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India chases the monsoon as virus woes mount

Rahul Singh
Filed on June 6, 2020

The monsoon has arrived in India's southernmost state, Kerala, on the very day it is traditionally expected, June 1. However, what was not expected was a cyclone, Nisarga, the first one off the Mumbai coast in over a century. In the event, it did not make landfall in Mumbai, yet left a trail of destruction of over a hundred uprooted trees, crushed vehicles, flooding, and extensive property damage. Fortunately, no lives were lost. Most cyclones in the region are generated off the eastern coast of India, in the Bay of Bengal, often striking states like Orissa and West Bengal, and of course Bangladesh. One such devastating cyclone, named Amphan, recently hit West Bengal, leading to considerable loss of life. 

After two days of cyclonic weather, the sun is now shining in Mumbai, with not a cloud in the sky. But in a few days, a proper monsoon will hit the city. Then, four days later, it should reach Delhi, before moving on towards the mighty Himalayas. There, the greatest precipitation takes place, as the monsoon winds move upwards to meet the much colder air. A town in northeast India, Cherrapunji, used to have the heaviest rainfall of any place on earth, until deforestation in the area and the consequent loss of greenery led to warming and climate change, hence less precipitation. In fact, when India got its independence, 73 years ago, around 50 percent of the country was covered by forests. Today, the forest cover has halved and much of India's wildlife disappeared. The cheetah, for instance, has become extinct. 

The monsoon is a unique and ancient weather phenomenon that has been minutely studied, since it is so crucial to the economy of the region. Yet, it is not yet fully understood and even more difficult to predict. It was first observed by Arab seamen in the Arabian Sea, travelling between Africa, India and southeast Asia. They named it "mausin", meaning "the season of winds". What basically creates the monsoon is a hot land mass and a cooler ocean. In India, during the scorching summer months, the land absorbs more heat from the sun than the surrounding sea, in this particular case the Indian Ocean. The air over the land rises, while expanding. It is replaced by the cooler, heavier and moist air from the ocean, a layer of which can be five kms thick. The moisture-laden monsoon winds blow from sea to land, bringing rain as they reach the land. Before reaching the Indian land mass, the winds split into two branches, the Arabian Sea branch and the Bay of Bengal branch. One goes to southern and then upwards to west India, the other to eastern India. This is called the summer monsoon, and lasts from June to September. Later, in October, the winds reverse direction and blow from the Himalayas towards the Indian Ocean. They contain less moisture, hence not much rain falls, except in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where they are the basis of the "rice bowl of India". This is known as the winter monsoon.

The monsoon is the veritable lifeline of the Indian subcontinent. A good monsoon means good crops and bountiful food. A failed monsoon, on the other hand, can lead to famine and mass starvation deaths, as has happened in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now, around 50 per cent of India's agricultural needs are provided by tube wells and canals, lessening the impact of a poor monsoon. Huge silos have also been built to store food, for distribution when there are shortages. But the rainfall should not only be plentiful, it also needs to be constant. Otherwise too much of it in a short period can cause devastating floods.

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has predicted a normal monsoon for this year. But instead of bringing widespread joy, there is also a sense of fear and foreboding among most Indians. The reason is the deadly novel coronavirus. How will its combination with the heavy rain and high humidity affect people? Will it increase or lessen the chances of testing positive for Covid-19. The medical experts don't seem to have a definitive answer. The Indian public are anxious for reassurance, mainly because of the phased lifting of the lockdown taking place all over the country, even though the number of those testing positive is still rising, not going down, especially in urban centres like Mumbai and Delhi. Clearly, the Indian authorities have, after considerable debate and deliberation, decided that livelihood is more important than lives. This is in tune with most of the world. However, the difference is that the countries outside the Indian subcontinent don't have a monsoon like in this part of the world. Evidence has shown that elevated temperatures don't slow down the pandemic, as a lot of people earlier imagined. 

The monsoon is generally associated with more infections and ailments. A host of creepy-crawlies - flies, mosquitos, centipedes, cockroaches, and the like, emerge, all spreaders of disease, including dengue and malaria. Food also gets contacted more quickly than usual, due to the heat and high humidity. People tend to get more colds, coughs and influenza, the same danger signs indicated for the onset of Covid-19. Some of these persons may think they are infected by the pandemic and therefore rush to clinics and hospitals, thereby overloading already over- stressed medical facilities. The next three months are going to be testing times. 

Rahul Singh is a former editor of Khaleej Times

 


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