Sunday, March 22, 2020

COVID SIDE OF LIFE. Day 7: Sunday Bloody Sunday

Pandemic Log: Sunday, 22nd March 2020

Our first Sunday with New York on lock down did not feel slow or lazy but more like a surreal dream that for the moment feels never ending one.

At 9am our laundry lady was on the phone asking us to bring our clothes in because her boss decided to close the laundromat; starting that evening. They had remained open in the first days after the September 11th attacks, during the great Manhattan blackout and through the 2008 financial crisis but were defeated by an invisible an insidious virus. 

When I asked if someone had gotten sick, she said that was not the case and that all the employees had lobbied to remain open, but the owner was adamant that he did not want to risk anyone getting ill. 

Just last night millions of Manhattanites had breathed a collective sigh of relief, when the Governor issued an executive order stating that all non-essential businesses would be required to close, but classified laundromats as an essential service; allowing them to remain open along with hospitals, pharmacies, delis and grocery stores.

This is probably a hard thing for most people to get their head around but many people in this city, especially those who live in walk-ups and pre 1970’s buildings do not have a washing machine in their apartment or laundry services in their basement. 

Granted that running out of clean underwear might not be at the top of anyone’s concerns, but it does become an additional inconvenience for many of us who will now have to add hand washing clothes to our list of things to do.

Friday, March 20, 2020

COVID SIDE OF LIFE. Day 5: Six Degrees of Covid


Pandemic Log: Friday, 20th March 2020

Woke up this morning to find this text message waiting to greet me; before my first sip of coffee.

The day I met my friend for lunch, you ask? Friday 13th of course!

I am not someone who panics; in fact I am the person everyone seeks out in a time of crisis. Yet, for some reason, perhaps due to Covid-19 news overload, I read the text as saying that my friend’s colleague and his girlfriend had tested positive.

Needless to say that almost automatically the pain I felt in my lymph nodes, the day before, suddenly took on greater urgency. What was yesterday clearly a symptom of seasonal allergies took on a more ominous dimension.

I woke my wife up and said “good morning jaan, you will never guess the text I got this morning.”

After discussing it, we decided that I would call our GP and get his guidance on how I should proceed.

My GP’s office manager said I should self-isolate and wait for him to call me after 7pm that evening. I had no intention of trying to get tested for Covid-19 because I knew there was a shortage of tests, and people who are visibly sick with far more severe symptoms need them.

As the day progressed I started to feel soreness all over my body and also began to feel feverish. The power of suggestion with the passage of time is quite remarkable.

By the evening I was genuinely feeling like my energy levels had dropped, while the pain in my throat persisted. My doctor did not call that evening, so I went to bed reasonably sure that I did not have Covid-19 but not entirely convinced just yet.

In the morning, I re-read the text with a fresh set of eyes and noticed for the first time that the co-worker and his girlfriend had not in fact tested positive; they had just exhibited symptoms.

A few minutes later my doctor called.

I explained the situation to him, confessing that I might now be putting 1 and 3 together. He assured me that I had done the right thing and explained that unless I was also experiencing pain in the center of my chest, shortness of breath and running a fever of 101 degrees or more, it was unlikely I had Covid-19.

Further, he said that since I was also past the four to five day limit, when symptoms start to show-up, the odds were even lower. He added it was still worth keeping an eye on and to keep him posted if anything changes.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

COVID SIDE OF LIFE. Day 3: Social Distancing in a Time of Crisis.

Pandemic Log: Wednesday, 18th March 2020

Today, we took our dog into the vet to get her glands released (I will spare you the details) because if we did not, they are likely to get infected. Veterinarians, like most hospitals and Emergency Rooms, have also cancelled all routine visits and procedures and are only treating emergency needs.

As we walked into what is normally a warm and inviting atmosphere, we were greeted with a sign on the front counter. It was a very strange feeling to come face to face these words, even though I have been hearing and getting acquainted with the term ‘social distancing’ for a few days now.

What makes this notion hard to enact and come to grips with, is that fact that it is asks us to do the exact opposite of what we, as humans, do to deal with any crisis.

The day after 9/11, a good friend and I made our way down to within a couple of blocks from Ground Zero, and we spent the entire day doing water runs for fire, police and other emergency service women and men, who were working to find survivors and remove bodies.

We ran up and down those streets all day long, collecting and passing out bottles of water donated by big companies, small businesses, delis and ordinary people. There were many others like us who volunteered because they needed and wanted to do something to help their city in this dark hour.

The streets were lined with people of all stripes; standing arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder - cheering every service woman and man coming out of Ground Zero. I cannot count the number of hands I shook or strangers who hugged me that day, or the number of pats we gave and received as a show of solidarity.

I remember thinking - I have no doubt our city will not only survive this reprehensible attack but we will come back stronger than before. We will show the world that a cowardly group of men can never break our will, our spirit, our unity and our sense of shared humanity.

In times of hardship, grief, panic and fear we find respite and calm through comforting each other physically. Couples hold hands, friends hug, grandparent’s stroke heads and we all squeeze our little one tightly to our bosoms’ to reassure them that everything is going to be okay.

We are being told that we must not submit to our most innate human instinct, to reach out our hand to someone in need, because doing so would be nothing short of catastrophic. Succumbing to touch will only serve to prolong this pandemic and worse yet, spread the virus and kill many more people.

More than words, it is these acts of physical assurance that let people know that we are there for them, and that we will stand by and support them us no matter how bad things get.

During this crisis we cannot. We will need to find new ways to comfort each other and navigate it.

Monday, March 16, 2020

COVID SIDE OF LIFE. Day 1: Job Today. Gone Tomorrow.

Pandemic Log: Monday, 16th March 2020

On Friday the 13th I was a contract employee at a global agency, finishing up a new business pitch. We had just been informed that everyone was being asked to work from home, starting that day.

That evening before I left the office I was told that I was being put on a new project. It was to start the following week. I ventured into the weekend grateful that my gig was being extended and that I would have a paycheque a while longer, during this uncertain and turbulent period.

Cut to Monday morning, I emailed my boss to discuss the new project and asked about my new contract. He suggested I speak with the HR head as they were responsible for sending my contract.

I contacted HR and they told me they would need to get final sign-off from the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and would then get the renewed contract back to me.

All good.

About twenty minutes later I got an email from the head of HR saying the CFO said that because numerous clients had cancelled or postponed ongoing projects, the company was suddenly stuck with excess staff capacity and would be unable to take on an external resource.

Not good.

The world was still pretty calm when I left the office on Friday evening.

Yes, people were preparing to work from home and getting used to a strange new normal, but as the weekend progressed things got dire.

The number of cases in New York State continued to rise. Panic started to set in among state and city  officials, as the Federal government woke up to the fact that they needed to deal with this crisis on a war footing. It could not be business as unusual.

The stock market crashed; again.

Oil prices plummeted; again.

States started mandating that all restaurants, cafes and bars close.

Gatherings of 500 people or less, allowed on Friday, became no more than 10 by Monday.

Primary elections in a number of states were postponed.

Lines at grocery stores continued to grow; even as their shelves continued to empty.

I had a gig on Friday. Everything changed the following Monday.


Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Cowardice of Narendra Modi

Image: @NarendraModi

"India’s tryst with destiny has been successful because of its democratic nature, not in spite of it."  
-Jawaharlal Nehru

Even though I never supported the BJP, I was not blindly anti-Modi and was willing to give him a chance when he was first elected Prime Minister in 2014. I also remember the depth of frustration and disgust the majority of Indians felt at the time with the Congress led UPA-II government’s unchecked and brazen corruption.

This frustration was further fueled by disillusionment with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s spineless leadership and an utter sense of hopelessness about the stranglehold that the Gandhi family maintained on the Congress Party; refusing to allow a new generation of competent leaders to emerge. So when a number friends and family confided in me that they were going to vote BJP for the first time in their life, I was not surprised.

As a deeply polarising figure even within his own party, Mr. Modi was aware of the trepidation most Indians had about his chequered past, a past that had earned him a ban from entering the USA. For this reason he was careful to avoid religious and communal themes during his campaign and championed the slogan, “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (Together for all. Development for all). 

He worked hard to position himself as an economic reformer, promising to function more like dynamic CEO and less like paper pushing bureaucrat. He vowed to cut red tape and deal with incessant graft to unleash the latent promise of the world’s seventh largest economy. Most of all he promised to work tirelessly to create jobs for what will be the world’s largest and youngest labour force by 2020. For these reasons, India Inc. was also willing to support Mr. Modi. 

It would be fair to say that I was cautiously optimistic about his first tenure, albeit always remaining clear-eyed about his deep RSS roots and the dangers of extreme Hindutva lurking beneath the surface of the BJP’s political façade. 

No rational person expected Modi to become a different person as Prime Minister, suddenly embracing Muslims and behaving like the grand statesmen that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were. However, we did expect him to pour his energy into pushing through bold and much-needed reforms to modernise India’s socialist-style economy and privatise poorly functioning public sector organisations. To achieve his economic aims, we also knew Mr. Modi would have to walk a tightrope around furthering the RSS’s long held vision of turning India into a Hindu nation. The gamble was that if he succeeded economically, then the RSS’s vision would not have the fertile breeding ground that a weak economy and high unemployment can offer.

I was heartened when he invited Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani prime minister, to his swearing in ceremony. It was a grand gesture, the first by any Indian Prime Minister and one that went against the wishes of many in his advisors. Similarly, I applauded his decision to allow the Pakistani Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to visit the crime scene of a Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attack on Indian soil, even though he was lambasted by the public and every opposition party for kowtowing to Pakistan. To me it was the right signal by a confident leader looking to find a diplomatic and peaceful resolution to long-running India-Pakistan animosity.

Similarly, I was glad when Mr. Modi was persuaded to change his mind, based on new facts and information, about the Aadhar program. While in the opposition, he had staunchly opposed and relentlessly targeted the program, dubbing it a fraud schemeFurther, I supported the implementation of the single national goods and service tax (GST). It replaced an archaic and cumbersome matrix of central, state and local tax regimes that included excise duty, service and customs duty, surcharges, state-level value-added tax and Octroi. No question the rollout was messy and painful, but it was necessary first step to make India more competitive and investment-friendly, and could be improved and finessed over time.

I was even willing to cut Mr. Modi some slack when he suddenly announced on live TV in 2016, that his government was getting rid of all 500 and 1000-rupee notes, to combat black money and help digitise the Indian economy, even though I did not understand his logic. We now know that Raghuram Rajan, Governor of the Reserve Bank at the time, strongly advised the Prime Minister against doing this. He explained to Mr. Modi that with India being one of the largest cash-driven economies in the world, the short-term economic costs would be catastrophic, even if there were minor long-term gains. 

The Prime Minister did not heed the advice of his top banker, a former Chief economist of the IMF and the man who predicted the 2008 global financial crisis. Mr. Modi’s demonetization decision was an unmitigated disaster with the Indian economy slumping to its lowest growth since 2014 with the move shaving 1.5% - 2% of GDP. We also know now, with more than 90% of the total cash in circulation returning to the banking system, that the primary goal of flushing out black money also failed.

For me the first turning point came when Mr. Rajan resigned in June 2016. His decision came after months of public criticism by senior BJP stalwarts and Hindu nationalists, and the government's silence made it clear that he did not have the support of the Finance Minister or the Prime Minister. Less than a year later another eminent economist, former Chief Economist of the Asian Development Bank, Arvind Panagariya, also quit. Mr. Panagariya, a professor at Columbia University, had been appointed by Mr. Modi to lead NITI Ayog, which was a revamp of the Nehru-created soviet-style government economic planning commission. 

It was starting to become clear to me that despite Mr. Modi’s 56 inch chest, he clearly lacked the courage to surround himself with depth and diversity of thinking to help him guide India’s governing and economic policies. Nor it seems was he willing to listen to the advice of some of the most accomplished economists. Perhaps Mr. Modi did not understand that, unlike his political cronies and sycophants like Amit Shah, men of integrity and intellect will never acquiesce to being a rubber stamp for the whims of a politician.

The other thing that became abundantly clear is that Mr. Modi had a great penchant for self-advertisement and a savvy for garnering PR to launch grand schemes like Make-in-IndiaDigital India and Smart Cities. However, after the initial fanfare there was little to no follow-through with policy support or investment needed to deliver on these promises. Undeterred by these failures and the lack of results, his government has spent “a whopping Rs. 4,343.26 crore of tax payer money on advertisements and publicity” touting Mr. Modi’s so-called achievements.

After five years in office even the economy, the reason many people reluctantly voted for him, has not shown signs of growing at the pace required to keep track with India’s development needs. It is true that under Mr. Modi the Indian economy has averaged a faster GDP growth rate than under Manmohan Singh’s government, 7.3 percent versus 6.7 percent, respectively. However, these figures were published after Mr. Modi’s government controversially changed the way that GDP was being calculated.

This led to a restating of growth under the prior government’s tenure and a downward revision to 8.5 percent of the 10 percent growth rate achieved under Manmohan Singh in 2006-07. The irony is that even with the new calculation and revised GDP numbers, growth under Mr. Modi has never reached 8.5 percent. The latest GDP forecast for 2019-20 has been revised further downward to a dismal 5.6 percent.

While the GDP calculations might be a source of debate, what is not being disputed is that for 2018-2019 Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) declined for the first time in six years. Additionally, India’s FPI outflow in July 2019 was the highest among emerging markets, this on the heels of the highest outflow in ten years in October the previous year. This sharp exodus of foreign funds signals a loss of confidence in India. The domestic economy has hit “a soft patch as private consumption, the key driver of GDP, turns weak, along with subdued new investment pipeline and a widening current account deficit,” according to the RBI's Systemic Risk report.

Under Mr. Modi’s tenure we have also witnessed unemployment reaching a forty-five year high to hit 6.1 percent in 2017-18. It seems his government tried to delay the release of the jobs report because it was close to the 2019 election. This led to the acting chairman and another member of the National Statistical Commission resigning in protest.

The man who promised in 2013, that if elected, he would create 10 million new jobs found himself in January 2019 struggling to explain why the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy found that in 2018 the country lost as many as 11 million jobs under his stewardship.

I would be remiss to suggest that Modi has been a total failure. He has had successes with his Swachh Bharat program. This initiative has built over 92 million toilets and provided sanitation access to 500 million households. The Ujjwala Yojana scheme delivered cooking gas, with 60+ million free LPG connections, to the poorest households in India. The Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme has provided free healthcare access to more than 10 lakh people, since its inception in late 2018. Additionally, infrastructure investments have led to a marked increase in road building, more than doubling the previous government's pace with 27km of road being built each day in 2017-18. His government has also invested in new airports and metro networks.

All of this is good and necessary but the bottom line is that Mr. Modi was elected for one sole purpose: to create jobs. He promised us that he alone could help India surpass China by delivering double digit GDP growth, modernising our economy and creating the most pro-business and investment-friendly environment in Asia. One that encourages entrepreneurship, small business and foreign investment to foster conditions that help create the 1 million jobs India needs, to match the number of young people joining the workforce, every month!

Nobody can argue that India is the most complex democracy in the world to lead. Our intricate mosaic of religious and cultural diversity has been built over 73,000 years. We speak 22 official languages and have over 100 dialects in use today. An Indian Prime Minister needs to contend with 8 national political parties, 53 state parties and 2485 unrecognised parties to get things done, not to mention satisfying the needs of 1.4 billion people. Leading India requires not only courage and tenacity to face often insurmountable challenges, but also compassion and humility to guide the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions.

Instead of rising up to this great challenge, Mr. Modi has decided to take the cowardly route. He has chosen to inflame communal tensions, undermine civil liberties and stir up religious fervor in a bid to divide and distract us from his failures. Any charlatan can inflame passions and stir up tensions, but a courageous leader acknowledges his or her mistakes and finds ways to course correct. Confident leaders encourage and revel in public debate on the most contentious issues and do not quash freedom of speech by shutting down the internet 134 times in 2018 alone, more than any other democratic nation in the world.

For me, the issue was not that Mr. Modi recently abrogated Article 370 and Article 35A, revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, but the fact that he did it without sufficient public debate or any political dialogue. Mr. Modi’s government detained and arrested opposition leaders and shut down all communications in Jammu & Kashmir, acting in the way a Russia, China or Iran conducts internal affairs using cloak and dagger tactics, not in the light of day, the way the world’s largest democracy should.

There are people who will argue that Mr. Modi’s landslide re-election in 2019 should quiet all critics like me. To me it is clear that Mr. Modi’s current infallibility and election results stem entirely from the lack of opposition and a viable political opponent and not from any deference to him or blind loyalty to his party’s agenda. Mr. Modi would be wise to recall Bob Marley’s words; “you can fool some people sometimes but you can’t fool all the people, all the time.”

We have survived foreign invaders and the brutality of the British. We came together after a bloody partition. Rebuilt after terrorist attacks and communal riots. I believe our secular ideals are deeply enmeshed in the fabric of our country. In the short-term Mr. Modi’s government may succeed in sowing divisions, but in the long run they will fail to divide Indians.

For us, there will come a day when a charismatic new opposition leader will unseat Mr. Modi, or his tenure as Prime Minister will end, but Mr. Modi will forever have to live with his cowardice.