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Exponential Ebola

Here are two good things about the Ebola virus. It is unlikely to mutate into a version that can spread through the air, as some other viruses have done. And people who have been infected by Ebola cannot pass it on to others during the incubation period (between two and 21 days). Only when they develop detectable symptoms, notably fever, do they become infectious to others, and only by the transfer of bodily fluids.

Here are three bad things about Ebola. The “bodily fluids” that can transmit it include even the tiniest droplet of sweat: just the slightest touch can pass the virus on. The death rate for those who become infected is 70 percent. And the US government’s Centers for Disease Control warned recently that we could have 1.4 million cases of Ebola by January.

Since the number of known cases so far is only around 7,500, that suggests that the number of new cases is doubling approximately every two weeks. This is called exponential growth: not 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… but 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32…. If you put one grain of wheat on the first square of a chess-board, two on the second, and keep doubling the grains every square, there are not enough grains of wheat in the world to get you to the 64th square.

Exponential growth always slows down eventually, but the question is when? A vaccine would slow it down, and the British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline already has one under development, but it is still in an early stage of testing. Human volunteers are now being given the vaccine to check for unforeseen side effects.

If no serious side-effects are found, the vaccine will then be given to health workers in West Africa. A process that normally takes years is being compressed into mere months, and ten thousand doses of the vaccine are already being produced (for the health workers). But it will be the end of the year before we know if it actually gives a useful degree of protection from the virus.

If it does, then millions of doses would have to be produced and injected into the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where Ebola is already an epidemic – or tens of millions of doses if the disease has spread by then to more populous countries like Ivory Coast, Ghana or, worst of all, Nigeria, which has 175 million people.

Until and unless a vaccine becomes available in very large quantities, the only way to stop the exponential spread of Ebola in the affected countries is to isolate the victims, a task that is very difficult in mostly rural countries with minimal medical facilities. Liberia with 4.2m people, had only 51 doctors and 978 nurses and midwives at the start of the crisis, and some of those have already died or fled.
You don’t need to find and isolate everybody who gets the disease to break the exponential pattern. Just isolating 75 percent of them as soon as they become infectious would drastically slow the spread. But at the moment, in the three most affected countries, only an estimated 18 percent of the victims are being taken to treatment centres (where, of course, most of them will die).

This is why the most important intervention so far has been the dispatch of 3,000 US troops to Liberia, with the primary job of creating seventeen large tent hospitals and training 500 nurses to work in them. Britain is providing 200 new hospital beds in its former colony of Sierra Leone, with 500 more in the next few months. Cuba has sent 165 health workers, China has sent 60, and France has sent various teams to help its former colony, Guinea.

But with the exception of the American aid to Liberia, it is all woefully inadequate. Nine months after the first case of Ebola was confirmed in Guinea, we are still playing catch-up, and playing it badly. Why is that? Aren’t the developed countries also at risk if the virus continues to spread?

Well, no, or at least their governments don’t think so. Even without a vaccine, they are confident that their health services can find and isolate any infected people quickly and prevent Ebola from becoming an epidemic in their countries. They are probably right, and so they see the limited help they are sending to West Africa as charity rather than a vital self-interest. But they may be wrong.

As Professor Peter Piot, who first identified the Ebola virus in 1976, said in a recent interview with Der Spiegel, “I am more worried about the many people from India who work in trade or industry in West Africa. It would only take one of them to become infected, travel to India during the virus’s incubation period to visit relatives, and then, once he becomes sick, go to a public hospital.

“Doctors and nurses in India often don’t wear protective gloves. They would immediately become infected and spread the virus.” Then you would have Ebola on the loose in a country of more than a billion people, millions of whom travel abroad each year. All hope of confining the disease to Africa and driving it back down to almost nothing, as was done in previous outbreaks, would be gone.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 6. (“Exponential…people”)

India and China: The Tortoise and the Hare?

Soon after winning an absolute majority in the Indian parliamentary elections, prime minister-elect Narendra Modi promised “to make the 21st century India’s century.” If he can avoid tripping over his own ideology, he might just succeed.

“India’s century” is a misleading phrase, of course, because no country gets to own a whole century. It wasn’t ever really going to be “China’s century” either, although China is a huge country whose economy has grown amazingly fast over the past three decades. What Modi meant was that India, the other huge Asian country, may soon take China’s place as the fastest growing large economy – and it might even surpass China economically, in the end.

At first glance this seems unlikely. India’s GDP is currently less than a quarter of China’s although the two countries are quite close in population (China 1.36 billion, India 1.29 billion). Moreover, the Chinese economy’s growth rate last year, although well down from its peak years, was still 7.7 percent, while India’s grew at only 4.4 percent.

But China’s growth rate is bound to fall further for purely demographic reasons. Due partly to three decades of the one-child-per-family policy, the size of its workforce is already starting to decline. Total population (and hence total domestic demand) will also start to shrink in five years’ time. And this doesn’t even take into account the high probability of a financial crash and a long, deep recession in China.

India’s growth rate has also fallen in recent years, but for reasons like corruption, excessive regulation and inadequate infrastructure that are a lot easier to fix. And the reason that Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won by a landslide was precisely that voters thought he would be better at overcoming these obstacles to growth than the worn-out and deeply corrupt Congress Party.

Modi did NOT win because a majority of Indians want to pursue divisive sectarian battles that pit Hindus against India’s many minorities, and especially against Muslims. That has always been part of the BJP’s appeal to its core voters, but its new voters were attracted by Modi’s reputation as the man who brought rapid development to the state of Gujarat, which he has ruled for the past thirteen years. They want him to do the same thing nationally.

They over-estimate his genius: Gujarat has always been one of India’s most prosperous states, and the local culture has always been pro-business. It was doing very well even before Modi took power there. Nevertheless, he might well be able to fulfill the hopes of his new supporters, for he arrives in New Delhi without the usual burden of political debts to special interests.
The BJP’s absolute majority in parliament means that Modi will not be constrained by coalition allies like previous BJP governments. This could lead to a leap in the Indian growth rate if he uses his power to sweep aside the regulations and bureaucratic roadblocks that hamper trade and investment in India. He also has a golden opportunity to crush the corruption that imposes a huge invisible tax on every enterprise in the country.
Unfortunately, his extraordinary political freedom also means that he will find it hard to resist the kind of sectarian (i.e. anti-Muslim) measures that the militants in his own party expect. He cannot use the need to keep his coalition allies happy as an excuse for not going down that road. Nobody knows which way he’ll jump, but it might be the right way.

Even some Muslims in Gujerat argue that Modi has changed since he failed to stop the sectarian riots that killed around a thousand Muslims there in 2001. Moreover, the election outcome makes it clear that a considerable number of the country’s 175 million Muslims must actually have voted for him. If he can keep his own hard-liners on a short leash, everybody else’s hopes for a surge in the economic growth rate may come true.

What might that mean over the next decade? It could mean a politically stable India whose growth rate is back up around 7 or 8 percent – and a China destabilised by a severe recession and political protests whose growth rate is down around 4 percent.

While neither political stability in India nor political chaos in China are guaranteed in the longer run, by 2025 the demography will have taken over with a vengeance. China’s population will be in decline, and the number of young people entering the workforce annually will be down by 20 percent and still falling. India’s population will still be growing, as will the number of young people coming onto the job market each year.

That will give India a 3 or 4 percent advantage in economic growth regardless of what happens on the political front. In the long run both countries may come to see their massive populations as a problem, but in the medium term it looks increasingly likely that India will catch up with and even overtake China in economic power.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“They…interests”; and “Even…true”)

Climate Change: Documenting the Blindingly Obvious

31 March 2014

Climate Change: Documenting the Blindingly Obvious

If you want to go on eating regularly in a rapidly warming world, then live in a place that’s either high in latitude or high in altitude. Alternatively, be rich, because the rich never starve. But otherwise, prepare to be hungry.

That’s the real message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on the impact of warming on human beings, released this week: the main impact is on the food supply. Of course, everybody who was paying attention has already known that for years, including the scientists. It’s just that scientists are professionally cautious, and will not say anything that they cannot prove beyond any shadow of a doubt.

An ordinary person will look out the back window and say that it’s raining. A scientist will feel obliged to look out the front window and make sure that it’s raining on the other side of the house too. (Cats do the same, although they are not scientists.)

Then he must consider the possibility that the drops that are falling on the window-pane are some other clear liquid, like vodka, and he must check that it’s not simply a back-projection onto the windows. Only then can he state with 95 percent confidence that it’s raining. (The other 5 percent allows for the possibility that he might just be hallucinating.)

The standards for evidence in science are much higher than they are in ordinary life, which is why it has taken the scientists on the IPCC so long to announce the same conclusion that any ordinary mortal who looked into the question would have reached five or ten years ago. (The scientists really knew it, too, of course, but they couldn’t yet prove it to the required standard.)

But the World Bank, for example, has long known approximately how much food production every major country will lose when the average global temperature is 2 degrees C higher. At least seven years ago it gave contracts to think tanks in every major capital to answer precisely that question.

What the think tanks told the World Bank was that India will lose 25 percent of its food production. China, I have been told by somebody who saw the report from the Beijing think tank, will lose a catastrophic 38 percent. But these results have never been published, because the governments concerned did not want such alarming numbers out in public and were able to restrain the World Bank from releasing them.

So, too, for example, the armed forces of many countries have been incorporating predictions of this sort into their scenarios of the future for at least five years. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States and the British armed forces have been doing it openly, and I have seen strong indications that the Russian, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Japanese armed forces are also doing so.

When you look at the scenarios in detail, they do not just predict serious food shortages in most tropical and sub-tropical countries (which account for about 70 percent of the world’s population). They predict waves of refugees fleeing from these countries, a proliferation of failed states in the sub-tropics, and even inter-state wars between countries that must share the same river system when there’s not enough water to go around.

That’s still farther than the IPCC is prepared to go, but to the military it’s as obvious as the nose on your face. As for what will happen to crop yields by 2050, assuming an average global temperature 3 degrees C higher by then, you have to go elsewhere for information. The military don’t plan that far ahead.

But the World Resources Institute published a map recently that estimated the losses country by country by 2050, and according to the WRI’s calculations they are really bad by then. Crop yields are down everywhere in the Middle East and the Mediterranean countries. In Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they are down by 50 percent.

All of Africa is down except Lesotho, Rwanda and Kenya, which are all or mostly above 1,000 metres in altitude. Food production is down in almost all of South America except Chile, also very high, where it is up. Crop yields in North America are down too, except in Canada and a few US states right along the Canadian border. High latitude is even better than high altitude.

In Europe and Asia, latitude is decisive. Countries far away from the equator will still be doing well; countries even a bit closer to the equator get hammered.

Russia, Scandinavia, Germany and Poland will be producing more food than ever, but southern Europe including the Balkans and even France and Ukraine will have lost production. India, China, and all of South-East Asia will be sharply down, as will Australia – but Japan will be only a bit down and New Zealand will be sharply up. It pays to be an island, too.

But this is not a “mixed” result, in the sense that it all works out about even. The total population of all the countries where food production will be stable or higher in 2050 will be less than half a billion. At least eight-and-a-half or nine billion will live in countries where food production has fallen, sometimes very steeply. It will be a very hungry world.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 5.  (“An ordinary…standard”)

Indian Election

By Gwynne Dyer

An Indian election is a marathon, not a sprint. The voting will start in a month’s time, on 7 April, but the voting will move around the country on nine phases, ending on 12 May. Then the votes will all be counted – there are 814 million eligible voters – and the result will be known on 16 May. But a lot of people think they know the result now: Narendra Modi of the BJP will be prime minister, and India will swing hard right.

The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party – Indian People’s Party) is a socially conservative, Hindu nationalist party that has only had one full term in national office, in 1998-2004. That time, it led a broad coalition that restrained its more extreme sectarian impulses. This time, however, many Indian observers claim to detect a “Modi wave” of support that might carry the BJP into power on its own. That would certainly make for interesting times.

Narendra Modi is best known for two things: the remarkable economic growth and relative freedom from corruption of his home state of Gujarat, and his alleged complicity in the massacre of more than 1,000 Muslims during religious riots shortly after he became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001.

The prosperity of Gujarat is obviously a political asset for him. The problem is that the his alleged religious extremism is also an asset in the view of some of his potential supporters. Indeed, that is probably why Modi has never expressed any regret or offered any apologies for the riots, an omission that many see as disqualifying him for high political office.

One such is Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister for the last ten years, who said when announcing his retirement in January: “It would be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as the next prime minister. If by a strong prime minister they mean you preside over the massacre of innocent citizens on the streets…I do not believe that is the sort of strength this country needs.”

But the ruling Congress Party is weighed down by corruption scandals and slowing economic growth, and Congress’s candidate for prime minister is none other than Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather have all held the job in the past. But Rahul’s political ideas seem half-formed, his rhetoric struggles under the burden of words like “empowerment”, and he is seriously lacking in novelty value.

Hence the “Modi wave.” The BJP currently leads Congress by a wide margin in the opinion polls: a January poll gave it 34 percent of the vote, almost twice as much as it got in the last national election in 2009. Voters prefer Modi to Gandhi as prime minister in virtually every state – and among 18 to 25-year-old voters the BJP outpolls Congress almost two-to-one.
So the pundits are speculating on how a BJP government would behave if it were led by Narendra Modi and had no need of coalition partners. There is no precedent for that. Last time the BJP government was a complicated coalition led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a poet and intellectual of moderate views, and none of its more extreme nationalist and Hindu positions got translated into actual policies.

If it were different this time, then India would be moving into unknown waters, and the possibilities would be as alarming as they were extreme. But that may just be Indian journalists trying to inject a little more tension and excitement into the story. The reality is probably rather less exciting.

34 percent of the vote is much better than the BJP got last time, but it doesn’t get you a majority in the parliament. In fact, it leaves you about fifty seats short of a majority, which tumbles you back into the real world of coalitions and deals, and having to put aside your cherished sectarian goals in order to make the deals work. Just like last time, even if your name is Narendra Modi.

Getting to 50 percent of the vote is almost impossible for any political party in the Indian political system, because a good deal of the vote always goes to regional and local parties that are quite separate from the big national parties. It’s especially hard for the BJP, because it’s hard to imagine that any of the 13 percent of Indians who are Muslim would vote for the BJP.

There are 39 parties in the current parliament, and there may be even more in the next one. Most of them would be willing to join a coalition government in return for concessions on whatever local or regional issues they or their voters care about, but they will also have red lines that must not be crossed or they will leave the coalition.

Assuming that the outcome of the election does leave the BJP as the biggest party, but without an overall majority, those red lines will probably confine Narendra Modi to relatively moderate policies on religious issues. If not, then India is in for a wild ride, and at the end of it the country may no longer be known for its tolerance.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“One…needs”; and “Getting…BJP”)