August 28, 2010

Mumbai’s Week Of Swine Flu A Year On

A little over a year ago, living rooms across Mumbai and outlying suburbs resonated to news anchors announcing breathlessly that the dreaded H1N1 (better known as Swine flu) finally had Mumbai in its grip. In the days leading up to that week in August, the deserted streets of Mexico City, described as the Ground Zero of H1N1 virus, seemed too far away to worry about, at least for the moment at any rate.

Even so there was palpable anxiety. It was inevitable that the US, for reasons not merely restricted to geography, was next. Then it was only a matter of time before India became the new home to H1N1. The panic was to exceed that seen for its predecessors – SARS and Bird flu, both having originated outside India, like H1N1.

For reasons I couldn’t quite understand, it was Pune, and not Mumbai, that first bore the brunt of Swine flu as it seemingly swept across the city. If news anchors were to be believed the end was nigh near and we might be advised to square up to our omissions, tally up our balance sheets, say our goodbyes, and wait out our turn, except the turn never came, to most that is.

But that did not stop panic stricken residents, helped in no small measure by news channels amplifying the unknown with the certainty of an astrologer, from laying to siege to pharmacies for N95 face masks, and as sure as sound follows lightening, black marketers ensured the N95 face masks were selling for several times their worth, and in no time would be out of stock. At least that’s what two chemists told me when I went looking for pharmacies to buy N95 face masks, price notwithstanding. Soon talk of duplicates flooding the market appeared. And news channels smelling a scandal, and rightly so, followed the frauds, and hoarders.

Accusations flew thick and fast. There was little scope for denials, for the risk of being proven wrong was great. Newspapers carried information of Swine flu testing centres while contact details of hospitals readied with wards in preparation to deal with H1N1 infections sought to pacify a nervous populace.

With N95 nigh well unavailable, notwithstanding expert opinion doubting its effectiveness in protecting the wearer against Swine flu, city residents were desperate to buy anything green that resembled a ‘face mask’, in turn ensuring that surgical masks or flimsy imitations of the same would soon become available on Dadar’s railway over-bridge.

If improvisation is the mantra for surviving Indian streets, manufacturers will find ready marketers for their products on Dadar foot-bridge where resilience meets the need to offer hope. Only a few months before H1N1 happened, I saw a vendor on the railway over-bridge selling a pair of Salwar Kameez for ten rupees. Shaking my head, I had walked past in a daze. But shortage of supply and desperation of the public in face of mounting incidences of H1N1 meant the paper masks went for the same price as a Salwar Kameez.

Dus ka ek, dus ka ek,” called out a youth holding out surgical masks as I joined commuters disembarking from local trains and making their way out of the railway station. (“Each for ten rupees, each for ten”).

Savdhani Bartho, Pachtao Mat, Lo Dus ka Ek, Dus ka Ek,” he exhorted passing commuters, appealing to their fears as they walked past, pushing them into deciding on buying from him. Handkerchiefs covered faces of a few while most wore no protection. (“Take precautions, regret not later, take one for ten, one for ten.”)

Sure enough, many responded. Gathering around him they paid for the surgical masks before going their way.

A few feet away another vendor held out more masks, selling each for Rs. 20/-. I could not tell the difference between the two. It did not matter. Commuters would assume the costlier one to be the better of the two.

A few feet further on I came upon a third vendor holding face masks for sale and conversing with a fellow vendor selling wrist watches from makeshift platforms. On busy mornings, and through the day, the railway foot-bridge at Dadar reverberates to calls of vendors selling items ranging from perfumes, shirts, umbrellas, shoes, and accessories of every kind imaginable to food items like paneer, fruits, and vegetables.

Voices of vendors rose a notch, each successive voice sounding louder than the one before, like a vessel clattering down a flight of steps, echoing louder as it gathers momentum down the incline before rising steeply in pitch as it comes to an abrupt and often thundering halt.

At the turn in the bridge that led down the flight of steps ending at the phool galli (flower lane), I passed the fourth vendor holding out more of the same masks, offering each for Rs. 10/-.

Badi Bimari se Bachho, Jiska Elaaj Nahin, Dus Rupaiyya, Dus Rupaiyya,” he announced, reminding commuters of the need to safeguard from a ‘big disease that has no cure’.

Commuters streamed past him, most hurrying to make time at their places of work while still others, too weighed down with more pressing concerns than Swine flu, barely registered the surgical masks on sale with the vendor, his exhortations lost in the background noise of the everyday.

Walking into my office later that morning, past a large poster calling attention to the DOs and DONTs relating to the spread of germs, the reality of H1N1 (Swine flu) finally hit home. There was no escaping it anymore, at least not the daily reminders at any rate.

If precautions listed in posters put up at office entrances were not enough, more were to be found the moment I got on trains heading home.

Back home, switch on the television and there was even more of it. Early mornings were no different. The newspapers the newspaper boy flung against the door whispered, ‘Swine flu.’

A week is a long time in Bombay, longer still on Mumbai local trains. ‘News flu’ having elevated Swine flu to one of eminent danger, speculating on the likely surge given the crowded local trains that ferry commuters to work and back, travelers had taken to using handkerchiefs to cover their faces.

With N95 face masks proving to be elusive, handkerchiefs came in handy. Moreover, the Mumbai commuter will not be bothered with carrying a mask around once out the train. Most would find it too much of a hassle.

I wore my handkerchief in similar fashion.

The week soon passed. And having largely found themselves none the worse for the caution they exercised with what were in effect cloth placebos, the handkerchiefs came off within a week of their going up, even as the death toll from H1N1 infections rose steadily in Pune, and to an extent in Mumbai. And life went on, though not quite.

The days of uncertainty triggered by a seemingly rampaging Swine flu were leading into India’s ‘festival season’ beginning with Nag Panchami, Raksha Bandhan, and Krishna Janmashtami in Shravan masa (month). Bhadrapad masa follows Shravan masa, when Mumbai celebrates Ganesh Chaturthi with a fervour that is unmatched across India. Navratri, Dussehra and Diwali soon follow in Ashwin masa, bringing to an end the three months that characterize much of festivities across India. Swine flu fears fronted the festivities, the elephant in the room that no one dared dismiss.

It was not so much Raksha Bandhan that put the Maharashtra Govt. on tenter hooks as the Krishna Janmashtami (Gokulashtami) celebrations when ‘Govindas’ by the truckloads, cheering from the back of the trucks, reveling in the light drizzle even as they sport their team affiliations on their backs, usually the name of their Mitra Mandal and local sponsors, roar into neighbourhoods across Mumbai and outlying suburbs to participate in dahi handi (literally meaning a pot of curd).

They make their way to Mitra Mandals hosting dahi handi to compete as much for the prizes awaiting teams successfully forming human pyramids in breaking dahi handis, often tied at dizzying heights, as for the spectacle this much loved festival marking the birth of Lord Krishna in Mathura and celebrating his childhood exploits in pursuit of dahi handi for the dahi though it was butter he was actually after.

Some rickshaw drivers from the north of India will often display stickers of the young Krishna, also known as Bal Gopal, on their windshields. I never stopped to ask them how they manage to see through the windshields. If I did I could well expect them to smile and point to Lord Krishna and say, “He’ll take care of us. He always has.”

The advent of politicians and advertisers seeking to cash in on the ready made platform that large congregations of youth presented them with has ensured this ancient festival, easily dating back several thousand years, did not escape commercialization at the main venues, in turn raising prize money as competing political parties sought to be known for organizing the ‘biggest’ dahi handi in town.

Stakes went up. And more youth groups (locally organized as Mitra Mandals) threw their hats in the rings. Many would return home with serious injuries from falls as human pyramids in pursuit of the dahi handi came crashing down.

Word soon went out that the ‘big’ dahi handi celebrations patronized by political parties and local toughs and known for drawing participants and spectators in their thousands through the day stood cancelled on account of fears stemming from Swine flu spreading among such large gatherings.

That left small neighbourhoods to celebrate Krishna Janmashtami by organizing dahi handi in their neighbourhoods. Each Mitra Mandal stepped up and carried on with the tradition of dahi handi in their respective neighbourhoods. Even so I was surprised upon stepping out in the late afternoon to find most dahi handis, strung from ropes spanning roads and decorated with garlands, already broken and crowds dispersed for the day.

At Chandanwadi, a black board erected roadside by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a relatively new local political party known for its visceral hatred of non marathi-speaking people, announced its neighbourhood involvement with its Navnirman Mitra Mandal. The board was empty of any announcement relating to dahi handi. A mobile stall selling catapults stood under the display board. An adjacent stage set up for the occasion was empty, the function welcoming participating ‘Govindas’ and prize distribution having concluded early in the day.

The broken pot still hung from where it was strung over the road, and auto rickshaws plied the roads as people went about their daily lives.

An elderly man reclining in a chair on a raised platform along Almeida Road in Chandanwadi told me that folks finished up with dahi handi quickly, and early “because of that new disease in town”.

His elbows resting on armrests pantomimed as much an acceptance of the new reality as an helplessness dealing with it. He spoke in Marathi. Two little girls from the neighbourhood played in the open space while the man kept his eye on them, watching the roar of trucks carrying cheering ‘Govindas’ past us.

A local youth sat with his back to the wall by a display board of the local Mitra Mandal aptly named Bal Gopal Mitra Mandal, established in the year 1975 and registered with the Govt. of Maharashtra. It is likely that the elderly man was once associated with the Bal Gopal Mitra Mandal in his youth, its survival the only certainty in a fast changing city.

Rarely turning to me as he spoke, he wondered where these new diseases come from. “In my time we never had this disease (H1N1), and the one before that (referring to Bird flu).” Then he turned his palms upward, facing skywards, as if prostrating to the will of the almighty before venting his fears in a calm tone.

“I sometimes wonder what else is in store for me before my time is over and how will these young children cope with all of it!”


Riot Kitty said...

I love the way you write. What made you choose this topic?

The media here were very irresponsible about H1N1 - they made it sound like everyone was going to fall over and die, whereas a very small handful of people actually did.

TALON said...

There was so much hype and fear generated through the media over a pandemic that never occured that it makes me wonder what will happen if a truly dire situation arises.

Ugich Konitari said...

A wonderful post. About a place I sometimes enjoy (dont go there so often now) . The Dadar train overbridge, say, around noon. But I wasnt around when the mask entrepreneurs were in action.

I was out of India last August , and heard all about the H1N1 stuff there. When we returned, a big fuss was being made and passengers were asked to pass through a panel of doctors, sitting behind desks. There was not even a cursory physical check, or weeding out of people showing some kind of symptoms. We all filled a form, they asked if we had a fever within tha last so many days. Everyone said no , and we were out. So many doctors put on show, not doing anything clinical, whereas they would have been more useful attending to actual sick people in JJ or something.

Same with the masks. None of these actually prevent the H1N1 virus from entering your system. You just think it does.

Sometimes, I think the whole thing is a set up. First the selected publicity, then the hype, then government takes notice, UN declares pandemic, certain pharma companies happen to have the vaccine, the WHO recommends it, folks here are suspicious about it, but many people rush to take it. I actually wrote about it Here .

What we , as a city , always ignore in the great race to become Shanghai, is that money cannot replace a decent clean environment, and the virii really dont give a damn about money.

Siddarth said...

Media is over rating the issue as usual! BTW, Loved the way you wrote the article. Keep it up!

Lynn said...

Interesting that the threat of that flu / virus inspired the selling of so much paraphenalia. The handkerchief sounds like a reasonable and free alternative.

xxx said...

be well :)

g. hariharan said...

A similar situation happened in USA sometime around 1996, when everyone panicked about the Y2K problems that might come up. Some said, the nuclear missiles would set off without warning because of the computers controlling them not recognizing the new century. Some said airplanes would fall off the skies, water supply would be disrupted, and so on. Many people bought huge quantities of essential supplies, fearing disruption.

What is very clear in hindsight is that a lot of Indian software engineers entered the US market, purportedly to help correct the date codes in all computers, and finally ended up learning the US business model and hogging the software market since then.

Clinton was President then. I dont know how he felt about the whole Y2K situation later, but a lot of companies made a lot of money making use of the hype.

Same thing with astrologers and religious pundits and the 1962 alignment of 8 planets. It will be similar in 2012 when a "dire" astrological combination is supposed to occur, and the "world would be no more".

Do we ever learn? Just shrug your shoulders, smile, and move on.

Joyti said...

What a wonderfully written piece. I think that all around the world, the media tends to hone in things that scare the public...diseases, crime, and the like...the things that help sell papers and thus bring in advertising revenue. The scare in the U.S. was, in many ways, similar to what you are describing.

Anil P said...

Riot Kitty: Thank you. Krishna Janmashtami falls of Sept. 2 this year. While newspapers still carry Swine flu related reports I noticed there wasn't as much fear or worry of Swine flu this time around as there was in the days leading up to Gokulashtami (Krishna Janmasthami) last year.

And the same lack of worry over H1N1 virus and its spread among train commuters.

Indian media reporting of H1N1 (Swine flu), while justified in its worry over potential impact, was more likely shrill to make the Govt. sit up and take notice or out of habit, but the downside was it helped push sections of the population into pressing the panic button, to an extent needlessly.

Talon: It might end up being the proverbial The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Ugich Konitari: Thank you. Those vendors selling face masks that ostensibly help combat H1N1 (Swine flu) were nowhere to be seen once that week of palpable panic had passed. Mumbai commuters are an hardy lot (sometimes a foolhardy lot some might say).

I read about doctors being stationed at airports to screen incoming passengers, but doubted if they could identify carriers who might not be showing outward symptoms of Swine flu (H1N1), moreover the volume of air passengers would make it difficult to apply any thoroughness in checks made of incoming passengers.

I suppose 'quick detection kits' were made available later.

However, the fear was very real. The return of Swine flu is usually the worry, as is the case with any virus that sweeps in the first time, and is subsequently dealt with often indiscriminate use of medicine, with dosage sometimes aborted midway, helping it gain a certain immunity as a result, and resistance to the same medicine the second time round.

Mosoons is when they had predicted the second coming, and I read papers reporting Swine flu patients admitted to hospitals as recent as last week, and I think the count of H1N1 fatalities was said to exceed 2,000 now.

Clean environment is also, to an extent that is, largely a function of cultural mores as well, and with mixed populations it becomes difficult to maintain cleanliness within the larger neighbourhood of mixed communities, though I do not see why civic issues cannot be equally imbibed by everyone. And municipal authorities are not as thorough as they might be expected to be.

Siddarth: Thanks. I suppose reporting is as much an art of balance as perspective, and often individual judgement will determine how skillfully the reporter will communicate without resorting to shrillness to convey the gravity of the situation.

Lynn: Oh yes, entrepreuners will seize the opportunity to make quick money. Most people used handkerchiefs as an antidote though medical opinion was that handkerchiefs are of no use in protecting one from Swine flu.

Robyn: Thank you.

G. Hariharan: Yes, I remember the Y2K onslaught. And yes, it did open the door to Indian Software personnel and companies an entry into the USA. Those were the days of COBOL, and the like.

Like you rightly said, the launch of nuclear missiles as a result of glitches arising from Y2K was alarmist to say the least.

About 2012 that astrologers have predicted as the day of reckoning since a very, very long time, with the earth facing an unprecedented catastrophe, I would still hedge my bets on that one, especially given the recent reports of scientists predicting solar storms unprecedented in scale and scope to hit the Earth in 2012.

Hopefully it will come to a pass and we will continue the good old way.

Indie Tea: Thank you. Like you rightly said, the media will seize on impending "end of the world" stories to make people sit up and take notice.

Lindsey @ FRESH AIR + FRESH FOOD said...

Wow! What an interesting look into a world on the other side of the globe! Thanks so much for your comments on my blog - we do live in two very different places. And yet I remember the H1N1 fear here in Northwest, USA as well. Lots of canceled school, only a few masks and kerchief covered faces, lots of hype on TV, few local cases of H1N1 reported.

Grannymar said...

I always enjoy your journey through each topic.

In the UK, the rush was to have people vaccinated against H1N1. We did have those posters but not the rush for face masks. Now they are warning us about Pandemrix, one of the vaccines used. We are told that it can cause serious cases of sleeping sickness.

Coffee Messiah said...

Wow, what an interesting review of a medical twist that, although newsworthy here and many people in a hurry to get shots, we didn't.

Unlike the crowds there, 99% of the time, we are not in areas over run with people and do watch what and where we are in relation to the masses.

Thanks for sharing and the photos to enhance the theme you chose this time around!


anan said...

a very different angle to the swine flu...good one indeed

rohini said...

Nice post. thnx for visiting and reading my post..and aslo for leaving ur in bhilai..swine ful has reached...people are scared..dr's are advising test even if the patient is having viral fever...precaution is better than cure for sure...i was afraid for my kid..which is quite obvious..

and agn thanx..hope ur next visits i will be comign here again:)

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

how well you wrote!

it made me smile to think of the mighty mumbai masked:-)

dr.antony said...

In November 2009,I had written a blog" The day the swine flew".It was more or less medical,still covered the business behind the bloated up coverage of the issue.

"Was all the fuss about this disease warranted? Has it really benefited? If so,whom?The media and the governments did a good job in instilling fear in the the world.Traditionally ,fear is used as a control mechanism by dictatorships.But now,democratic governments are also turning to fear( Like they use the threat of terror strikes,missiles from Iraq,atomic tests and bird flu !!) to control their populations.And then the media who loves a bit of drama in everything. In general one would expect the governments to calm their people,but the opposite is happening!

"Who has benefited out of all this fuss?The Swiss pharmaceutical Giant Roche is selling more Tamiflu than they expected.Sales of Tamiflu is expected to reach about 3 billion francs this year,a huge boost to company coffers.The pharmaceutical sector has not been doing very well this year,so the pandemic has been a good windfall"

"Everyone ,who has got something to do with Inflienza, has gained form the pandemic. The Swiss drug maker,Novartis expects to sell flu vaccine worth 700 million dollars in the 4th quarter of this year.Glaxo and Aventis are expected to sell higher.The expected sale of flu vaccine next year is somewhere between 10 to
18 billion dollars"

"The disease probably is getting controlled.Everyone has had their share of the windfall,and probably it is time for a dog flu or cow flu next year" !!

Pranavam Ravikumar said...

Well explained...

radha said...

I went to Pune at the same time. A marriage. Could not miss it. All co-passengers had a face mask. And they found it hard to speak and be understood. So they kept pulling it lower all the time, to speak, to eat! People were horrified that I was making the visit. But I did, with no mask and came back in one piece. And I also thought it was the best time to have travelled to the place. The roads had no traffic and moving around was a song!

Gauri Gharpure said...

there was similar anxiety in Kolkata too.. I remember the first casualty in Pune, of a 14-year-old girl, and how the media was able to sensationalize her death with rather sad visuals of her mother blasting the doctors at Jehangir. and of course, the sale of masks soared, so did the sale of dettol and other such products. it was nice to recapitulate the entire episode here.. goes to show we as a race are far more resilient than thought to be..

karen said...

Thanks for a very full and interesting post! Great photos too.. I have been catching up on old ones as well - always a wealth of information here!

dr.antony said...

I forgot to add the last and most important part of my comment.
Your inimitable style....Your images will outlive the stories behind them.Tooooo.. good.

Niranjana (Brown Paper) said...

I like that the all but one of the dudes selling the masks aren't wearing them--and the people are buying them anyway.
I had a bit of a hand sanitizer fetish going when it hit Canada, but then my natural Indian fatalism thing kicked in, and I quit.

Magan said...

Anil, I remember my family trip to home last year when the H1N1 hype was on. B'lore airport had made 'strict' checks mandatory for all inbound passengers. As we arrived again this year, the flue season peaked and again we heard of several patients and deaths mostly in Pune. It baffles me about why Pune. Your write up is a good reminder of what happened and although we try, how appalling are our hygine habits or lack of it. That black marketing begins as soon as demand increases.

Actually, we'd prevent so much of money spent on curing common cold only if we start covering our nose and mouth with a mask. We had it to be learnt in our 'Community Living' but none of our systems ever implemented it. Yes, these communal ailments are a spoilsport in our tradition, culture and festive rich country and definitely dampen our spirits although the increased cloudbursts in the recent years have not been able to do that.

I've read and heard of these 'money handi' breaking 'mitra mandals' having mushroomed during the season in Goa while the delicious algae in Goa is harvested to extinction.The cash prizes to be won and the purse only depends on how powerful is the local politician. They have swelled to the tune of 5 lakh (US$10,000) often only competing with their bellies. A sign of India's prosperity? I wonder. With almost no care taken for security, quite a few of them suffer serious injuries while the human pyramids have grown 9 to 10 rungs high. I miss some of those festivities though. I reckon that their celebration will change with times but it definitely serves a link to the roots.

Merisi said...

I stepped on an airplane this past August, and promptly caught the flu, putting me in bed for almost a week.

It is always easy to say once its safely out the doors, that there was no dangerous situation but for the media hype. If nothing would be done, nobody warned, the scandal would be that nobody warned us about.

I have no statistics at hand, but it seems to me that nowadays we are maybe - luckily, at times - more aware of dangers lurking and traveling much faster than in the so-called good (good? millions of deaths in 1918 due to flu?). And sometimes we may even be better protected.

Pink Mango Tree said...

Nice post! Loved the pictures too!!!!

...the way the media carry the reports - God! u can die even other wise, swine flu need not be the reason! Well it cud be cos of fear and panic!

Dream Maker said...

nice post. Definitely media created a panic situation..but maybe that is the reason why it hasn't spread so badly..

Erratic Thoughts said...

A very exhaustive post on H1N1 hype in Mumbai.I was not in Mumbai that time but I was getting frequent similar updates from my family/frnds.
"dus ka ek,dus ka ek" is a typical shout-out but a road0side vendor and they take full advantage of the circumstances....
Back in Mumbai for dahi handi this year it is really something to see those janmashtami pics back then.

Keep writing,it is captivating!:)

Pradeep Nair said...

Whether one blames the media or not, the fact is H1N1 is a new disease. Second, it has highlighted the point that we must give utmost importance to health and cleanliness.