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Covid -19 provides window on earth system

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By Dr Debapriya Mukherjee                      

Former Senior Scientist

Central Pollution Control Board, India

 

Beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic is reasonably well understood; cronavirus is believed to have jumped to humans from some animals at a wet market. COVID-19 is the latest in a long line of diseases that have crossed from animals to people, including HIV/AIDS, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Ebola. In fact, 60% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, and of the pathogens that cause these, at least 71% originate in wildlife. For any such pandemic, it is easy to realize the beginnings of these diseases but difficult to understand how the pandemic will end and what damage it will cause. New strains of COVID 19 virus continue to emerge. The World Bank estimated that up to 115 million more people would fall into extreme poverty (living on less than US$1.90 per day) in 2020 owing to the economic shocks of the pandemic. This, in turn, will have significant impacts on food security, nutrition, health and the environment.

It is well established that COVID-19 is already disrupting lives and livelihoods around the world. The most important consequences are public health crises and associated economic and humanitarian disasters, which are having huge adverse impacts on human wellbeing. The scale and persistence of socioeconomic disruption represent an unprecedented modification of human interactions with the earth system; the impacts of which will be long-lasting, widespread and varying across space and time. Almost overnight, people across the world had to change their lifestyles, the way they work and their consumer behaviours. It is critical for us to better understand how future societal disruptions and catastrophes could affect interactions among energy systems and other systems that serve society.

Considering the above, we can highlight the various links between ecologically, economically, and socially unsustainable behaviours and the outbreak and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic with reference to large-scale land-use changes—such as agricultural intensification, industrial development, mining, road building, and deforestation—and the resulting loss of habitats and biodiversity around the world, often initiated by the need to grow more food, puts people in ever closer contact with wild animals and makes the transmission of infections more likely. In this context, it is pertinent to mention that ecosystems as well as reduced contact between animals and people could prevent the transmission of wildlife diseases to humans.

Like the legendary falling apple that hit Isaac Newton on the head and is said to have led to his groundbreaking insight on the nature of gravity, COVID-19 could not only provide unintended glimpses into how complex Earth systems operate and critical role of human but also  a window of opportunity for promoting sustainability transitions in consumption and production—which are desperately needed to prevent other similarly dramatic crises brought on by climate change; this goal can only be achieved with deliberate planning and carefully designed strategic communication in the public sphere. This Covid-19 crisis has explored the processes linking heterogeneous local pollutant emissions and regional atmospheric chemistry and air quality, or the relationship between global economic integration and poverty-driven environmental degradation. The uniquely pervasive disruption also has the potential to reveal novel questions that have not previously been raised about the earth system. From this perspective, the impacts of COVID-19-related social disruption may be easily focused on two multidisciplinary pathways: energy, ‘emissions, climate and air quality’, and ‘poverty, globalization, food and biodiversity’. 

The human footprint on the earth system is vast. Thereby any disorder from normal functioning of earth system that we can observe needs a very large perturbation. COVID-19 has provided that perturbation. As of July 2020, approximately half the world’s population had been under some version of sheltering orders that substantially reduced human mobility and economic activity with 70% of the global workforce living in countries that have required closures for all non-essential workplaces and 90% living in countries with at least some workplace closures.

The reduction of human activities, and the efforts to manage their revival, have varied around the world. The large-scale reduction in human activity will necessarily be temporary but still there will be an opportunity to observe returning of the earth system processes to their previous states after activity returns to something the pre-pandemic levels. The event, therefore, provides a unique test bed for probing hypotheses about the earth system sensitivities, feedbacks, boundaries and cascades presuming that the observing systems are in place to capture these responses.

Impacts on energy consumption, and associated emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants are likely to cascade across timescales. In the near-term, reductions in mobility and economic activity have reduced energy use in the commercial, industrial and transportation sectors, and might have increased energy use in the residential sector. Of course, misunderstandings may have arisen with regards to declines in carbon dioxide emissions caused by COVID-19-related disruption, with some interpreting short-term reductions to suggest that austerity of energy consumption could be sufficient to curb the pace of global warming. A reduction in fossil CO2 emissions proportional to the economic decline would be dramatic relative to previous declines. Progress in understanding the carbon-cycle responses to COVID-19 will, therefore, be challenging and, at a minimum, will require new methods for tracking the unprecedented short-term perturbation in emissions through the earth system.

Now our primary motivation is to search for insight into the basic functioning of the earth system, which could be helpful in managing and recovering from the event, and in avoiding future impacts. The analysis of the earth system response can enable early detection of hotspots of environmental risk or degradation emerging during the event. The individual, societal and government responses to these economic effects will influence the long-term trajectory of the human footprint on the Earth System.

The current socioeconomic disruption is a singular perturbation of that human footprint. Advancing understanding of this forcing, and the processes by which different components of the Earth System respond can help enhance robustness and resilience now and in the future.



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Features

Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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