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 rough 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 is happiness; 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.)      

“ THE NEW NORMAL DOESN’T FEEL SO BAD TO ME’’ / KILIAN FISCHHUBER

Kilian Fischhuber (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kilian Fischhuber is among the most decorated competition climbers in the world. Hailing from Austria and participating in bouldering and lead climbing events, he has the rare distinction of winning more than 20 World Cup events. Having retired from competitions in 2014, Kilian has enhanced his repertoire of climbs. He travels the world in search of routes to climb; in the process he has visited India. Kilian worked for a while as a teacher in Innsbruck. Since end-2019, he has been a national team coach for Austria Climbing. Thanks to this, has been able to train since April 20, 2020 with elite athletes at the gym “ Ki” in Innsbruck, which is also the national training center. They were given special permission. “ We have to maintain strict protocol including distance, number of athletes, disinfection and the like,’’ Kilian said. He spared time to respond to questions mailed by this blog on the new normal in climbing forced by COVID-19. 

Reports have now begun coming from Europe of lockdown relaxation and the resumption of climbing. To your mind, how do we reconcile the need to observe disease related protocols with the sport of climbing? Is this a sport that can coexist comfortably with COVID-19 protocols or do you see climbers being pushed to situations where it is a choice between enjoyable sport and protocol?

We had a serious outbreak of COVID-19 here in Austria. Due to strict regulations, a lockdown and maybe a pinch of luck we avoided a larger mess. Now we see protocols relaxed and some kind of normality return. However, we kind of live under the shadow of a future outbreak and possible repeated lockdowns. Austria Climbing and the Austrian alpine federations worked on regulations for climbers and I hope we can enjoy our sport almost as before, soon. We’ll need more space per person and will have to follow hygiene protocols and use common sense to maintain our reclaimed freedom. As we have no other choice I guess we’ll have to coexist with the new rules. I’ve been climbing since more than two weeks now and the new normal doesn’t feel so bad to me.

If we broadly divide climbing into bouldering, lead climbing and mountaineering, do you see the impact of COVID-19 protocols as being fairly uniform for all these segments or do you suspect that a branch like bouldering, which is generally more social, requiring spotting and capable of climbs over shorter distances may be hit harder?

I’m afraid some will be hit harder than others. The virus definitely does not treat us fairly in any sense. It’s the same with sports. Contact sports or sports where you have to touch others (as in spotting) will see a larger impact. But again, I think with common sense we can live with the new normal.

Can you give us an idea of how a typical climbing session looks like for you these days? There has also been this debate around chalk powder versus alcohol based-liquid chalk for the present times. Which type of chalk do you use?

When I go rock climbing, I climb with my partner Anna. We live in the same household. When we meet other climbers we try to maintain the distance which is usually no big deal. I use normal chalk but I bring hand sanitizer to the crag.

From a 2015 visit to India; Kilian Fischhuber climbing in Badami, Karnataka (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Indoor climbing gyms are now a major part of the sport. How do you think COVID-19 protocols will affect climbing at these venues? While physical distancing may be possible, frequent sanitizing of surfaces will be a challenge depending on the size of gym. Are there any practical approaches with protocols included, beginning to emerge at climbing gyms in Austria and elsewhere in Europe?

I don’t think it is possible to disinfect climbing surfaces in climbing gyms after each climber. I feel that sanitizing your hands frequently, avoiding contact with others, more space and using face masks is all we can do. If there’s another major outbreak the gyms will be closed again anyways. Our gyms have gradually begun opening last week. First the outdoor walls opened and soon, with new protocols, indoor walls too. What I don’t know is whether it will still be lucrative for gym owners to run large gyms with only few people inside.

What is the general attitude you sense with regard to climbing in the months immediately following relaxation of lockdown? Are people coming out to climb or is there reluctance? Are they waiting to see what protocols to follow at crags and gyms?

The vast majority runs with the protocols. I’ve been rock climbing again since about two weeks (when relaxation began in Austria) and most people I met behaved responsibly and showed understanding.

Who do you think should take the lead in setting health related protocols so that sports like climbing can resume in a safe fashion when lockdown relaxes?

The Austrian Climbing Federation, the alpine federations and the gyms proposed a protocol to the Austrian Health ministry which has been adopted so far. All the decisions are aligned with what health experts from the government propose.

How was the situation like in Austria when the pandemic was at its peak? Were all the major climbing crags and gyms shut?

All gyms shut, nobody went climbing.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: the above interview should be seen in the right perspective. It reflects circumstances in Austria, which is very different from the predicament in India, a nation of 1.3 billion people with crowded cities. The interview is presented here to foster awareness and hopefully, contribute to templates for the new normal.)

TEMPLATES FOR TROUBLED TIMES

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In early 2019, Steve Swenson, former president of the American Alpine Club had visited Mumbai to receive the annual Kekoo Naoroji Book Award from The Himalayan Club. In May 2020, amid lockdown in India due to COVID-19, this blog contacted Steve for pointers on how relevant agencies in the US were advising the climbing community. The following is drawn from links he suggested for reference.

Here’s what Access Fund posted on its website:

We strongly encourage all climbers to help flatten the curve and err on the side of caution. Here’s how you can help:

Follow the lead of your Local Climbing Organization.

DO NOT travel to climb.

Strictly comply with all shelter-in-place and similar orders.

Strictly comply with all closures and restrictions, and follow federal, state, county and city guidelines on social distancing.

DO NOT take unnecessary risks. Don’t be the person that creates more stress and burden for our medical and SAR professionals.

Please understand that climbing areas will still be there once this crisis passes. The best way to return to normal in the shortest period of time is for all of us to do everything we can to stop the spread of the virus as quickly as possible. In many cases, that will mean that we simply shouldn’t go climbing.

There was this observation too on the Access Fund website: Over sixty years of scientific research has proven that being outside in nature, or even just viewing natural landscapes, helps reduce stress hormones, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. Being in nature also lifts our spirits and helps us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.

At the time of writing, Access Fund had announced a webinar for mid-May 2020 on the topic, “ Climbing during the pandemic.’’ It was to feature representatives from the outdoor community and the medical fraternity.

On its part, the American Alpine Club posted the following:

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented and impacts us all. Our community must act thoughtfully to “ flatten the curve” to reduce transmissions of the virus over time.

We are concerned about transmission of COVID-19 to rural or gateway communities. These remote towns often have limited access to medical facilities and their closely-knit, interconnected social structures are more prone to the spread of infection.

Please keep places like Bishop, Fayetteville, Moab, Springdale, and Slade as safe as possible by limiting recreation-based travel at this time. If you have a trip planned, please reschedule until we are through this health emergency. This is not the time to head to the desert or rally to your favorite national park for “social distancing.” While outdoor time is necessary for each of us during this turbulent period, we need to stay local and limit our interaction with vulnerable communities.

Consider also keeping outdoor objectives conservative to reduce the load on the medical system. Backcountry emergencies contribute to overloading hospitals and potential shortages of ventilators in intensive care units. As always, be safe out there and mindful of unnecessary risks.

Finally, we all should follow the directions outlined in the CDC’s guide on how to keep yourself and others safe from the virus. It’s necessary that we as a climbing community make decisions from the perspective of the most vulnerable people in our community.

The AAC is certain that the climbing community can be a part of the solution to COVID-19 by taking collective action now.

Some parks in the US have opened for limited use during the day. The website of Washington State Parks provides an idea of how such entities approach the current predicament.

To begin with, the parks have said that parking capacity will be reduced at some urban locations as reducing the number of parking stalls leads to less number of people and thereby, less crowds. Authorities want people to respect closures and visit only parks that are open for day use. The detail of limited restroom facilities at some parks has been mentioned. Before they go, people have been asked to check what is open and what isn’t. They have been advised to enjoy the outdoors only when healthy; if they have fever, cough or shortness of breath, they have been told to save their outdoor trip for another day. If you are healthy and going out, then bring your own mask or bandana. Overnight stays are not allowed. So opt for an outing closer to home. Stick to immediate household members to check any potential spread of virus. Bring own soap, water, hand sanitizer and toilet paper. If upon reaching a park, it is found to be crowded, then go elsewhere or return another time. Avoid crowds. Practise physical distancing (six feet). Similarly, leave at least one parking space between your car and the next. Wash your hands well. Pack out what you pack in. Be kind and respectful to the park staff.

One segment where protocols are still being figured out is that of climbing gyms. Gyms have significant presence in the US.  On climbing gyms, Steve Swenson said, “ no one knows yet what the protocols will be.”  State governments in the US are setting the time frames for a phased approach when different parts of the economy can reopen. “ So it varies from state to state.  In most states, things like gyms (which include climbing gyms) are included in the third phase of reopening which is one of the latter phases.  The nature of what these latter phases will look like and when they can happen, will be determined by what happens with the spread of the virus after the phase 1 and 2 parts of the economy reopens,’’ he said.

Please note: In India, all sports, outdoor pursuits and climbing gyms have remained suspended or shut since commencement of lockdown. At the time of writing, the lockdown was still in force. The ground realities of life and the challenges faced in tackling disease are very different in India, compared to the US. The contents of this article are presented for thought and discussion by those related to outdoor pursuits, who recognize the need for evolving best practices in these troubled times.

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