Geopolitics

Pandemic Pollution, And Our Philosophical Duty To Clean The Air

A man riding a bicycle  in India's Nagaon district,, June 11, 2021.
A man riding a bicycle in India's Nagaon district,, June 11, 2021.
Siddharth Pandey*

NEW DELHI — I had never given thought to the provenance of funeral wood, until news reports revealed in late April that officials in Delhi had begun receiving requests to chop trees in city parks amidst the colossal surge in COVID deaths. It was a jolting statement to encounter, for it forced me to reframe a life-giver into a death-enabler in ominously stripped, urgent terms.

Wood, of course, had been used for cremation since ancient times, but to think of it as coming from our very midst instead of some sequestered supply-area bore a sting of abrasiveness. Would our public spaces remain the same now on or, for that matter, even the public that once walked and ran under their trees? "Nature repairs her ravages," observed the English novelist George Eliot, "but not all." She qualified, "To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair."

The world was quick to recognize her repairs last year during the global lockdown, when birds and animals started appearing "magically" from their hidden bowers onto our frozen civilized spaces. My most abiding memory from that long period of imposed isolation was the sighting of the Himalayas from the plains of north India, which happened due to the robust clearing of human induced pollution. It was after three decades that those great white sentinels impressed themselves upon the views of the Punjab plains a hundred miles to the south. And although I myself couldn't view those ephemeral vistas from our home further down in Ghaziabad, it felt enough to simply know that the Himalayas had gotten closer to me.

Birds and animals started appearing magically from their hidden bowers.

That exhilarating enlargement of spirit had everything to do with the three decades I spent in the mountainous regions of Himachal Pradesh, before my family's shift to the NCR plains in 2019. For all my growing-up years, those highlands had resolutely ensured that they were the only true high-rises. This was despite the severe urban development that had begun to inflict that geography during my teens and twenties, much like its plain-based counterpart. Nonetheless, the dignity of breathing fresh air in the Himalayas had remained fairly intact, as it still does to a certain extent.

With my shift to the gray-laden sprawl of the metropolis, I realized that untainted oxygen — a basic of life's prerequisites — was a privilege in itself. So when the surreal erasure of haze and smog manifested within a few weeks of the 2020 lockdown, I involuntarily found myself developing a habit of frequently checking the Air Quality Index. I knew that I wasn't alone in experiencing this strange passion, since a number of my Delhi acquaintances were also sharing their incredulity at those deepening azure skies. But I liked to believe, almost childishly, that my delight was "different", for I had nothing less than the Himalayas as my yardstick for comparison. Whenever a "very-good/healthy" reading of the city air conjured up in a cedar-green label, I found myself exclaiming, "This is like the mountains!"

A man travelling on a bus during the COVID-19 Pandemic period in Kolkata — Photo: Sudipta Das

And yet, that joy was no "thorough repair". Not only was it temporary, it also underscored a horrifying reality of displacement and suffering. For those countless fleeing migrant workers who were never allowed to claim their city-homes as their own and forced into making arduous return-journeys on foot, the shift in environment was anything but revivifying. Today, when the second wave wreaks unprecedented havoc across India, that oxygen ironically becomes a leveller in its very brokenness, with the rich and the poor meeting a similar, cruel fate.

In May, when cyclone Tautkae brutally ravaged parts of Western India and led to palpable changes in temperatures across many adjacent areas, this sense of air's imbalance again came to the fore. Standing on my fifth-floor balcony, even as I exulted in the soothing embrace of the 16 degree dip in temperature, the pinch of the knowledge that this wasn't normal pressingly played along. After all, the sudden "coolness' that we experienced was the result of the same factor that had brought destruction in other parts of the country. And the factor behind that factor was obvious too, with news reports stoically blurting future disasters in making: "Tautkae result of climate change, expect more cyclones in coming years: Experts."

We have always been aware that we are nothing without air.

The philosopher David Abram observes in his modern classic The Spell of the Sensuous that like many native and ancient languages, classical Sanskrit makes an association of the inner self with the wind. There, "the word ‘atman" signifies not only the soul but air and breath too."

While water is understandably perceived as the "elixir of life", we have always been aware in an oddly understated manner that we are also nothing without air. Hence the ubiquity of the phrase hawa-pani ("wind-water"), and the inextricability of the two words. Ask anyone visiting the mountains about their first impressions, and they would instantly revel in the difference from plains: "Wahaan ka hawa-pani kitna alag hai…"

Perhaps more than any other philosopher, it was the Buddha who best understood the link between the soul and air, devising his practice-based spiritual teachings on this very connection. But it is the tragedy of our country that political opportunists and bigoted religious babas use such vital legacies as a ruse to overlook the deficiency of medical facilities that we have been acutely suffering from. For instance, recently, Baba Ramdev illogically advised patients undergoing heart-attacks to promptly practice anulom-vilomen route hospital. Not only do such crude suggestions strike as blatantly insensitive, they also have the effect of rendering the otherwise beneficial exercises undesirable by citing them inappropriately.

It has been said that the third world war will be fought over water shortage. If anything, the pandemic must serve as our greatest warning for such a war to never take place. For battles of a different sort have already been fought globally during this and the last year, all united by the need for air. As quantifying markers of something that we once took for granted become the norm of our daily vocabulary and existence — cylinders, oximeters, concentrators, ventilators and so on — air assumes an uncanniness like never before. How we would deal with this estrangement in the near and the distant futures is perhaps our greatest personal and collective challenge now on.


*Siddharth Pandey is a writer and photographer from Shimla.

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New Delhi, India: Fumigation Against Dengue Fever In New Delhi

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 வணக்கம்*

Welcome to Thursday, where America's top general reacts to China's test of a hypersonic weapon system, Russia is forced to reimpose lockdown measures and Venice's historic gondola race is hit by a doping scandal. French daily Les Echos also offers a cautionary tale of fraud in the crypto economy.

[*Vaṇakkam, Tamil - India, Sri Lanka, Singapore]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

A dove from Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida tough enough to lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.

After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam, Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

In September 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years.

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

Daisuke Kondo / Economic Observer

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Top U.S. general says Chinese weapon nearly a "Sputnik moment": China recently conducted a "very concerning" test of a hypersonic weapon system as part of its push to expand space and military technologies, Gen. Mark Milley, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Bloomberg News. America's top military officer said that this was akin to the Soviet Union's stunning launch of the world's first satellite, Sputnik, 1957, which sparked the Cold War space race. Milley also called the test of the weapon "a very significant technological event" that is just one element of China's military capabilities.

Brexit: France seizes British trawler: A British trawler has been seized by France while fishing in French waters without a license, amid escalating conflict over post-Brexit fishing rights. France's Minister for Europe said it will adopt a zero-tolerance attitude towards Britain and block access to virtually all of its boats until it awards licenses to French fishermen.

COVID update: Russia confirmed a new record of coronavirus deaths, forcing officials to reimpose some lockdown measures, including a nationwide workplace shutdown in the first week of November. Germany also saw its numbers spike, with more than 28,000 new infections yesterday, adding to worries about restrictions this winter there and elsewhere in Europe. Singapore, meanwhile, reported the biggest surge in the city-state since the coronavirus pandemic began. Positive news on the vaccine front, as U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck granted royalty-free license for a COVID-19 antiviral pill to help protect people in the developing world.

Iran nuclear talks to resume: Iran's top nuclear negotiator said multilateral talks in Vienna with world powers about its nuclear development program will resume before the end of November. The announcement comes after the U.S. warned efforts to revive the deal were in "critical phase."

First U.S. passport with "X" gender marker: The U.S. State Department has issued its first American passport with an "X" gender marker. It is designed to give nonbinary, intersex and gender-nonconforming people a marker other than male or female on their travel document. Several other countries, including Canada, Argentina and Nepal, already offer the same option.

China limits construction of super skyscrapers: China has restricted smaller cities in the country from building extremely tall skyscrapers, as part of a larger bid to crack down on wasteful vanity projects by local governments. Earlier this year the country issued a ban on "ugly architecture."

Doping scandal hits Venice's gondola race: For the first time in the history of the Venice Historical Regatta, a participant has tested positive to marijuana in a doping test: Gondolier Renato Busetto, who finished the race in second place, will be suspended for 13 months.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"End of the ice age," titles German-language Luxembourgish daily Luxemburger Wort, writing about how the ice melting in the Arctic opens up new economic opportunities with a new passage for countries like Russia and China but with potentially devastating effects for the environment. The issue of the Arctic is one of the topics that will be discussed at the COP26 Climate Change Conference which kicks off in Glasgow on Sunday.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$87 billion

A new United Nations report found that extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones, floods and droughts have caused India an average annual loss of about $87 billion in 2020. India is among the countries which suffered the most from weather hazards this year along with China and Japan.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Air Next: How a crypto scam collapsed on a single spelling mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy from Laurence Boisseau in Paris-based daily Les Echos.

📲 The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system. Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation.

📝 On Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, the CEO admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

⚠️ What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond". Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


📣 VERBATIM

"A weapon was handed to Mr. Baldwin. The weapon is functional, and fired a live round."


— Following the Oct. 21 on-set shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, Sante Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza told a press conference that the "facts are clear" about the final moments before Hutchins was shot. The investigation continues to determine what led up to that moment, and any possible criminal responsibility related to how the "prop" gun that actor Alec Baldwin fired was loaded.

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

Fumigation is used as a precautionary measure against the spread of dengue disease in New Delhi, India, where more than 1,000 cases have been reported — Photo: Naveen Sharma/SOPA Images/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Share with us your favorite gondola memories or worst crypto scams — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! - info@worldcrunch.com

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