MAY THEN, MAY NOW

Haseeb Ahsan, Dona Ann Jacob and Clifin Francis (Photo: courtesy Clifin)

It was to be an enjoyable journey on bicycle across a few countries. But the virus decided otherwise.

May 2018, Clifin Francis was on a bridge connecting Azerbaijan and Georgia. The cyclist had officially exited Azerbaijan at one end when Georgia on the other side, denied him entry. Trapped on the bridge in no man’s land, he was saved by a small, unexpected gesture. A German cyclist who crossed the border just ahead of him left him a local SIM. With that installed in his phone, he first contacted the Georgian embassy in Baku for help and when nothing came of that, he applied for an e-visa to return to Azerbaijan. It was night by the time he was admitted back into the country he had left. “ The experience taught me patience,’’ Clifin would tell this blog some six months later in Kochi. The bridge episode had been part of his journey, cycling from Bandar Abbas in Iran, to Moscow in Russia, for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

May 2020. This time there isn’t any no man’s land to worry of. Clifin is well within the boundaries of India, albeit a long way off from his home state, Kerala. Along with two other cyclists – Dona Ann Jacob and Haseeb Ahsan – the freelance mathematics teacher is at Asha Holy Cross in Agartala, an organization engaged in social work. The trio had started out from Kochi on December 15, 2019; their plan was to cycle from India to Japan and be there in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.  A report in the New Indian Express dated November 30, 2019, said that Haseeb, who is based in Bengaluru, had met Clifin in 2018 at the FIFA World Cup in Moscow while Dona, who is based in Mumbai and worked in Mexico, had backpacked in Mexico and Guatemala and cycled 1000 kilometers around Cuba. Their route (as per the New Indian Express report) was to take them from India to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and China before catching a ferry from Shanghai to Japan. “ We should have been in China now,’’ Clifin said, May 27 from Agartala in Tripura, where the trio had reached after cycling through Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal and Bangladesh. With India under lockdown, they have been stuck in Agartala since mid-March.

Roughly a fortnight after the trio commenced their journey from Kochi, China reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause, in Wuhan. That date of reporting to the WHO – December 31, 2019 – is generally treated as official start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which then proceeded to paralyze normal life in many countries (it has since been reported that the earliest cases in China likely go back to November 2019). In the initial stage, the difficulty for everyone was with regard to properly gauging the disease outbreak – what is it; will it be contained and extinguished, will it spread? Nobody really knew. The world celebrated the intervening New Year with usual enthusiasm. By January, 2020 the three cyclists were aware of the situation evolving in China. They had a long stint of cycling to do there in order to reach Shanghai. So it was a concern. “ But we pushed on nevertheless because we thought things would improve,’’ Clifin said. Further, the immediate world around them was still normal although on January 30, India reported its first case of COVID-19 (a student in Kerala, who had returned from Wuhan). The trio planned to enter Myanmar from Northeast India. To save time and distance, they crossed from West Bengal to Bangladesh for further passage to Tripura. When they were in Dhaka, the first reports emerged of COVID-19 in the city.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

By now, there was uncertainty over the Olympic Games as well. Japan was among countries affected by COVID-19 and in a mass gathering like the Olympics, visitors come from many countries, several of those already impacted by virus. Further on March 11, the WHO declared COVID-19, a pandemic. The number of cases was also slowly picking up in India and the disease claimed its first victim in the country on March 12. Question marks were now weighing down the bicycle journey. Proceeding on from Dhaka, the trio reached Akhaura, the border crossing between Bangladesh and the Indian state of Tripura. It is less than ten kilometers from Agartala, the state capital. They crossed into Northeast India on March 17. From the border crossing, they were taken in an ambulance to the government quarantine facility in Agartala. Seven days later, on March 24, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games to a date beyond 2020 but no later than the summer of 2021 (it has been rescheduled to July 23-August 8, 2021). Same day, midnight onward, India entered the first phase of a nationwide lockdown that has since been extended and was in its fourth phase at the time of writing.

Its website says that the Association for Social and Human Advancement (ASHA) was registered as a social service society in 1999. It is the official development wing of the Society of the Fathers of Holy Cross, Northeast India. After completing their quarantine at the government facility, the three cyclists shifted to Asha Holy Cross. They have been helping the organization with some of its charity work; they assist in making masks and packaging food for distribution. The organization has taken care of their food and stay. Asha Holy Cross also became shelter for a Spanish lady cyclist who met the trio at the government quarantine facility; on May 25 Hindustan Times reported that Yesenia Herrera Febles had left for Delhi by train to catch a relief flight back to Spain. “ I am hoping things ease up some more from June first week,’’ Clifin said. Flying home to Kerala with bicycles for baggage will be expensive. “ You have to first fly to Kolkata and then from there to either Hyderabad or Bengaluru before catching a flight to Kochi. Train will be cheaper but about as complicated in terms of connections. I don’t think there are any direct trains from the Northeast to South India at this point in time. Hopefully we find more options in June,’’ Clifin said. An IT engineer who once worked with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Clifin had resigned his job and become a freelance mathematics teacher after the travel bug got to him. Given COVID-19, the institute he taught at in Kochi has closed down. He is looking for online teaching assignments.

Clifin Francis (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Aside from figuring out a way to get back to Kerala, what bothers is the altered reality cyclists now confront. Riders like him, who travel long distances on their bicycle, count on the hospitality of people along the way. Theirs is not a race (competition is what most people live to court) but a way of seeing and knowing the world. The bicycle keeps you mobile but unlike motorized vehicle, it proceeds at an unhurried pace and keeps you in communion with the surrounding environment. You carry your own camping gear and live independently or you find cheap lodgings or you stay at the houses of those who take you in. You halt and hang around if a place engages your interest. “ People are a part of the journey,’’ Clifin said. It is possible that such human equation has been altered by the virus. Wary of catching infection, the old goodwill and warmth people had for travelers, may have ebbed, adversely impacting models of cycling like the one Clifin loves. It will be some time before the world is back to being as relaxed and welcoming of people as before. “ I think it will take time,’’ Clifin said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please click on this link for an account of Clifin’s 2018 bicycle trip to Moscow:  https://shyamgopan.com/2018/11/30/football-with-a-difference-the-fan-who-cycled-to-moscow-for-fifa-world-cup/ Please click on this link: https://www.instagram.com/snails.on.wheels for the cyclists’ Instagram handle.)        

COPING WITH THE MASK

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

With COVID-19, the face mask has become part and parcel of our lives. The general feedback from runners who ran wearing a mask is that it is an uncomfortable experience, which you may however get used to. In mid-May 2020, a report appeared in the media (it was circulated on social media as well) of a man in Wuhan, China, who ran wearing a mask and later suffered a collapsed lung. Although health officials believed the culprit was the mask, at least one newspaper reported that a senior doctor at the hospital where the patient was treated had said, the runner was already susceptible to “ spontaneous pneumothorax because of his tall, lanky frame.’’ Aside from speculating, it wasn’t possible to conclude anything from the report. To compound matters, there seems to be no conclusive study available yet on the subject of wearing a mask and running. We spoke to four doctors with strong ties to running, for their take on the subject.

“ There is no real research or study available on the subject yet. It is a new topic,’’ Dr Aashish Contractor, Director, Department of Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine, Sir H. N. Reliance Foundation Hospital, said of the emergent debate around mask and running.

The normal act of running outdoors has to be seen in its full context. It is usually done at an hour before the regular flow of people manifests on roads. There are not many people around and the number of runners among those choosing to be out at that hour is not high. It must also be remembered that runner is neither static nor moving at walking pace. The chances of catching the virus depends on various factors including how crowded an area is, proximity to others, the duration of exposure and the viral load one is exposed to. Against the above outlined outdoor scenario with mask and physical distancing additionally in place, it would appear that the chances of contracting the virus may be further minimized. However it must be borne in mind that exercise – like running – causes heavy breathing. “ I would think you should stay about 20 feet away from another person while running,’’ Dr Contractor – he was Medical Director of the Mumbai Marathon from 2004-2014 – said.

Wearing a mask and running is bound to be difficult. “ Depending on the level of exertion, it will be hard to breathe,’’ he said. One way of overcoming this is to be conscious of how much you are pushing yourself. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a good rule of thumb to stay on the safe side. “ If you feel your breathing is becoming hard, slow down. Do that because this is not anyway a time to be proving anything,’’ he said. A simple three ply surgical mask should be adequate for the morning run. Wear it when running and if you are feeling uncomfortable, use your judgement and pull it down a bit for easier breathing. Relief gained; pull it back on. As for the news report about the Wuhan runner who suffered a collapsed lung, Dr Contractor felt available details are inadequate to establish direct link between the condition and use of mask.

Given the number of races held under its banner, the 2019 edition of La Ultra The High was spread over five days in Ladakh. At that elevation oxygen content in the atmosphere is lower than at sea level; it is lower still atop the high mountain passes the ultramarathon’s route touches. “ We encourage runners, support crew and officials to use their bandanas; cover their face to protect themselves from the fumes of passing vehicles. In the case of someone who walked-ran all those five days, at least as many hours as in a half-day would have been spent protected by the bandana and breathing through it,’’ Dr Rajat Chauhan, Race & Medical Director of the event, said. Dr Chauhan specializes in sports & exercise medicine and musculo-skeletal medicine. “ It should be fine,’’ he said when asked about the issue of wearing a mask and running.

However, there were caveats to the observation. A pre-existing medical condition can alter the tolerance someone has for prolonged breathing through protective barrier. Further, you have to get used to breathing so. “ In the last two months of lockdown, I would have gone out of my house just twice. On both those occasions I wore a mask and it wasn’t easy doing the things I had to do while breathing through the mask. My suggestion to those who are in zones where they are allowed to venture out for running is that they first wear the mask indoors for about the same duration as they plan to be out. Get used to it,’’ he said, pointing to the heat of summer as another factor to be aware of.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Getting used to the mask gradually also makes sense because in Dr Chauhan’s assessment most amateur runners haven’t learnt to use their lungs efficiently. “ The typical amateur runner in India still has shallow, rapid breathing,’’ he said. Next, your intensity of exercise matters. Intense exercise puts commensurate demand on the respiratory system. “ Do workouts at low intensity. Very long and or high intensity workouts are best avoided,’’ he said. Aside from the fact that high intensity training is a period when risk of cardiac problems is higher (before things improve as product of having exercised), immunity also lowers temporarily in this phase. The present characterized by COVID-19 is not times when immunity should be fiddled with. The N95 mask, which is more effective in keeping the virus at bay, is tough to breathe through. The normal surgical mask is easier to breathe through but not as effective a virus-barrier. “ At the end of the day you are in the realm of informed decision-making,’’ Dr Chauhan said of the challenge in framing best practices for a problem yet to merit in-depth study and research.

“ Right now the ideal approach would be to consider everyone a potential carrier of disease and have everyone stick to safety protocols like using a mask or face cover. This is not a phase to be viewed only through the prism of sport. It is a question of humanity,’’ he said of world battered by COVID-19. His advice to runners was – focus on strength training.   “ I have this saying: if you can’t do something sitting down or standing up, how can you hope to do the same while moving? All those boxes have to be ticked before you get down to running or running with a mask on,’’ Dr Chauhan said.

When it comes to air quality, Delhi is among the world’s most polluted cities. Colonel Muthukrishnan Jayaraman is a doctor with the Indian Army. He is a regular runner. He first used a mask while running, in 2018, after he was posted to Delhi. “ It was extremely difficult. If you exert yourself, you need more oxygen and getting that in was a challenge,’’ he recalled. The mask was also prone to becoming wet with the moisture of one’s breath. Eventually he stopped using it. Roughly two years later, the mask has become a regular fixture in life due to COVID-19. “ We wear it at work. For that purpose, it is not a problem. But wearing a mask and running is a challenge,’’ the army doctor said. First, it defeats the very idea of a morning run, which is to do something enjoyable. Second, with the more effective masks meant to keep viruses at bay bound to make breathing hard, you end up using simpler models that are not totally competent as virus barrier; it is a compromise. You wear it only because any protection is better than no protection. Consequently, Col Jayaraman is of the view that choosing less crowded stretches of road to run on and maintaining adequate physical distancing is the best option. However, one aspect needs to be borne in mind, he said. During exercise and for a little while afterwards, there is typically a dip in immunity levels. Given this, other precautionary measures to prevent infection, shouldn’t be trivialized, he said.

“ In healthcare, masks have been used for over 100 years now. They are used mainly during an operative intervention, to prevent transmission of infection to the patient,’’ Dr Pravin Gaikwad, pediatrician based in Navi Mumbai, said. A runner and triathlete, he illustrated the equations at work while using precautionary measures like the mask.

For instance, the operation theater scenario of doctor wearing a surgical mask is a case of – I protect you. In the present situation of COVID-19, if 60 per cent of the population wears masks which are even 60 per cent effective in blocking the transmission of virus, the epidemic may be stopped. That would be a case of – I protect you, you protect me. In a highly infectious disease scenario like COVID-19, special N95 respirator is used to protect the healthcare professional and others from him. The equation here is – I protect myself and I protect you. In industry like asbestos, N95 with valve (which is more comfortable) is used to protect the worker but not others. This is a case of – I protect myself but I expose you. “ That would be sinister if used in the present situation,’’ he said.

Masks can cause discomfort. “ The N95 which fits snugly certainly causes a bit of discomfort upon prolonged use. Talking and being heard, is also an issue. Surgical masks are relatively more comfortable. Surgeons use them for a long time – even 9-10 hours – in long supra major surgical procedures,’’ Dr Gaikwad said, adding, “ compared to the surgical mask, homemade cloth masks or bandana, I presume, would be less breathable and therefore less comfortable.’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

According to him, running in a face mask would be uncomfortable in any weather. If one really wants to use it, one has to gradually introduce it in one’s regime. It would take a few weeks to months getting used to it. “ As the amount of air inhaled becomes limited, breathing becomes more laborious. Pace would obviously reduce and fatigue would set in faster. Mask becoming damp partly due to water vapor in exhaled air and partly from sweat is another issue making it not only uncomfortable but also less effective,’’ he said. He felt that for running, surgical masks would be more comfortable to use. “ Basically, the mask has to be breathable and effective….a homemade mask which has to be removed time and again will defeat the purpose,’’ Dr Gaikwad said.

Breathable masks don’t pose the risk of inhaling one’s own exhalation to a significant extent so as to cause disturbance in oxygenation. The droplet size of the present Corona virus is 125 microns and that of the CO2 molecule is 0.00023 microns, 1000 times smaller. Still, to check discomfort, the best option would be to keep runs shorter and gentler, striking a balance between getting exercise done and not exerting to levels inviting strain while using a mask. Choose to run after checking what zone (red, orange or green) your area is in and how authorities have relaxed lockdown rules therein. Even if you are using a mask, maintaining physical distancing of at least six feet is a must.  “ There shouldn’t be sudden increase in mileage in even indoor runs or those done on local campuses as this would make a runner prone to injury besides reducing his or her immunity temporarily. We can ill afford both these angles at present. Always listen to your body,’’ Dr Gaikwad said.

Author’s note: On May 18, 2020, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) – it is the apex body for athletics in the country – issued Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for its national camps in Patiala and Bengaluru (please click on this link for that report: https://shyamgopan.com/2020/05/20/afi-issues-standard-operating-procedure-for-its-athletes-coaches-and-support-staff/). The on-field protocols followed by elite athletes at these camps have not been gone into in detail in this article because the training ambiance of amateurs and elites is totally different. Amid pandemic, amateurs live and train in a world that includes everyone else; elites live and train in sanitized national camps with access strictly monitored. Nobody goes from the outside into the camps, nobody from within comes out (rejoining requires quarantine). It won’t be fair to compare the two worlds or blindly copy what performance driven-elites do while training against backdrop of pandemic because one ecosystem is controlled and sanitized, the other isn’t. Some general protocols laid down at the national camps make sense as meaningful guidelines for amateurs taking to public spaces for exercise. They include: not going for training if you have any flu-like symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, difficulty in breathing, fatigue etc or if you have been in close contact with someone who showed above-mentioned flu-like symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19 in the preceding 14 days; maintaining a safe and isolated distance of minimum two meters from others while walking to the training ground and during the training, and avoiding exercising / training / walking in groups. For an overview of the AFI’s SOP for its national camps, please follow the link mentioned earlier.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The above article is presented in the interest of reading and discussion.)

CYCLING / AMID LOCKDOWN, AN EXAMPLE FROM BENGALURU

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Late April 2020, authorities in Bengaluru formally approved cycling as a means of transport during lockdown. Here’s how it happened:

An erstwhile technology worker currently active in public policy related to mobility solutions, Sathya Sankaran is Bengaluru’s Bicycle Mayor.

It is an honorary position awarded by a NGO called BYCS in the Netherlands. Its website describes BYCS as “ an Amsterdam based-social enterprise driven by the belief that bicycles transform cities and cities transform the world.’’ Volunteers apply for the post of bicycle mayor; they are screened, selected and appointed. There are around 100 bicycle mayors worldwide at present, including in several Indian cities.

As the city most representative of the IT boom that followed economic liberalization, Bengaluru sits in an engaging matrix. It combines old world charm and a wealth of educational and scientific institutions with the subsequently emergent trends of skilled, well-traveled workforce and the ideas they gather from various parts of the world. The city is one of the major hubs of the active lifestyle in India. It has a large community of cyclists, a regular calendar of races and is among the bigger bicycle markets. All that ground to a halt when lockdown set in. Along with the rest of the country, whatever norms for transport amid lockdown applied in Bengaluru, concerned motorized transport. “ It was extremely disappointing to find that there was no mention of the bicycle in directives from the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. They issued specific guidelines on how to be out in cars and on motorized two wheelers; there was nothing similar about bicycles. In the absence of specific mention of the bicycle in protocols issued, people were hesitant to take their cycles out for permitted outings like purchase of essentials. It was a case of nobody objecting but permission not specifically granted,’’ Sathya said. He wrote to the Home Ministry. Till the time of speaking to this blog (May 23, 2020), there hadn’t been any response.

Sathya’s first initiative during lockdown was a concept called ` Relief Rider’ under which, volunteer cyclists delivered medicines and groceries to senior citizens in various parts of the city. Relief Rider commenced operation on March 29. There was a phone number provided for people to call up and inform of their requirement. The cyclists brought the consignment to their doorstep. Within a month to month and a half, 75 cyclists under the program had pedaled over 1600 kilometers; a figure that can also be viewed in terms of that much less motorized vehicles used and pollution avoided. The program was tangible evidence to authorities on the merits of having a community of cyclists. It was time to take things a notch higher. Dr Arvind Bhateja is a prominent neurosurgeon in Bengaluru and Medical Director of the city-based Sita Bhateja Speciality Hospital. A keen cyclist, Dr Bhateja came to Sathya with a campaign called ` Reset with Cycling’ under which, the duo decided to submit a proposal to authorities recommending a few measures. Its gist was the following:

  • Declare bicycle shops and associated businesses like bicycle repair and maintenance, as essential service.
  • If authorities can allow people to walk during lockdown, then they should be willing to accept the use of bicycle as well.
  • Major shopping avenues should be closed to vehicular traffic and opened only for walkers and cyclists in the interest of maintaining physical distancing.
  • Create roughly 57 kilometers of bicycle lanes across four major transport corridors in the city.

Sathya Sankaran (Photo: courtesy Sathya)

The website of ` Reset with Cycling’ introduces itself as a collective effort to revive cities post-lockdown. “ Let’s not go back to old habits. Let’s use the bicycle to reduce traffic, stress, improve health, air quality and renew our cities. Build a city for our children,’’ the website said. Sathya put the recommendations submitted, in perspective. Physical distancing has been identified as a major tool to combat spread of COVID-19. It is difficult to enforce it in public transport. That may serve as incentive to bring back private cars. In the months before lockdown, Bengaluru was notorious for its traffic jams while cities like Delhi and Mumbai experienced high air pollution levels. On the other hand, cycling allows for transport with physical distancing factored in; it is also healthy being a form of exercise. Further, when frenzied human activity on the planet temporarily ceased due to lockdown, the quality of air improved almost everywhere. “ In Bengaluru, pollution levels were down by 50-75 per cent. If upon relaxation of lockdown, we revert to world as it used to be and bring back motorized vehicles in strength, then we lose whatever gains we made,’’ he said.

Notwithstanding the merit in the proposal made by Dr Bhateja and Sathya, approval for it hinged on those in authority being sufficiently empathetic. Having administrators, who understand new lifestyle trends, helps. According to published news reports, it was in August 2019 that Bhaskar Rao assumed charge as the Police Commissioner of Bengaluru. He is a cycling aficionado. On April 25, 2020, Rao was shown the proposal submitted by Dr Bhateja and Sathya. That same day, he sanctioned permission for cyclists to be out on city roads. Authorities are studying some of the other recommendations. The Police Commissioner’s decision was welcomed. “ I don’t recall any opposition from the public to the move or reluctance to embrace it. During lockdown there had been mental issues and domestic problems. Cycling provided a means to gain relief from all that besides addressing practical transport needs,’’ Sathya said.

Meanwhile in some other parts of the world – as reported earlier on this blog – the pandemic and its subsequent need for physical distancing fueled steep rise in bicycle sales. Realizing that public transport would be challenged to offer physical distancing and not wanting a complete return to the earlier paradigm of motor vehicles and air pollution, some foreign governments have unveiled bicycle-friendly policies and investments to improve cycling infrastructure. Sathya said he has more plans for Bengaluru.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)      

MAUDIE

This poster was downloaded from the Facebook page of the 2016 film. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

The film ` Maudie’ came to me during the COVID-19 lockdown.

That made a difference.

It is like what happens when after years of consumerism, you are sat in a quiet spot free of such stimuli. First the starkness hits you. Then as the withdrawal symptoms ebb, you grow acquainted with newfound bareness. Later, your adaptation to bare environment authors its own Spartan idiom. You discover how effective the clarity is. Intended or otherwise, that is what I felt taking in this film set in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia. It’s was a refreshing idiom, a style gaining popularity as filmmakers search for a distilled simplicity to tell stories effectively in age of mind numbed by excess. The vignettes of hard rural life, the plain dwellings, frames with few people, moments conveyed in full and the spacious landscape alternating between an autumn-look and snow covered world, all add to the idiom’s effectiveness.

The film tells the story of Maud Dowley, who was born with birth defects and developed rheumatoid arthritis that eroded her mobility, particularly her ability to use her hands. You find her living with her aunt Ida. Maud is an awkward young woman with a physical language that hints of withdrawn life and shyness but a quiet demeanor that is as determined as those better born than her. While her personal story unfolds gradually through the twists and turns the narrative takes, what is clarified early on is her wish to take charge of her life instead of having others fit her into the generally accepted patterns of society. At the local store, she overhears Everett Lewis, a fish peddler, seeking a cleaning lady to take care of his house. Maud secures the position in exchange for room and board.

Thus begins an initially rocky but progressively affectionate relationship between the rough fish peddler and the awkward woman, who brings to bear on the man’s life a touch of color with her capacity to paint and a sense of order because she can write and keep accounts. In due course, Maud’s talent for painting – she graduates from simple drawings on the walls of the house to illustrated cards and paintings – becomes the stuff of income for the couple. Thanks to a few patrons and the news of her work spreading thereby, she becomes known. The couple gets married. You also see the role of provider slowly reversing; Maud becomes the busier half, Everett does most of the jobs around the house. From erstwhile lord of the house with Maud subservient to his commands, Everett transitions – at times grudgingly – to supporting Maud. It is an engaging study of character, all the way to film’s close. The 2016 movie is a biopic; it is based on the life of Canadian folk artist Maud Kathleen Lewis (nee Dowley).

Sally Hawkins (of ` Shape of Water’ fame) plays Maud while Ethan Hawke stars as her husband, Everett. It is a sterling piece of acting from Hawkins; Hawke supports well. Directed by Aisling Walsh, the film (I saw it on Netflix) builds up slowly and maintains a steady, unhurried pace. If you are the sort who has been using lockdown to reflect on life, then this film is a good watch. It stills life to moments and goes into the heart of what happiness is; how much of everything you need to be happy.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

AFI ISSUES STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE FOR ITS ATHLETES, COACHES AND SUPPORT STAFF

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has issued Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for AFI athletes, coaches and support staff at the national camps. The SOP has been prepared with focus on the current environment characterized by pandemic (COVID-19). While issuing the SOP on May 18, 2020, AFI noted alongside that although as of that date, there have been relaxations in the rules and regulations of the ongoing nationwide lockdown, athletes, coaches and support staff are strictly advised to remain inside the protected environment of national camps at Patiala and Bengaluru.

Besides the SOP, the periodic guidelines issued by the central and state governments must also be followed. “ The re-opening of training facilities including outdoor training and weight training will be as per the programme schedule circulated by the Chief Coach,’’ the circular on SOP, available on the website of AFI, said.

According to it, athletes should not go for training if they have any flu-like symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, difficulty in breathing, fatigue etc or if they have been in close contact with someone who showed above-mentioned flu-like symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days. They should inform the Chief Coach / Deputy Chief Coach or HPD about any sickness or if they have come in contact with any sick person. They should not also go for training if the training has been cancelled by the coach or center in-charge due to unavoidable circumstances.

Before they go for training, athletes should be aware of their timings for outdoor training and weight training session; they should speak to their coach, group athletes before leaving their room so that everyone is present at the venue on time and there is no delay. They should leave their room exactly five minutes before their scheduled training. Use of disposable gloves by athletes is highly recommended. For relay athletes practising baton exchange, use of hand gloves is mandatory. Athletes should always wear full sleeve T-shirts, tights and shirts whenever they step out of the room

During training they should maintain a safe and isolated distance of minimum two meters from others while walking to the training ground and during the training. They should carry their own water bottle, energy drink etc. as well as their own personal hand sanitizer, paper napkins, towels. They should not exercise / train / walk in groups; they should not take the help of other athletes / coaches. They should not shake hands or hug other athletes, coaching staff members and at any point of time if they feel ill, they should immediately report to their coach, support staff. Athletes should avoid using public toilets as far as they can; they should not sneeze or cough without covering their mouth and nose. They should not spit on the ground. They should always use dustbins to throw any waste such as empty water bottles, paper napkins etc. They should not call any person from outside to the training area or en route to training area / hostel / dining hall.

After training, they should apply their own personal hand sanitizer. They should check their belongings carefully and make sure it has not been touched by others. Similarly, they shouldn’t touch anything that does not belong to them. They should go back to their hostel room as soon as their training is over and not hang around in groups. They should take shower immediately upon reaching their room put used clothes for washing and not wear the same clothes after shower. Sauna / ice bath facilities will not be available during the restricted training phase. They should relax and re-asses their health after sometime, report to their coach or administration immediately if they feel sick. They should keep their personal hygiene level high at all times, not take on mental stress and keep in touch with their families, friends remotely through mobile phones, video conferencing.

Referring to safe use of exercise equipment, the SOP said that athletes should use such equipment cautiously. All handheld implements should be sanitized prior to and after use e.g. shots, javelins, discus etc. Upon conclusion of training, equipment should be cleaned with a disinfectant spray. “ Although there is no specific evidence that equipment can spread COVID-19, we know that contamination from respiratory droplets from an infected person can potentially survive on hard surfaces for up to three days,’’ the SOP said.

On coaches, the SOP noted that respective coaches will be responsible for maintaining social distancing. Clean and disinfected equipment should be used during training sessions and the supply and requirement of disinfectants must be reported in time to the Chief Coach. “ The coaching sessions following proper protocol will be supervised by Chief Coach, Deputy Chief Coach & High-Performance Director,’’ the SOP said adding that persons other than those already in the camps are strictly barred from access to the training area.

As for dealing with the outside world, the SOP said that social distancing should be maintained at all times. Athletes must try to clean their rooms themselves and not leave their hostel rooms except for training / medical / rehab purposes. Visit to barbershops /saloons / beauty parlors / shopping malls is strictly prohibited. They should not eat outside or order food parcels. They should wear a mask before leaving their room; carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer if visiting ATMs and use sanitizer after operating the ATM machine. They should avoid touching parcels / letters delivered to them and always sanitize such articles before any contact. They should try not to touch any surfaces and if they do, they should sanitize their hands as soon as possible.

The SOP made it clear that athletes are not allowed to leave the camps. Any leave from the camp can only be sanctioned by the AFI President / Chairman, Planning Committee. Athletes leaving the camp will have to go through 14 days of quarantine before rejoining.

AFI has said that the SOP will be updated and circulated again depending on changes to the COVID-19 control scenario.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

INDIA WATCHES FROM THE SIDELINES AS PANDEMIC FUELS BICYCLE SALES OVERSEAS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

COVID-19 and its accompanying need for physical distancing and maintaining good health, has caused bicycle sales to zoom in some countries. Any chance the trend may offer cycling in India, fresh impetus? Unlikely – that is the feedback from the cycling community. But there is hope.

For those into cycling and reading, a series of recent articles in The Guardian, would have been particularly heart-warming.

On May 15, 2020, Matthew Taylor reported in The Guardian that the city’s mayor proposed to close large areas of London to cars so that people can walk and cycle freely when the COVID-19-induced lockdown is eased. It would be one of the biggest car-free initiatives by any city worldwide. The reasons for encouraging walking and cycling: physical distancing would be tough to observe in public transport while the return of cars could precipitate traffic jams and increase air pollution.

Earlier, on May 10, 2020, Sean Ingle wrote in The Guardian about the growing relevance of cycling as mode of transport in a world where COVID-19 is forecast to linger. The resultant need to maintain physical distancing directs us to measured use of mass transport systems. We also seek avenues to stay healthy. It is in this matrix that cycling merits attention. It is viable non-polluting personal transport for short to medium distances. Further, as done by normal cyclists, it is a mild form of exercise satisfying the type of physical activity recommended by researchers as ideal to stay healthy. Ingle’s article mentioned a study by scientist David C. Nieman which helped establish that regular exercise assists in lowering upper respiratory infection rates while at the same time improving immunosurveillance. Also mentioned was a report by the US Surgeon General in the 1990s, recommending exercise as a vital component of preventive medicine. According to the article, Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary of the UK, has promised two billion pounds “ towards plans to double the number of cyclists and walkers by 2025.’’

The next day, May 11, 2020, Miles Brignall writing in the same publication reported that bicycle sales have been booming in the UK. Shares of listed companies in the segment had risen in value and the country’s biggest bicycle retailer had informed that sale of some equipment was up 500 per cent with bike sales itself prevailing at double the normal level. At smaller shops, stocks were running out and some had a waiting period. The article noted that cities around the world were rushing to improve their cycling infrastructure. In Germany, cycle lanes were being expanded and Paris was installing 650 kilometers of cycleways.

A couple of weeks earlier, on April 22, 2020, Justin Landis-Hanley reported in The Guardian that Australian bike retailers were struggling to keep up with booming sales following imposition of restrictions on general life due to COVID-19. The reasons cited ranged from people wanting to avoid infection and therefore staying off public transport, to regular avenues for exercise like gyms and pools being shut and the bicycle suddenly seeming attractive, to the aptness of the bicycle as a combination of exercise and transport in troubled times to simply having more time on one’s hands and therefore taking up a new hobby. The underlying instincts were visible in the sales mix; a considerable portion of bikes being sold belonged to the entry level segment.  The report said that a major worry among retailers in Australia was about exhausting stocks. Replenishing it would be tough as manufacturing facilities in Taiwan and China haven’t yet recovered from operations ceased due to pandemic. Further both the above mentioned articles pointed out that it wasn’t just sale of new bikes that was picking up; business in a range of services associated with cycling – including servicing of old bikes – had gone up.

When India slid into lockdown on March 24, 2020, all forms of transport – save those used for essential services – ground to a halt. There were even reports of people out for a morning walk, penalized by authorities. Flights and trains ceased to operate and automobile sales declined sharply. Yet even as air quality improved thanks to less vehicles being out, one of the early news reports based on equity analysts’ views cited potential recovery in car sales post lockdown, on the basis that the car offered an insulated cocoon for mobility amid contagion. Bizarre as this reasoning is in times of respiratory diseases growing, it is a fine portrait of the Indian approach to life. Needless to say, while the government has recommended specific protocols for using four-wheelers and two-wheelers (all motorized), there hasn’t been any utterance yet on cycling, forget its emergent virtues. In the absence of that and given how lockdown-rules are interpreted at ground level, you hesitate to take your cycle out for shopping and errands. India is among the world’s biggest producers of bicycles but the manufacturers’ lobby too has been strangely quiet. One can’t recall a single public service advertisement taken out amid COVID-19, reminding people of the bicycle’s ability to contribute to health; health of user through exercise and health of others by not polluting.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

This blog spoke to the country head of a leading international bicycle brand to gauge whether anything similar to what has been reported from UK and Australia, could be expected in India. He confirmed the developments overseas; it featured in business conversations with colleagues abroad. But hoping for the same in India would be premature because the overall matrix governing cycling here remains bicycle-unfriendly. While there was the pet peeve of high duties imposed on imported bicycles, there was also the undeniable fact that India’s crowded, congested ambiance and lack of consideration by motorists for cyclists, continue to make cycling unenjoyable. Sample the following: on May 15, 2020, Times of India reported that despite lockdown (it started on March 24; at the time of writing it was still on) an estimated 321 lives had been lost in 1176 road accidents in India according to data compiled by Save LIFE Foundation, a NGO. When general lack of road safety hits home, it fuels the argument that only cars and similar steel cages on wheels are viable option for transport. Given personal safety trumps concerns for environment and climate change, nobody then has the patience to sample cycling’s virtues. It is a vicious cycle. There is also another angle, which neither the bicycle industry nor cyclists, openly agree to, although in private, they concur. It has to do with the ink of Indian imagination these days – GDP. Viewed through GDP’s prism, the automobile industry’s voice dominates like a foghorn. That of bicycles is a squeak you strain to hear.

According to one senior cyclist, notwithstanding the above mentioned handicaps, the last decade or so has laid the foundation for a cycling movement in India. The choice won’t be driven by supportive cycling infrastructure – that is a role the government may or may not perform. It will be based on informed choice. As paradigm shifts like work from home set in, more of us may consciously choose a healthy, non-polluting form of transport that is light on planet, maintains the physical distancing mandated by COVID-19 and is also more connected to world as compared to the steel cocoon and quick passage of a car. In fact, if life is going to be in and around the house for the near future, why would you congest your neighborhood bringing out your car all the time? So far climate change was a debate. But the days of pandemic, which saw humanity locked up indoors, proved that human activity restrained has the ability to revive nature, restore air quality. There is thus palpable evidence to base your questions to old world on. However the key to promoting cycling – those from this school of thought argue – may not lay in petitioning the central government. “ Local governments will probably understand better,’’ the senior cyclist said emphasizing the need to go local when it comes to promoting cycling. Reportedly, such lobbying has yielded results in the past. Closer to the present, local also makes sense because the relaxation of lockdown will be in line with what zone (based on severity of infection) your area falls into. The seed for change exists in the evidence we experienced due to COVID-19. Question is – will we plant that seed and let it grow?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)              

LEAVE NO TRACE

This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the 2018 movie. No copyright infringement intended.

A film with two good actors.

One of them, I was already familiar with from earlier movies watched.

I had seen Ben Foster in the 2007 film ` 3:10 to Yuma’ and the 2015 movie on Lance Armstrong, ` The Program.’ I knew what to expect. Thomasin McKenzie was an unknown quantum. I hadn’t seen the 2014 concluding installment of ` The Hobbit’ trilogy or ` Jojo Rabbit’ of 2019. Seeing her confidently hold her place next to Ben Foster and in some ways, even set the tone for the lovely film I was watching, was a lesson in grace. The film was ` Leave No Trace,’ released in 2018 and since, highly acclaimed.

The film revolves around a father-daughter duo, who elect to live away from human settlements. The father is a war veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); regular life is tough for him to endure. The daughter is home-schooled. She has a sense of awareness, sensitivity, independence and responsibility that can only be described as advanced for her years. They make their home, camped unseen in the depths of a forested park. It is illegal to do so, on public land. They take care to keep their presence invisible to others, except a few similarly camped on the periphery, who Will (the character played by Foster) sells painkillers to.

Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the movie. No copyright infringement intended.)

The cocoon is disturbed after the daughter is noticed by a visitor. Authorities intervene. As the film illustrates the difficulty faced by the father-daughter duo trying to integrate into society as authorities wish them to, you wonder – why can’t otherwise peaceful people be left alone? The question becomes even more relevant as investigation by authorities reveals that the daughter has been brought up well. It becomes less a case of abnormality and more of incongruity with world as we know it. At the same time, it is also clear that the extreme lifestyle of the father-daughter duo is not ideal. It has its shortcomings and the daughter’s progressive choices reveal the balance with settled life she personally seeks; it is an equilibrium different from the harsh ethic pursued by the father escaping PTSD. It is a very reflective film; one that will be enjoyed in proportion to how much leash you gave yourself to question life.

Directed by Debra Granik, the movie (I saw it on Netflix) is affectionately shot. The two lead actors have done a brilliant job. Not having seen her work before, I found myself reading up on Thomasin McKenzie after watching ` Leave No Trace.’ She is without doubt, a major talent. As Will returns to life in wilderness, he is seen on the trail and then veering off it into the surrounding vegetation. It is an aerial shot that includes in its frame the sprawl of nature. The leaves and branches shake a while betraying person who stepped off trail. Then, the canopy reverts to what it was – a calm, green, cover; its secrets secure within its fold.

This is a beautiful film. See it.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)