The Virus Loves Density: COVID-19 and the Story of Dharavi

As the coronavirus continues to maul societies, confounding the scientists with its cunning and increasingly finding victims among the young, who were at first considered to be largely invulnerable, it becomes all the more necessary to look closely beyond China and most of Southeast Asia to consider whether other countries or smaller political entities have had been able to prevail in stemming the transmission of the virus. One of the most astounding stories of such success comes to us from Dharavi, as described in my recently published book, The Fury of Covid-19:  The Histories, Politics, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus (Pan Macmillan), from where what follows is excerpted with some modifications. Dharavi is often described as the most “infamous” and largest slum in Asia, ‘a cliché of Indian misery’, before the film Slumdog Millionaire turned it into the most “famous” slum by bringing it to the attention of the West.  Somewhere between 850,000 and a million people live in Dharavi, which occupies an area of less than one square mile, or about 2.5 square kilometres, with a population density of over 275,000 per sq. km. To put that in perspective, the population density of New Zealand, which has also flattened the curve, earned the envy of the world, and won accolades for its young female Prime Minister whom the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and late-night American comic Steve Colbert fawn over as the jewel in the crown of world leaders, is 15 per sq. km.

The Virus Loves Density: Dharavi. Source: The Economic Times (2 April 2020).
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The WHO and the Viral Politics of Nationalism

Part II of “Who’s Responsible:  The WHO, Internationalism, and the Coronavirus Pandemic

The WHO’s record in helping contain the transmission of viruses, many of zoonotic origins, that have created global public emergencies over the last two decades and that are quite likely poised to become even more critical in the decades ahead is rather more mixed.  It may be that the organization was created with the intention of liberating the world from those diseases that had long been the scourge of humankind and whose very name evoked dread:  typhoid, malaria, yellow fever, and especially cholera and smallpox.  No one by the second half of the 20th century was quite thinking of the “plague”, even if the outbreak of pneumonic plague in Surat in 1994 (with bubonic plague discovered in three villages in Maharashtra), was a grimly reminder that this ancient pestilence had by no means disappeared.  The incidence of death from the plague in Surat was only 56, and it was soon relegated to the background as an anomaly, as something that was merely an unpleasant reminder of “medieval times” in a modern age that had purportedly moved beyond such calamities.

Surat1994Plague

Surat, 1994, during the plague. Source: Getty Images.

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The World Health Organization (WHO): Testing Times for ‘Medical Internationalism’

First of two parts of “Who’s Responsible:  The WHO, Internationalism, and the Coronavirus Pandemic

(Ninth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

The World Health Organization (WHO), which is today the face of international cooperation, or what remains of it, has kicked off yet another controversy as it seeks to lead the world out of the coronavirus pandemic.  On June 5, nearly two to three months after public health authorities in most countries had directed people to start wearing masks, the WHO’s embattled Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced at a press conference that the organization recommended that people living in areas experiencing “widespread transmission” of COVID-19 adopt a face covering.  That it took the WHO this long to issue such a note of guidance controverts the Continue reading