The Indian Express | 1 week ago | 18-01-2023 | 05:35 am
FROM the pandemic and the “tumbling” we took right when we had thought we understood our immune system, to why science lacks rock stars, to the “new humans” that science has created, oncologist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee spoke on a range of subjects at the Express Adda in New Delhi on Monday.Author of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (2010), and The Gene: An Intimate History (2016), New York-based Mukherjee is also a noted haematologist and oncologist, whose recently published work of non-fiction, The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human (Allen Lane), takes off from the study of the fundamental unit of life — the cell — and leads readers through the integral role it plays in medical science.Speaking on what he means by “new humans”, Mukherjee said, “I think that in many ways — including the creation of organs, organoids, and the interface between cells and devices… we are creating humans that we haven’t encountered before… In fact, there are people walking amongst us here who may have had a bone marrow transplant and are living chimeras — so their body is their own body, but their blood is being made from someone else’s body.”Giving the example of artificial pancreas in the making, people who undergo neural stimulation to alleviate symptoms of diseases such as depression, and of Louise Brown, the first child conceived in a petri dish, Mukherjee said, “We might as well be creating what in science fiction is a cyborg.”“We are creating people who, in some old technologies, will be called cyborgs. Although they are not really cyborgs, they are cellborgs. They are interfaces between cellular therapies and human beings. And, in so being, really sit at the borderlands of the limits of our current technologies… They are amongst us; they are much more real than the science-fictional new humans. And, they raise many, many questions about who we are, what we do, and what our future looks like,” said Mukherjee.In his new book, Mukherjee, who has demystified and humanised public discourse on medicine and health with his empathetic writing, also explores the pandemic, how it upended our lives and the interaction of the Sars-CoV-2 with our cells that enabled the virus to unleash the global pandemic. Even with his deep knowledge of the immune system – he has been working on immunological cures for cancers – Sars-CoV-2 took him, much like other scientists, by surprise, challenging the understanding of how the immune system tackles a bacterial or viral infection. “The tumbling that happened, I think, is very important. There was a moment of time in which we as a scientific community thought that we understood vaccination, virology, and immunology. And then, all of a sudden, here comes a virus that really challenges very fundamental things that we know and don’t know about how the immune system works.”Talking about why some people tend to get severe Covid-19 while others don’t, he said we have learnt a lot of surprising things through the pandemic. Surprise number one, he said, was that apparently healthy people, men more than women, have a pre-existing auto-immune disease that invisibly affects their capacity to respond to viruses. It’s only when Covid-19 strikes, that previously invisible incapacity to respond to the virus becomes visible. Surprise number two, he said, was that some people carry mutations in genes connected to the immune system – totally invisible for most parts, until Covid-19 hits. Citing the example of long Covid, he wondered whether other viral infections like influenza or Epstein-Barr also lead to such long duration syndromes. “It’s because Covid-19 was such a global pandemic that we have learned to understand the autoimmune consequences of Covid-19 in the long run,” said Mukherjee, who disclosed his voice had changed as a consequence of Covid-19.Replying to a question on whether the pandemic was a result of bio-warfare, Mukherjee said he didn’t think it was but he did not dismiss a lab leak theory completely. The author also spoke on the anti-vax movement in the United States and on the paradox of this being an anti-science moment in an era of medical breakthroughs. The anti-vax movement, he pointed out, was largely driven by three sets of people – the libertarians who say that my body is my body; those who have an anti-science stance; and those who are facing vaccine exhaustion. As for the disdain for medicine, he says, it is driven by medical men not being able to convey their full power and politics that scapegoats it. It is medicine and larger social changes driven by it that has led to child-birth becoming non-fatal and people living up to the ages of 80 and more.Big pharma and pricing of drugs came up for discussion, too. Mukherjee’s recent initiative in Bengaluru, Immuneel Therapeutic Ltd, in collaboration with biotech entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, has been rolling out a crucial clinical trial on the treatment of cancer, called the Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, already in use in several countries, that will significantly bring down the cost of therapy for patients in India. He said pharma companies should not be pricing products based on what failed in the valley of death – the phase between an encouraging find and a final product. Developing medicines costs money, he acknowledged, but most large pharma companies he said were surviving by gobbling up highly successful start-ups.The author was in conversation with the Anant Goenka, Executive Director, Indian Express Group, and Devyani Onial, National Features Editor, The Indian Express.A question-answer session with the audience was followed by rapid-fire round with Goenka in which the author revealed that he did not believe in a predetermined destiny, that he believes in life on other planets and named Albert Einstein as his favourite scientist. When asked whether people should “use, reduce, or stop” the following objects, he said yes to microwaves, 5 G and cellphones, and no to hair dyes and artificial sweeteners.The Express Adda is a series of informal interactions organised by the Indian Express Group and features those at the centre of change. Previous guests at the Adda include Union Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar, Union Minister of Health Mansukh Mandaviya, Union Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs and Petroleum and Natural Gas Hardeep Singh Puri, election strategist Prashant Kishor, Union Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav and Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari.
Search for the word “climate” on Twitter and the first automatic recommendation isn’t “climate crisis” or “climate jobs” or even “climate change” but instead “climate scam.” Clicking on the recommendation yields dozens of posts denying the reality of climate change and making misleading claims about efforts to mitigate it.Such misinformation has flourished on Twitter since it was bought by Elon Musk last year, but the site isn’t the only one promoting content that scientists and environmental advocates say undercuts public support for policies intended to respond to a changing climate.“What’s happening in the information ecosystem poses a direct threat to action,” said Jennie King, head of climate research and response at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based nonprofit.“It plants those seeds of doubt and makes people think maybe there isn’t scientific consensus.” The institute is part of a coalition of environmental advocacy groups that on Thursday released a report tracking climate change disinformation in the months before, during and after the U.N. climate summit in November. The report faulted social media platforms for, among other things, failing to enforce their own policies prohibiting climate change misinformation.It is only the latest to highlight the growing problem of climate misinformation on Twitter. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, allowed nearly 4,000 advertisements on its site — most bought by fossil fuel companies — that dismissed the scientific consensus behind climate change and criticized efforts to respond to it, the researchers found.In some cases, the ads and the posts cited inflation and economic fears as reasons to oppose climate policies, while ignoring the costs of inaction. Researchers also found that a significant number of the accounts posting false claims about climate change also spread misinformation about U.S. elections, COVID-19 and vaccines.Twitter did not respond to questions from The Associated Press. A spokesperson for Meta cited the company’s policy prohibiting ads that have been proven false by its fact-checking partners, a group that includes the AP. The ads identified in the report had not been fact-checked.Under Musk, Twitter laid off thousands of employees and made changes to its content moderation that its critics said undercut the effort. In November, the company announced it would no longer enforce its policy against COVID-19 misinformation. Musk also reinstated many formerly banned users, including several who had spread misleading claims about climate change. Instances of hate speech and attacks on LGBTQ people soared.Tweets containing “climate scam” or other terms linked to climate change denial rose 300% in 2022, according to a report released last week by the nonprofit Advance Democracy. While Twitter had labeled some of the content as misinformation, many of the popular posts were not labeled. Musk’s new verification system could be part of the problem, according to a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, another organization that tracks online misinformation.Previously, the blue checkmarks were held by people in the public eye such as journalists, government officials or celebrities. Now, anyone willing to pay $8 a month can seek a checkmark. Posts and replies from verified accounts are given an automatic boost on the platform, making them more visible than content from users who don’t pay.When researchers at the Center for Countering Digital Hate analyzed accounts verified after Musk took over, they found they spread four times the amount of climate change misinformation compared with users verified before Musk’s purchase.Verification systems are typically created to assure users that the accounts they follow are legitimate. Twitter’s new system, however, makes no distinction between authoritative sources on climate change and anyone with $8 and an opinion, according to Imran Ahmed, the center’s chief executive.“We found,” Ahmed said, “it has in fact put rocket boosters on the spread of lies and disinformation.”
BJP leaders have said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address at the concluding session of the party’s national executive meeting had a clear message — focus on creating a “soft power” and “goodwill” to expand the party and increase its tally in the 2024 general elections to take the BJP’s journey of electoral victories to the next level.In the address, which emphasised on reaching out to more of the marginalised, minorities and small communities, Modi urged the BJP cadre to embrace the fact that the BJP is the ruling party at the Centre and many key states, and “think beyond conventional politics and electoral politics”.“To me, Prime Minister Modi was saying that the BJP should adopt a new style of politics to create soft power and goodwill among all sections of the people. He wants the BJP to create a positive atmosphere. The goodwill and soft power should help increase the BJP’s tally in the next Lok Sabha elections,” said a senior BJP leader.Modi’s reference to the age group of 18-25 in his speech also indicated that the party would also focus on that age group — youths in that age group are keen on development and a corruption-free government, according to Modi — to turn it into a strong loyal BJP support base.Party sources said the prime minister’s speech had given a clear signal that both the government and the party would take several initiatives in the coming days to see that the BJP gets more seats in the Lok Sabha elections. “Every step in the coming days, including the Budget, would keep that in mind,” said a party MP.In his speech to the national executive, Modi asked party members to reach out to every section of society, including the marginalised and minority communities, “without electoral considerations”. He wants BJP workers to reach out to Pasmandas, Bohras, Muslim professionals, and educated Muslims as a confidence-building measure and without expecting votes in return.Modi, who had a notebook with points scribbled on it while speaking, reiterated his message of reaching out to marginalised groups among the minorities at the Hyderbad National Executive meeting too. He also spoke about the Sikh community that, according to him, has a positive feeling about the BJP. He pointed out that the Sikh community is present in many districts outside Punjab too and the BJP cadre “should not ignore them” thinking they are too small to make any electoral difference.Recalling what the PM spoke about, a BJP leader said, “He said don’t always think about votes only. He also mentioned the small groups of backward communities and said they always stood by the BJP since the Jana Sangh days. He said there are small communities like Bohras, among whom there are several educated Muslims. They do not vote for the BJP but cooperate with the party in many activities. The Prime Minister specifically said Muslims would not vote for the BJP, but that should not stop us from reaching out to them.”A party leader said, “The target is to increase the BJP’s tally from 303 and return to power with more glory. Because the positive atmosphere will create a favourable situation for us — to talk about development work and to expand our base.”Another significant point the Prime Minister harped on was India’s global positioning. According to Modi, the global situation post Covid has a “lot of prospects and chances” and India should let them pass by. Even the national executive statement on the G-20 presidency mentioned the changed world order in the last nine years. According to BJP vice president Baijayant Panda who briefed the media on the statement, the G-20 and, in general, the world is “full of admiration” as India not only dealt with the Covid crisis but also reached out with help to other countries.Panda said BJP workers, in their individual capacity, would work to connect society as the country hosts over 200 G20-related events in more than 50 places. He added it was an opportunity to connect the society and showcase India’s progress and its rich heritage as delegates from not only the elite bloc of 20 leading economies but also many multilateral bodies such as the International Monetary Fund would visit India.
AHMEDABAD: The much feared learning loss during two years of Covid pandemic when academics shifted online is indeed a reality. The learning levels of children in the state, both in reading basic text and solving basic math problems, has registered a significant decline as compared to pre-Covid data, revealed findings of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022 for Rural India released by Pratham Foundation, Wednesday.The ASER tests for reading and arithmetic involved closed to 16,500 children of the age of 6 to 14 years and 15,200 households.Other noteworthy findings included the fact that government schools recorded a rise in the number of children in 6-14 age groups attending government schools. The pandemic saw this number rise from from 85.6% in 2018 to 90.9% in 2022.Gujarat recorded the sharpest decline of 20 percentage points in Class 8 where only 52% of state students in government schools could read Class 2 level basic text. In pre-Covid times in 2018, 72% of Class 8 students could perform this reading task. State recorded one of the steepest declines in learning in this category across Indian states. The number of Class 5 students who could read Class 2 level basic text also dropped from 52% in 2018 to 33.9% in 2022.The loss was lesser in Class 8 students who could do basic division which fell from 35.8% in 2018 to 31.3% in 2022. Marginal learning loss was recorded in Class 5 students who could do plain division which dropped from 18.4% in 2018 to 14.5% in 2022. In Class 3, number of students who could read Class 2 level text dropped from 32.3% in 2018 to 23.2% in 2022. Here, states like Kerala, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh recorded higher decline than Gujarat. The number of Class 3 students who could do substraction which was 22.8% in 2018 was found static at 22.9% in 2022.State education secretary Vinod Rao said that while learning loss due to Covid is universal, internal assessments by the state education department and National Achievement Survey (NAS) have indicated learning loss due to Covid has been minimal in Gujarat as compared to other states. "I will not be able to comment on ASER report as we are yet to study the findings," Rao said.President of Gujarat State Primary Teachers Association Digvijaysinh Jadeja said that absence of physical teaching took a toll on learning. "We are witnessing learning loss among students due to Covid which disrupted physical teaching at schools. Some 25% of students in each Class have suffered learning loss. We have been trying to reverse this by holding extra Classes before and after school hours and hope to reverse the same as soon as possible," Jadeja said. State, however, recorded an improvement in the percentage of multigrade Classrooms for Class 2 and Class 4 (standards with sections) which rose from 50.9% in 2018 to 69.3% schools in 2022. State also recorded an improvement in enrollment of children in the age group 6 to 14 years which increased from 85.6% in 2018 to 90.9% in 2022.
Tech layoffs continued into the new year, with at least 101 companies laying off 25,436 employees globally in the first few weeks of January, according to layoff.fyi, a site that tracks job cuts. Going by data shared by the platform, more than 1,600 tech employees are being let go per day on average in India and globally this year.Indian startups figure prominently among the firms which are laying off employees.Around 1,024 tech companies globally, including both big tech firms and startups, laid off 154,336 employees in 2022, making it the worst year in a decade for tech roles. Last year’s layoff wave exceeded all previous records, with retail, consumer, transportation, and finance-related tech companies firing most of the affected employees.November 2022 witnessed the highest number of tech layoffs, which impacted close to 51,800 employees across 2,017 companies in India and globally. The last time the number breached these levels was at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in Q2 CY2020, when 428 tech companies fired at least 60,000 employees. After that, layoffs had tapered to a minimal level, but have picked up pace alarmingly since Q1 2022 without any signs of a slowdown, according to layoff.fyi data.In January, Indian startups, including Dunzo, Sharechat, Rebel Foods, Captain Fresh, BharatAgri, Ola, DeHaat, Skit.ai, Coin DCX, LEAD School, Bounce, Cashfree have laid off several hundred employees.On Monday, ShareChat and Dunzo laid off 250 and 100 employees, respectively, at a time when consumer internet companies are struggling with a funding slowdown and the ongoing economic downturn.Cab aggregator and electric two-wheeler manufacturer Ola also sacked at least 200 employees across all verticals last week. The SoftBank-backed mobility company had earlier fired over 1,000 employees last year.LEAD, an edtech unicorn laid off some 60 people from its product and tech teams in its second cost-reduction exercise within a span of about six months, making it the newest edtech unicorn to choose retrenchment to keep costs in check.E-commerce major Amazon has laid off around 1,000 staff in India as part of its global retrenchment drive. Globally, the company had announced that it would cut around 18,000 roles citing uncertain economic conditions.FE had reported in December that the rising number of layoffs among startups and digital platforms is expected to slow down by mid-2023. Hiring experts said that by the middle of 2023, companies in the digital space may go back to hiring to fuel their growth plans.Sekhar Garisa, CEO, FoundIt (formerly Monster India), said startups in India still have a very large workforce with high attrition of 25-30%. This means even as they cut back on jobs, many will continue to hire. Garisa said around 500,000 job listings currently live on hiring platforms are in fact from tech startups. However, perks and salary expectations have levelled off compared with the pre-Covid era.Yet, the tech industry, including Big Tech and startups, together has laid off over 17,000 employees in India in 2022. Many of these include unicorns, late-stage firms and even early-stage startups that were unable to raise crucial cash amid the funding crunch. The consumer internet segment currently remains the most affected in terms of job cuts. Startups in edtech, fintech, hyperlocal delivery, insurtech, content and gaming, logistics and online commerce are some of the worst affected. According to some estimates, edtech was the worst affected, with 14 edtech startups laying off 6,898 employees in 2022.Salman SH/FE
Union Minister of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Narayan Rane could not have chosen a worse timing or venue for his statement on Monday that India might see recession towards mid-year.The minister who often courts controversy with his statements said this at a time that the Centre is readying for the Union Budget, and the government has been pains to stress that India has beaten the trend of global economic downturn. Besides, Rane was speaking after delivering the inaugural speech at a programme related to G20 – the Modi government is celebrating the annual G20 presidency that has come to India as a showpiece event.“There is a global recession and it is in many countries. This is what I have gathered from discussions at meetings of the Union government. The recession is expected to hit India after June,” Rane said, while speaking to the media after the G20 event in Pune, adding that the government was working towards lessening its impact.On Tuesday, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh shot back on Twitter: “Narayan Rane, Union Cabinet Minister of MSMEs – that have been destroyed since 2014 — forecasts recession in India after 6 months. He said this in Pune to a G20 gathering. What are the PM & FM hiding from the country?”Narayan Rane, Union Cabinet Minister of MSMEs – that have been destroyed since 2014 – forecasts recession in India after 6 months. He said this in Pune to a G20 gathering.What are the PM & FM hiding from the country?https://t.co/iphinhA6D7— Jairam Ramesh (@Jairam_Ramesh) January 17, 2023A senior BJP leader requesting anonymity said Rane’s remarks are also embarrassing for the party as they coincide with the BJP national executive meeting in Delhi. On Tuesday, the socio-economic resolution passed by the party at the meeting celebrated India emerging as “the fifth largest economy in the world”. “By revealing that the Cabinet has concerns over the economic situation, Rane has given the Opposition a major issue to question the government,” the BJP leader said.Besides, Rane’s recession remarks coincide with the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos, Switzerland. Among those attending from India is Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, trying to sell the state as an investment destination.While saying that he would not speak of politics as it was not his forte, Dalit Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries Chairperson Milind Kamble told The Indian Express, “As a member of G20, I can confidently state that global recession is not going to cast an adverse shadow on India. This is evident from the parameters where we have majored. Our inflation index is under control at 4-4.5%. We have already returned to the pre-Covid situation, which has given a big boost to the economy… While China is confronting the Covid pandemic still and Europe is facing an energy crisis, India is steady and on the march,” Kamble said.He added that rather than a downturn, India might profit now due to the problems plaguing Europe and China.Rane’s colleagues in the BJP said that while his aggressiveness was his strength when fighting the Opposition, “his remarks on the economic situation may land him in a soup” now.A Shiv Sena leader who was considered a confidant of Bal Thackeray, Rane, now 70, was chosen to head the Sena-BJP coalition government in Maharashtra in 1999. In 2005, after he was expelled from the Sena on charges of anti-party activities, he joined the Congress and became a Cabinet minister in 2005. In 2017, Rane quit the Congress, and a year later, joined the BJP.A Rajya Sabha MP, he was inducted as Union MSME Minister in July 2021.As one of the most aggressive voices in the BJP-Shinde Sena camp, Rane has been in the forefront attacking Uddhav Sena president Uddhav Thackeray and his son Aaditya.Recently, he has been caught in an ugly war of words with Uddhav Sena MP and an equally aggressive leader, Sanjay Raut. Threatening to “expose” Raut, Rane said: “I will meet and tell Uddhav Thackeray what Raut speaks about him and his wife Rashmi Thackeray in private. Uddhav Thackeray will beat Raut with chappals.” Raut dismissed Rane’s threat as ramblings of a mad man, and claimed that he was set to lose his Cabinet berth.With a Union Cabinet reshuffle expected soon, some believe Raut may not have been off the mark. According to sources, the BJP leadership is not too happy with his work as MSME minister. With many having opposed his induction in the BJP as well, a leader said: “In the Modi-Shah government, performance matters. Whether in party or government, everybody has to complete their given task.”