Making us pay with our lives

‘Could you get a small size pizza and some French fries for Zafrullah and send to GK? He is not eating and maybe a change in menu will help.’  It was our very own freedom fighter Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury that Shireen Huq, his wife, was talking about, and I wasted no time in my search for the pizza.

Rahnuma Ahmed being tested for Covid-19 in our flat in Dhanmondi. ─ Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

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The Gonoshasthya Kendra’s Corona Test Kit. Cui Bono?

Cui bono is often a good starting point in an investigation. Literally meaning ‘who benefits?’ Whoever appears to have the most to gain from a ‘crime’ is probably the culprit. Stepping back from the ‘whodunnit’ nature of the drama that is playing out, we could be less dramatic and just look at the meaningfulness or advantages of carrying out an important function.

At this point in Bangladesh, as in many other countries, there are few things more important to do, than to detect whether or not one has been infected by the Covid-19 virus. For many, it could literally be a matter of life and death. It is beyond dispute that an efficient, accurate and affordable kit that could be made readily available would be of immense value to the country.

Zafrullah Chowdhury 6506Zafrullah Chowdhury (born December 27, 1941) is a Bangladeshi public health activist. He is the founder of Gonoshasthaya Kendra (meaning the People's Health Center in Bengali), a rural healthcare organisation. Dr. Chowdhury is known more for his work in formulating the Bangladesh National Drug Policy in 1982. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

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The Price of Social Distancing

Rahnuma forwarded me Laily’s wrenching FaceBook post. Her father is dying, far away in a UK hospital. Heart breaking, holding back tears, she and her family watch from afar. Unable to touch, to hold, to caress the person who is dearest to them. This is what Corona means in real terms. It was through her research on one of my heroes, the peasant leader Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, and later through them staying at the Pathshala Guest House, that we got to know her. Bhashani’s principle of putting nation before self and his simple lifestyle is a very distant reality from the ruling politicians of today. Despite its pain, Laily’s post reminded me of my own dad and my childhood. I remembered dad resting in his easy chair. His belly just the right slope for us kids to use as a living slide. We used to call him bhalluk (bear), and every day as he rested after lunch, my cousins and I would line up behind the easy chair, clamber up to his shoulders and slide down his belly. Mum would freak out, as my dad had osteomyelitis as a child and had never fully recovered. His shins were always exposed and very fragile. Quite apart from wanting him to rest, the idea that we might aggravate his injury worried her. Abba was unperturbed, happy to be teddy bear to a room full of kids. We’d run back to the end of the queue to slide down again. We were always tired before Abba ever did. We didn’t think of it as physical contact in those days. When Abba died, I remember feeling the stubble that had grown on his soft skin, as I stroked him before we laid him down.

Newcomers to Bangladesh are overwhelmed by the generosity of our village folk. They love it when strangers clasp their hands, but are somewhat unsure when seconds, sometimes minutes pass, before their hands are reluctantly released. Years ago, when we at Drik were trying to improve our English skills, we struck a deal with the local office of the British Council. Unable to pay for the expensive English classes, we negotiated a barter. We would do their photography. They in turn, would teach us English. It wasn’t just language skills though, it was learning English culture. One of the first things our English teachers told us was to release the hand quickly! Prolonged physical contact could make the English squirm.

Workers sleeping in shipbreaking yard in Rahman Yard in Chittagong. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
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Looting in the Time of Corona

The Jamuna TV report was disturbing. The CNG drivers are desperate. Rikshaw driver Nazrul from Kurigram waits forlornly for a passenger. Another waves the 30 taka he has earned. Face taut, eyes glazed he stares from his perch. ‘Will this 30 taka feed me or feed my wife?’ he asks angrily. The roadside shopkeeper doesn’t have customers, but there is no respite from the rent, or the ‘chanda’ (protection money) he has to pay the local ruling party thugs. Roadside restaurants feed these workers. Yes, close contact is risky, and the far from ideal washing arrangements, signals a high risk of contagion. But they have little choice. Death by starvation is no better a choice than death by virus. ‘God will save us,’ one of them says, ‘what other hope do we have?’ The kids who work in the restaurants get ‘food for work’ in a very literal sense. They draw no wages. When there is work, they get fed. He’s a plucky kid. Putting up a brave face to the fact that today he’ll go hungry. No promises for tomorrow. Lockdown, hand wash, drinking lots of water, social distancing. I recognise the importance of these fancy terms. But what does that mean for the 67 million day-labourers of Bangladesh to whom water itself is a luxury?

Early in the morning a day labourer waits for work, near Dhaka University Campus. March 2020.

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Runs in the Family

New findings about schizophrenia rekindle old questions about genes and identity.

In the winter of 2012, I travelled from New Delhi, where I grew up, to Calcutta to visit my cousin Moni. My father accompanied me as a guide and companion, but he was a sullen and brooding presence, lost in a private anguish. He is the youngest of five brothers, and Moni is his firstborn nephew, the eldest brother’s son. Since 2004, Moni, now fifty-two, has been confined to an institution for the mentally ill (a “lunatic home,” as my father calls it), with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He is kept awash in antipsychotics and sedatives, and an attendant watches, bathes, and feeds him through the day.

My father has never accepted Moni’s diagnosis. Over the years, he has waged a lonely campaign against the psychiatrists charged with his nephew’s care, hoping to convince them that their diagnosis was a colossal error, or that Moni’s broken psyche would somehow mend itself. He has visited the institution in Calcutta twice, once without warning, hoping to see a transformed Moni, living a secretly normal life behind the barred gates. But there was more than just avuncular love at stake for him in these visits. Moni is not the only member of the family with mental illness. Two of my father’s four brothers suffered from various unravellings of the mind. Madness has been among the Mukherjees for generations, and at least part of my father’s reluctance to accept Moni’s diagnosis lies in a grim suspicion that something of the illness may be buried, like toxic waste, in himself. Continue reading “Runs in the Family”

The Imperial Cocktail

How the gin and tonic became the British Empire’s secret weapon.

By Kal Raustiala|in Slate.

This stuff really is medicine.
Photo by Brian Jones/iStockphoto/ThinkstockThe gin and tonic is having a moment. From Spain—where gin and tonics are practically the national drink—to our summer shores, the venerable G-and-T is everywhere. House-made tonic is on the menu in restaurants from coast to coast, and in many fine bars gin and tonics come in dozens of varieties, with special tonics and fruit garnishes matched to distinctive artisanal gins.Of course, a lot of classic cocktails are enjoying a resurgence—part Mad Men, part the boom in distinctive small-batch spirits, and part the waning fad of faux speakeasies with handcrafted bitters and bartenders in arm garters chipping away at blocks of ice.

But the gin and tonic is different. For one, it requires no unusual ingredients, and it’s very simple to make. More interestingly, the gin and tonic has a storied history that places it at the heart of the largest empire the world has ever known. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to say that the gin and tonic was as essential a weapon for the British Empire as the Gatling gun. No less an authority on imperial power than Winston Churchill once declared, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

What was the source of the gin and tonic’s great power? As is sometimes said of tequila, the gin and tonic is not just a drink; it’s a drug.

The story begins with the jewel of the British Empire: India. British India comprised both more and less than modern-day India. More, in that it included large parts of what are today Pakistan and Bangladesh. Less, in that much of India under the British Raj was quasi-independent, in so-called princely states that were nominally sovereign but largely under England’s thumb. India was so important to the empire that in 1876 Queen Victoria added the moniker “Empress of India” to her title. Her successors continued that practice right up till 1948, under George VI (he of The King’s Speech fame).

Controlling India, in short, was central to the British Empire and to Britain’s sense of itself as the world’s leading power. What allowed Britain, a small island far off in the northern reaches of Europe, to rule over the vast semi-continent of India for so long is a subject of some debate. But in Jared Diamond’s famous words, Europe’s military superiority was built on a mix of “guns, germs, and steel.”

Guns and steel clearly favored powers like Britain. These innovations allowed Britain (and other European countries) to deploy weapons such as machine guns at a time when many societies around the world still used swords and spears. But germs were more equivocal. Malaria in particular was a virulent killer of colonized and colonizer alike. While malaria has a long history in Europe, it began to be eradicated in the 19th century, and even earlier it was never as deadly as it was in tropical locations. So as Europeans established colonies in the tropics, they faced a serious and often mortal threat from the mosquito-borne disease. Soldiers and civilian officials alike succumbed to it.

In the 17th century, the Spanish had discovered that indigenous peoples in what is now Peru used a kind of bark to address various “fevers.” Stripped from the cinchona tree, the bark seemed to work well for malaria. The “Jesuit’s bark,” as it was known, quickly became a favored treatment for malaria in Europe. (Before the discovery of the cinchona tree, European malaria remedies included throwing the patient head-first into a bush in the hope he would get out quickly enough to leave his fever behind.)

Eventually it became clear that cinchona bark could be used not only to treat malaria, but also to prevent it. The bark—and its active ingredient, quinine powder—was a powerful medicine. But it was also a powerful new weapon in the European quest to conquer and rule distant lands.

Quinine powder quickly became critical to the health of the empire. By the 1840s British citizens and soldiers in India were using 700 tons of cinchona bark annually for their protective doses of quinine. Quinine powder kept the troops alive, allowed officials to survive in low-lying and wet regions of India, and ultimately permitted a stable (though surprisingly small) British population to prosper in Britain’s tropical colonies. Quinine was so bitter, though, that British officials stationed in India and other tropical posts took to mixing the powder with soda and sugar. “Tonic water,” of a sort, was born.

Still, tonic water was basically a home brew until an enterprising Brit named Erasmus Bond introduced the first commercial tonic water in 1858—perhaps not coincidentally, the very same year the British government ousted the East India Co. and took over direct control of India, following the so-called Sepoy Mutiny, a violent rebellion and counterattack.

Bond’s new tonic was soon followed by Schweppes’ introduction, in 1870, of “Indian Quinine Tonic,” a product specifically aimed at the growing market of overseas British who, every day, had to take a preventative dose of quinine. Schweppes and other commercial tonics proliferated both in the colonies and, eventually, back in Britain itself.

Gin, which in earlier days had been associated with vice and social decay among the lower classes in Britain—take a look at William Hogarth’s famous print Gin Lane for a taste—was by the 19th century making its long march toward respectability. It was only natural that at some point during this time an enterprising colonial official combined his (or her) daily dose of protective quinine tonic with a shot (or two) of gin. Rather than knock back a bitter glass of tonic in the morning, why not enjoy it in the afternoon with a healthy gin ration?

The gin and tonic was born—and the cool, crisp concoction could, as Churchill observed, start saving all those English lives.

And American lives. Quinine proved as critical to the battle over the Pacific in World War II as it had to the struggle over India. As Amy Stewart notes in her new book, The Drunken Botanist, Japan seized Java, the home of huge cinchona plantations, from the Dutch in 1942, cutting off nearly all of the Allied supply of quinine. The last American plane to fly out of the Philippines before it fell to the Japanese carried some 4 million quinine seeds. Unfortunately, the effort was largely in vain: The trees grew too slowly to provide sufficient quinine to the Allied war effort.

The gin and tonic, of course, was not enough to keep the British Empire alive either. Churchill, and many other British leaders, fervently believed that imperialism was essential if Britain was to remain a truly great power. But the strength and appeal of independence and self-determination was overwhelming, and India could no longer be held down by a small coterie of foreign officials, even with their quinine-based cocktails. By 1947 India—and Pakistan—were independent nations. Kenya, Jamaica, Malaya, and other tropical colonies soon followed.

Today, “empire” is a dirty word. But the gin and tonic lives on. The drink went from a bitter medicinal tipple in tropical outposts to a mainstay of British clubs and bars by World War I. In postwar America, the gin and tonic became synonymous with WASP summer retreats and country club lounges. Then, in the ’70s and ’80s, gin was almost forgotten as first classic cocktails went out of fashion and then vodka began to explode in popularity. Now the gin and tonic is back, especially at the very high end, where artisanal gins from Brooklyn, San Francisco, and all parts in between can be mixed with special tonics like Fever-Tree (get it?) or Fentimans.

But the gin and tonic certainly did the British Empire a lot of good. So as you mix your next one, remember the curious history of the drink—or is it a drug?—in your hand.

Troy Patterson on finding the perfect gin and tonic:

In pictures: India coal fires

Underground fires have been burning in the small dusty coal town of Jharia in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand for more than 80 years now. All efforts to put out the fires have been in vain. Photos: ©Arindam Mukherjee: BBC

Jharia coal fires
In places like Laltenganj, the fires are now burning overground. Continue reading “In pictures: India coal fires”

No religion is higher than humanity

Abdul Sattar Edhi


The most remarkable man I’ve ever met. If ever a man deserved a Nobel Prize… but then he’s a bearded muslim from Pakistan, so Kissinger and Obama and Peres will be given the Nobel Prize, but Edhi will not. Neither of course did Gandhi!
Pakistan: Hope amidst the chaos
What Matters
Humanitarian to a nation

Panos Journalism Fellowships

Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN)

The fellowships are being offered by Panos South Asia as part of a Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) project for enhancing climate change awareness and understanding among journalists in South Asia. Applications are invited from print, television, radio and web journalists writing / reporting on climate change and environment issues from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The fellowships will support writing / reporting stories on climate change from the region. The fellows will also have the opportunity to participate in a training workshop and field trip that will link them with their peers from the neighbouring countries and understand climate-related issues from a South Asian perspective. Applicants should have a strong motivation for working on climate change related issues in South Asia and should have worked on climate-related stories in their media. The application, by e-mail, would need to include the following:
1.?A covering letter, in which the applicant explains his/her motivation for applying for the fellowship, and how he/she would use the fellowship to build on previous experience (two to three pages).
2.?A detailed CV with the names and contact details of two references.
3.?Copies of two stories published on climate change or environment. TV/radio journalists can also provide the link to the programme.
4.?A copy of a scanned letter from the editor of the applicant?s publication, TV or radio channel supporting the application. Please write ?Application for the SACCA Fellowships 2013? in the subject line of your e-mail application.

Applications need to be received by Friday, 8th March 2013 to?psa@panossouthasia.org.
Only successful applicants will be contacted.

PUBLIC HEALTH GLOBALISATION CONFLICT MEDIA PLURALISM ENVIRONMENT
PUBLIC HEALTH GLOBALISATION CONFLICT MEDIA DEVELOPMENT ENVIRONMENT

 

The path through the fields

Bangladesh has dysfunctional politics and a stunted private sector. Yet it has been surprisingly good at improving the lives of its poor

The Economist Nov 3rd 2012

Villagers are doing it for themselves

ON THE outskirts of the village of Shibaloy, just past the brick factory, the car slows to let a cow lumber out of its way. It is a good sign. Twenty years ago there was no brick factory, or any other industry, in this village 60 kilometres west of Dhaka; there were few cows, and no cars. The road was a raised path too narrow for anything except bicycles. Continue reading “The path through the fields”