The wicked problem of washing hands in a pandemic

The best defence against Covid-19 is washing hands to a 20-second rendition of “Happy Birthday”. It makes for an easy public service announcement and democratises infection control.   This isn’t a simple fix in India. Washing hands is a luxury when many households don’t have enough water to drink and bathe in. The environmental magazine Down To Earth made some handy calculations. A family of five, should they follow the WHO’s hand-washing guidelines to the tee, will need to use 25% more water every day.
Source: Down To Earth
Now, this extra 25% is easy to access if you have a 24×7 piped water connection. But only 17% of the population have that luxury. The rest depend on private sources, like tankers, which cost an arm and a leg. To wash hands more frequently, people need more water. And that’s already in short supply. It pushes up prices and makes low-income communities more vulnerable. The result?   All forms of social distancing are likely abandoned.
(Source: PTI via The Telegraph)
I’m sure you see the irony here. Washing hands is the cheapest defence against infection. But limited access to clean water makes it a high-value commodity in short supply. That’s terrible news for infection control in peak summer months.   Surely supply is an easy problem to solve? Just lay more pipes, you’d think. Or dig more holes in the ground to extract water. It’s not quite that simple. You see, water shortage (no access) isn’t necessarily a quantity issue.   Rather, water shortage is a symptom of a broken feedback loop.   Water shortage is a symptom   Let’s back up a bit. Technically, the demand for water should be met with supply. Citizens pay a tariff, and that goes towards extending and maintaining the water supply.   Simple cause and effect.
Unfortunately, the water supply system in India doesn’t work that way. Lower tariffs—what you are charged to use piped water—plays havoc between demand and supply. This is what water expert SR Ramanujam told The Ken about tariffs:
“The aim is to feed the unending demand by further tapping their depleted water resources or creating new ones. If there was more investment in demand-side factors, like pricing, then tariffs could be used by water authorities to cap demand within reasonable means.” Will India’s focus on supply and not demand for water spell its doom?, The Ken
Capping demand is essential. Because those with access to piped water (typically high-income neighbourhoods) pay much less than what it costs to supply them water. So they have little incentive to conserve water. This is a negative feedback loop for the water utility, which doesn’t have the money, resources or incentive to extend piped water coverage to more areas. Because they know the returns are going to be minimal.   This leaves more than 70-80% of Indians with partial or no access to piped water, and at the mercy of private water tankers.    Increasing supply won’t solve the access problems unless a new incentive structure for utilities is created. But that challenges fundamental notions of what citizens should pay for water, a politically-sensitive issue.   Quick fixes won’t work   So the government thought it would take the easy, more expensive way out. Build more pipelines and connect more people to a national water grid. With much fanfare, it dusted off a five-decade-old plan—re-christened the Jal Jeevan Mission—to bring a pipeline to every home by 2024.    This plan, too, is now in the doldrums, as Covid-19 mitigation has occupied most municipalities. At this rate, utilities will be under severe financial strain just to keep piped supply running, let alone extend it to a larger population.   The broken feedback loop goes on.  
Short end of the stick   Durga   The Indian government is ready to kick its cigarette habit. Let me explain.   On Wednesday, the government announced that it’s planning to sell its entire stake, or nearly 8%, in FMCG/hospitality/cigarette company ITC. This would help it raise around Rs 22,000 crore ($2.9 billion).   Now, ITC has a 77% market share in the tobacco industry, followed by Godfrey Phillips at a meagre 9.2%. It’s no small number. While ITC halted cigarette production in April due to the current lockdown, it has so far been a lucrative investment for the government.   Why would the government stub it out now?   Well, for one, cigarettes are a hard hit commodity this pandemic season.
Cigarette sales may fall by 10 per cent — the steepest decline in the last two decades — in this calendar year owing to a rise in taxes and the nationwide lockdown, according to market research firm Euromonitor International.
[…]   The last steepest decline witnessed by the sector was in 2015, when sales volume contracted 8.2 per cent to 88.1 billion sticks — a 15-year low then. Covid-19 impact: cigarette sales may see steepest decline in 20 years, Business Standard
But, more significantly, the government’s decision shows where the fate of the leading cigarette companies lies. An even more heavy-duty ‘sin tax.’ And Covid is the perfect excuse to double down on those taxes, possibly like never before. Just like in the case of alcohol.   There’s some evidence of this brewing—even before Covid struck India. Here’s a little something from December 2019 (emphasis added):
According to the report presented by the committee in the 38th GST Council meeting, the government received several suggestions to increase GST revenues. The notable ones include having a two-rate structure with 10 per cent and 20 per cent slabs instead of the five at present, special higher tax on sin and luxury goods and cess on cosmetics, gambling and recreational services. Two rate slabs, special tax on sin, luxury goods amongst suggestions to boost GST mop up, Business Today
For smokers, it’s going to be tough. More so because, thanks to a continued tobacco ban during lockdown, cigarettes sold in black cost almost double their MRP. And then some.   But investors are clear ITC might be the worst hit.
Shares of ITC dropped six per cent on Wednesday following reports that the government plans to offload its entire 7.9 per cent stake as early as this week.   […]   “The market is worried that the tax-starved government might go after tobacco products, after training their guns on liquor,” said an analyst. “Also, there are concerns of labour unavailability at ITC factories,” he added. ITC shares fall 6% amid concerns on stake sale, possible tax hikes, Business Standard
No surprise then that the government is ready to kick the habit.
The olive oil conspiracy   Nadine   Palm oil is a major export commodity for Malaysia and Indonesia. The countries depend on it almost as much as on their mineral fuel exports. Indonesia exported some US$14 billion worth of palm oil last year, and Malaysia close to US$ 9 billion.   Palm oil has a wide variety of applications in the food industry and in personal care. It is—or was—also used as biofuel, but in recent years there’s been pushback against the product over environmental concerns. Massive palm oil plantations are eating away rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia and destroying peatlands.   In 2019, the European Union laid the groundwork for phasing out the use of palm oil in biofuel. That’s one deep-pocketed buyer gone. China and India remain top importers, but 2020 also hasn’t been kind to palm oil exporters. With consumption down in India and China, there’s been less demand. Indonesian palm oil exports in the first quarter were down 57% and 22% to China and India, respectively.   Adding insult to injury, a WHO website recently put out nutrition advice to help boost immunity during the pandemic. It recommends avoiding the consumption of saturated fats, like palm oil, in food.   Avoiding saturated fats is pretty standard health advice, but the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) shot back, calling the advice “antiquated”. It accused the WHO of “promoting certain commodity oils while brushing aside palm oil.”   “Certain commodity oils”?   The WHO statement recommends unsaturated fats, found in fish, avocado, nuts, olive oil, soy, canola, sunflower and corn. Interestingly, the dietary advice was published by the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean branch.    But if the MPOC is trying to paint itself as the victim of an anti-palm oil health conspiracy spun by olive oil-producing countries, it’s probably going a step too far. 
Of beds and earbuds   Savio   India’s lockdown 3.0 is as good as Open Up 1.0, given that travel restrictions were loosened. That led to a flood of migrant workers returning home. Students and other stranded people, like tourists and pilgrims, will soon follow. That means testing in their home states, which means more testing kits and hospital beds. And some unlikely winners.
With India setting up hospital beds and preparing quarantine and housing facilities for returning migrants to combat the coronavirus pandemic, mattress brands, such as Kurlon and Sleepwell, have been booking record orders.   […]   A majority of demand is coming from the most affected states such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. “There has been a huge demand for mattresses for hospital and isolation beds in government and private hospitals, intensive care units (ICU), quarantine facilities and now for immediate housing for migrants. We are working round-the-clock to procure them,” said a person working with several state governments, seeking anonymity. With a spate of orders, mattress manufacturers rest easy, Mint
And also …
The country’s largest ear bud manufacturers Johnson & Johnson and Tulips have been approached by the government to produce swabs for COVID-19 testing, multiple sources told CNBC-TV18.   […]   Keeping this in mind, ear bud manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson as well as Tulips have started converting their existing lines to suit the manufacturing process for these Nasopharyngeal swabs. How ear bud manufacturers in India are working to create swabs for COVID-19 testing, CNBC TV18
Flying fish and airborne lettuce   Ben   Air cargo, as mentioned in yesterday’s edition, is normally subsidised by passengers. Without them paying for seats, air freight rates are through the roof. While some manufacturers have chosen to go by sea, what about perishable cargo that doesn’t hold up well to a long sea voyage?   Australia is quickly finding out that without affordable air freight, its businesses are losing access to outside markets. The Australian government has stepped in to help pay for weekly flights to Asian markets for its agricultural and seafood industry, which has the lovely side effect of giving business to its national carrier Qantas, and Singapore Airlines, who are carrying out these flights.   As nations look to jumpstart their economies after lockdown, their industries might find that external trade is just too expensive. Isolated island nations pay an even higher price on top for their geographical features.
South Korea, Taiwan show the way back for sport   Jaideep   South Korea and Taiwan have already shown the world how to contain a pandemic. The two countries are now leading the way in the world of sport as well.   The K-League, South Korea’s top football division and one of the best in Asia, kicks off today with a host of new measures. Some understandable, like no spitting, and some players found tougher to accept, like no talking to one another during the match.   The Taiwanese baseball league, which began last week, even solved for empty stadiums by putting cardboard cutouts and mannequins in the stands, a five-member band of robots playing drums, and cheerleaders live-streaming barbecues.   And starved sports broadcasters are lapping it up.   From struggling to find even a domestic broadcaster earlier this year, the K-League today has 10 international broadcast deals, including from China, Hong Kong, and Croatia. The league is also reportedly negotiating deals with broadcasters in the US, Australia, France, and Germany. ESPN will show six Korean baseball league matches per week in the US, along with highlights of the Taiwanese league.   While the Premier Leagues, NBAs, and IPLs of the world still figure their way out of Covid-19’s grasp, the pandemic could lead to niche, relatively unknown leagues becoming mainstream. India’s most popular fantasy sports platform, Dream11, is already allowing its users to bet on matches from the Taiwanese cricket and baseball leagues, the Belarus Premier League (football), and the Nicaragua Basketball League.   Could we soon see Incheon United fans in Mumbai? Or Rakuten Monkeys fans in Boston?
Architecture of the future   Savio   Not your normal stroll in the park
Austrian firm Studio Precht has designed the ‘Park de la Distance.’   “Although our ‘Park de la Distance’ encourages physical distance, the design is shaped by the human touch: a fingerprint. Like a fingerprint, parallel lanes guide visitors through the undulating landscape. Every lane has a gateway on the entrance and exit, which indicates if the path is occupied or free to stroll.”   No more shopping queue
Dutch design firm Shift Architecture Urbanism has designed a hyperlocal micromarket.   “The micro market’s standard spatial setup consists of a 16 square grid, aligned with three market stalls, each selling a different kind of fresh produce such as fruits, vegetables, dairy products or meat. The grid is taped on the pavement and fenced off with standard crush barriers. It has one entrance and 2 exits. In order to maintain social distancing each cell can only hold one person. In order to permit movement, the grid can only hold a maximum of 6 people.

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