Silver linings journal

Silver Linings Journal

Year-ends are a time to ponder what has been and what should be. They’re also a time to applaud the fireflies — those small accomplishments and acts of resistance that stood out amidst all that was grim and dark in the year gone.

The year in review. Image composition by author

The five sections below present vignettes reflecting on the defining episodes of 2020 — episodes that brought renewed focus on some of the enduring problems of our times. Each vignette has an accompanying question, highlighting a positive aspect of the related episode — a silver lining if you will. We hope that these vignette-and-question pairs give you something to chew on and cheer about as you turn the page on 2020. And yes, there are prizes for sending in the answers to the questions. (See contest details below).

1. Covid, a mirror to our frailties

The pandemic has given a reality check in myriad ways. For businesses, it is a nudge to become more adaptable; for governments, it is a prod to scale up calamity preparedness; and for everybody, it is a push to focus more on health and wellbeing. But if there’s one big lesson the pandemic teaches us, it is that cooperation and internationalism remain an indispensable part of human existence.

Global crises call for global responses, but we didn’t see any this time. Certainly, an extraordinary level of global scientific collaboration has enabled vaccine development in record time. But, it’s a shame that rising ultranationalism and the lack of solidarity among countries are now a hurdle to the fair and targeted distribution of vaccines across the planet. More than 180 countries are a part of COVAX or the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, an initiative led by WHO to speed up the development, production and distribution of new vaccines. However, several rich participants like France and Germany have made bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies to secure vaccines for themselves. The US has chosen not to join COVAX and has made similar deals. Such deals will no doubt reduce the initial vaccine stocks available for more vulnerable groups in poorer countries.

In the current climate of antiglobalism, xenophobia, and protectionism, international cooperation is in such utter shambles that the theme for the 75th session of the UN General Assembly this year was "The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism”. Will this sentiment prevail when the Covid battle is  over and the world picks up the pieces for a fresh start?

Q1: 2020 has been an extraordinary year of service, collaboration, and innovation in the global health and medical research community. But this question is a hat tip to the creative problem solvers who also made a difference. Located in a country that introduced the McDonalds-like drive-through counters for mass Covid testing, this hospital has been written about for designing a testing method that keeps technicians safe from infection. Called SAFETY, these testing booths have been used across the globe because they have gloves attached to their walls, which enable technicians to swab while being physically separated from a potentially infected person. Name this hospital.

 

2. Forests on fire

If this was not the Year of the Pandemic, it would be the Year of Forest Fires. Wildfires are an annual affair in California and Australia, but this year, they were far more destructive. The Amazon rainforest too lost about 3,000 square kms to fires in 2020. While climate change has been aggravating forest fires in the drylands of California and Australia, something insidious is at play in rain-drenched Amazon.

Researchers say a “slash and burn” method of deforestation for farming, cattle ranching, and big infrastructure projects is killing the Amazon, especially in the parts that are in Brazil, and understandably so. Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has filled his cabinet with climate-change deniers, attacked environmental agencies and NGOs, and dubbed media reports of the Amazon fires 'fake news'. Broadly speaking, the Climate Change Performance Index and other reports published recently show that most governments are still pussyfooting around environmental issues, even in the fifth year of the Paris Agreement. So, if governments are largely disinterested, can environmental groups alone push the climate agenda forward? Maybe, common citizens should start playing a bigger part in the cause.

Q2: At its 2020 AGM in May, this multinational bank faced an uncommon resolution from 49% of its shareholders — they asked their company to align its operations with the Paris Agreement and stop lending to fossil fuel producers. As shareholder resolutions go, this was unprecedented because resolutions related to environmental or social issues typically struggle to get over 10% of votes. Name the bank.

 

3. Mental health on everyone’s mind

2020 brought out the best in us, and the worst. While we hunkered down and endured, we also gave in to stress, fear, hopelessness, negativity, and depression. Not surprisingly, this year’s Google search data reveal a big rise in queries related to anxiety and panic attacks, and mental health helplines the world over have reported a surge in calls. The flip side to this is that the pandemic seems to have done in a year what NGOs and institutions have been struggling to do for decades —make mental health a part of our conversations and public discourses. The fact is mental wellbeing as a subject has been brushed under the carpet far too often in most countries.

Consider India, where as much as 2% of the population suffers from severe mental disorders like schizophrenia and nearly 5% has common disorders like depression and anxiety. Strangely, though, only Rs 40 crore was allocated for the National Mental Health Programme in Budget 2020. Will this change now that the pandemic has given a wakeup call?

Q3: The Prime Minister of Singapore and the United Nations Secretary-General, along with several other leaders and celebrities, participated in a big event, the first of its kind, this year to advocate for mental health issues. Name the event.

 

4. Disinformation and echo chambers in US election season

The US elections threw out Donald Trump but brought into the mainstream another perversion — conspiracy theorists. Supporters of QAon — a political cult formed around the belief that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who kill and eat their victims — have now won seats in the US Congress. If this is distressing, the “plandemic” theory that Covid is being spread in a planned manner to benefit pharmaceutical companies is threatening to discourage believers from taking the vaccine.

So, as disinformation spawned in social media echo chambers turns from pernicious to dangerous, how do we stop this malaise? No amount of fake-news busting seems to be working because, as research points out, people are seeking not real news but validation for their biases and grievances from only those with whom they have a shared world view. Who then will create the voice of reason to counter the voice of validation? Perhaps what we need is a culture of debates and disagreements within our ideological groups.

Q4: In his re-election bid, Donald Trump faced opposition from an unusual quarter — some current and former members of his own Republican Party who campaigned extensively against his policies and candidature through pointed and often-viral television ADs. Name the political action committee that represented these dissenters.

 

5. Primetime rabble rousing

Call it Television Rating Point (TRP) or The Race to Pander to people’s baser instincts…the  media has had this comorbidity for a while. So, when the pandemic came and the economy plummeted, the degenerative condition of TV news worsened quickly. An actor’s death was turned into a four-month-long soap opera that broke every tenet of “good journalism”. This is of course the most glaring among numerous examples of motivated news coverage on TV these days. If TV news, like all media, is indeed a guardian of rights and truth and justice, who will guard this guardian? Evidently, self-regulation has not worked, and any more institutional oversight would be anathema to press freedom. Is there an answer in the question below?

Q5: In October, two entities that are household names in India took a public stance against TV channels airing “toxic content”. Name the two entities.

 

CONTEST DETAILS: Email the answers to dhonsunday@deccanherald.co.in with the subject line “Big Picture Contest”. The first ten correct entries to reach us by January 2 will receive prizes. Answers and winners will be declared on January 10.