable to pay workers during the extended lockdown. This is a story that has been amplified across urban India millions of times, aggregating to a humanitarian crisis.

Commerce: at the intersection of Business and good Governance

This crisis has also exposed the dark underbelly of the Indian growth story – shiny new gated apartment complexes, malls, flyovers and Metros are being built by legions of faceless migrant workers – many from improvised states of Bihar, UP and North East who migrated to urban metropolis en masse.

These undocumented daily wage earners hired and managed by subcontractors and agents live in shanties hoping to save enough and eventually return back home. The construction companies, builders and factories pay these middlemen a tidy sum to source and manage these workers from other parts of the country.

The builders and industrialists also lobby governments to ensure a laissez faire hire-and-fire policy and scant social security for migrant workers. Creative hiring under layers of sub-contractors ensures diluted worker benefits and protections.

During past few months when images of mass migrations began surfacing, there were large debates on the ineptitude of the government and the lack of preparedness in addressing this humanitarian crisis. There was a grain of truth to this as the government machinery was totally unprepared. To be fair, the Prime Minister, while announcing the lockdown had urged businesses not to withhold worker wages. Such an appeal by the government leader didn’t come with a teeth of enforcement. Needless to say, the appeal was totally disregarded by business leaders – including my friend – who were focused on self-preservation. Such is the nature of commercial enterprise. 

Commerce beyond lockdown

Large hearted philanthropists from across the country have been announcing donations to help PMCARES and other charities. The Digirati and media has been tracking and applauding the donations, conveniently forgetting the root cause of this crisis. 

Forget donating to PMCARES and other crisis funds, one wonders if things would have turned out different if business enterprises had just paid their workers and assured them of normalcy during surreal times? Things may have been different as we look at the world beyond lockdown; businesses leaders – like my friend – wouldn’t be out struggling for workers to restart their operations.  

As we look at the green shoots of economic activity looking past the crisis, it may also be worth reflecting on the role of benevolent business practices. Pillars of commerce are dispassionately focused on numbers – topline and bottomline, profit and loss – but businesses are also run by humans. Perhaps business leaders should be taking a page out of noted industrialist Ratan Tata’s playbook. At the end of his entrepreneurial life, The Economist obituary (link) quoted the essence of Tata’s management philosophy "I want to be able to go to bed at night and say that I haven't hurt anybody."

Monday, May 11, 2020

When will the Covid-19 pandemic end? Looking at life beyond lockdown

With nearly half of mankind under some form of government-imposed lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, the end of the Coronavirus Pandemic seems to be front and center in our minds. Almost all of us are struggling with answers to questions like “When will the Covid-19 pandemic end? “how will this end?” and “when will life get back to normal?”

In a recent NYT Article, Dr. Jeremy Greene, a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins explains that “pandemics typically have two types of endings: the medical, which occurs when the incidence and death rates plummet, and the social, when the epidemic of fear about the disease wanes.”
When people ask, ‘When will this end?,’ they are asking about the social ending. One can argue that we are already seeing the social ending to the Covid-19 pandemic saga.

New-normal: Social Distancing and telecommuting at work

During the past few months, nearly all economic activities around the globe came to an abrupt standstill for weeks on end as leaders began reacting to the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic across the globe.

Business leaders, who quickly moved to shutter operations in line with national and local lockdown regulations, began watching the unrolling of the restrictions in parts of the world with reduced cases of COVID-19.  In many organizations, especially in the technology sector, telecommuting and work-from-home became the norm.

Company-men – self included – were quick begin parroting phrases like ‘new normal,’ surreal, once-in-a-generation and unprecedented times while trying to come to grips with the uncertainty of the pandemic.

What does end-of-lockdown feel? Not very different

By all accounts, the social ending to the lockdowns and restrictions isn’t going to be as dramatic or abrupt as the start. For one, people are willing and ready for such a change; and many are yearning to go back to life as it was.

The other day, I was in a zoom session with a colleague from China that was among the first nations to rollback lockdown restrictions. After weeks of working from home, employees there are back to work wearing masks, learning to live with additional social distancing norms and ubiquitous temperature checks at offices and all public places.

While people have begun to get back to work, and factories and manufacturing have resumed, the gears of the broader economy are slower in turning forward. Leaders around the globe are closely watching the Chinese blueprint to either follow along or modify as their situations dictate.

Onward to ‘new normal’ or back to old-normal?

After two consecutive nationwide lockdowns spanning one-and-half months, the Indian government announced a slow easing of the curbs with a ‘partial’ lifting of lockdown last week. By the end of the week, it felt like a giant had woken from its slumber. One can already see a few minor traffic jams accompanied by honking on roads by restless motorists. Shops have started opening, and it almost feels like ‘social distancing’ is a thing of the past. In the narrow grocery aisles masked-customers are back to shoving each other while selecting vegetables and fruits; the six-feet-rule be damned.

While it was jarring to see the American President abruptly rollback federal restrictions, leaving state governors to work through a hodgepodge of local regulations, he doesn’t seem to be alone.  After reacting strongly to address the outbreak of pandemic, government leaders around the world seem to be certain of one thing: they cannot indefinitely lockdown societies while awaiting a vaccine for Coronavirus, or for the death rates to plummet.

Commerce, just like life itself, must go on

States and cities around the world that have slowly lifted lockdown bans are beginning to see economic activity resume. While multinationals and large companies are being cautious in re-starting operations, small businesses are already rolling up their shutters.

Government officials are beginning to parrot how “people must learn to live with the virus” while following prevention guidelines.” Just as the crisis-management and pandemic-preparedness of governments across the globe was uneven, the way individual communities around the globe move forward after lockdowns is going to be asymmetrical.

With governments around the world finally abdicating their role in combating this deadly virus, the ‘end’ of the Covid-19 pandemic is going to be a bit of an anti-climax. And in a way, the much awaited new-normal may not look or feel very different. At least not in the short term.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Here is why Trump’s decision to pause WHO funding may be a good thing

The Trump administration’s recent decision (link) to withhold funds for World Health Organization (WHO), is generating a tremendous amount of media attention.  This week, the American president tried to blame the WHO for its role in COVID-19
“failing to adequately investigate early information about the virus’s ability to spread from one human to another and for not calling out China on its alleged lack of transparency over the virus.” During a news conference at the White House, Mr. Trump said “The WHO failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable. So much death has been caused by their mistakes.”

To be fair, the United States is a major donor to the UN and WHO. According to the world body, top voluntary contributors include United States of America, United Nations, Republic of Korea, Australia, Gates Foundation, Japan and European Commission. In 2017, America made over $100 contributions. (link: WHO) In addition, over $400 voluntary contributions were made from the United States.

It’s too early for finger pointing

To be fair, the WHO has been at the front and center in tracking the progress of COVID-19. After a couple of months of closely tracking the outbreak of the virus, the WHO announced on 11th March it was upgrading COVID-19 to a Pandemic
“We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic. 
Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.” 

The day WHO upgraded COVID-19 to pandemic there were about 1629 cases in America as per the CDC. President Trump also announced a ban on travel from Europe on 11th March, and followed up with a National emergency declaration on March 13th

Source: CDC

The trump administration is under tremendous pressure as the number of cases in the US escalate and the response has been patchy. They are looking for points of failure and perhaps a scapegoat. After initial attempts to call it a “China virus” backfired (link), the world health body is emerging as a convenient scapegoat.

Who is WHO?

Trump’s move may turn out to be a good thing as headlines on the decision to pause WHO funding generates a renewed attention on the role of the world health body in the modern world order. Trump’s announcement on WHO is also stirring a political debate in America, which will also generate interest among Americans. The average American Joe and Jane, who hadn’t heard of WHO will be curious to know more about the world body.

While America donates over $100 million of WHO’s $2+ Billion budget, it is not the only donor. All these headlines continue to generate interest in WHO and its activities, which in turn will lead to other donors stepping in. Large global donors like the Gates Foundation with billions at its disposal can easily make up the shortfall if America backs out of its commitment.

The risk of not contributing its dues to the world body is greater for America. By not donating, America and its researchers risk losing their standing. Part of the aid to world bodies comes in the form of contributions in kind, including time and experience of American doctors, researchers and CDC. Such experiences are mutually enhanced by collaboration between researchers; and the world will be a better place if American researchers and CDC continue to collaborate with their global peers.