Current Affairs 18th April

PM calls for more temporary hospitals, isolation centres #GS3 #SnT

Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a meeting with senior Central and State government officials to review the status of preparedness to handle the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The meeting was held amid a record surge in cases across the country and with several States complaining of shortage of staff, medicines and essential equipment’s to deal with the pandemic.

Various aspects relating to medicines, oxygen, ventilators and vaccination were discussed and PM stressed that there is no substitute to testing, tracking and treatment while directing that all necessary measures must be taken to ramp up the availability of hospital beds for COVID patients.

The Prime Minister also directed that additional supply of beds through temporary hospitals and isolation centres should be ensured.

At the meeting PM reviewed the status of supply of Remdesivir and other medicines and noted that the use of these medicines should be in accordance with approved medical guidelines, and that their misuse and black marketing must be strictly curbed.

More oxygen plants

The Prime Minister “has directed that the installation of approved medical oxygen plants should be accelerated, adding that 162 PSA Oxygen plants are being installed in 32 States/UTs from PM CARES and one lakh cylinders are being procured and will be supplied to States soon.

Mr Modi asked all officials to make efforts to utilize the entire national capacity, in public as well as private sector, to ramp up vaccine production.

Earlier in the day Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said India is currently reporting the sharpest growth rate of 7.6% in new COVID cases, which is 1.3 times higher than case growth rate of 5.5% reported in June 2020. The Minister added that this is leading to an alarming rise in active cases and also a sharp growth of 10.2% in the number of COVID deaths.

Dr. Vardhan, chaired a high-level review meeting with Health Ministers of 11 States/UTs — Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, West Bengal, Delhi, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh — that are reporting an unprecedented surge in new COVID cases.

‘Regulate groundwater use in cricket fields’ #GS3 #Environment

Following a plea seeking remedial action against the use of groundwater for the maintenance of cricket fields, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has directed the Jal Shakti Ministry to consider regulating extraction of groundwater for the purpose.

The issues for consideration may inter alia include prohibiting use of groundwater for maintenance of the playgrounds at least during the time no match is actually being played and exploring utilisation of STP (sewage treatment plant) treated water.

‘Must for environment’

It may also include ensuring that effective rainwater harvesting and water storage or recharging systems are installed in all playgrounds to save the groundwater. The green panel said conservation of water was of utmost importance to the environment.

‘Save potable water’

Every effort is required to save potable water for drinking, and cricket or other such grounds may be maintained, as far as possible, from the sewage treatment plant of high quality having no pathogens and offensive components. Also rainwater harvesting and storage of such water may be ensured

India conducts the highest number of daily tests so far #GS3 #SnT

As many as 14,95,397 samples were tested in India on Friday (results of which were made available on Saturday), the highest number of tests conducted in a single day in the country.

This is the second consecutive day the number of tests is crossing the 14-lakh mark. On September 24, 2020, 14,92,409 tests were carried out, which was the highest until the record was broken on Friday. A total of 26.49 crore samples have been tested in the country since the beginning of the pandemic.

India registered 2,10,146 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday. As many as 1,070 deaths were also recorded on the day. The country has so far reported a total of 1,47,32,074 cases and 1,76,745 deaths.

The figures do not include cases and deaths from Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Assam, Jharkhand, Chandigarh, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Ladakh, Sikkim, A&N Islands and Lakshadweep. The data is sourced from, an independent aggregator of daily COVID-19 figures.

Maharashtra reported 67,123 infections (accounting for nearly 32% of the new cases) on Saturday, followed by Uttar Pradesh with 27,334 new infections and Karnataka with 17,489 new cases. Maharashtra also recorded the highest number of casualties (419) on Saturday. Uttar Pradesh followed with 120 new deaths, while Karnataka registered 80 new casualties.

About 27.14 lakh COVID-19 vaccination doses were administered in the 24 hours ending at 7 a.m. on Saturday. It is about 8 lakh doses lower than what was recorded the previous Saturday.

3 million deaths

As of April 16, 3 million COVID-19 related fatalities have been recorded worldwide. The pace of deaths has quickened lately. On September 28, 2020, the one million global deaths mark was crossed, about 250 days after the first such fatality was recorded in China. On January 14, 2020, the two million mark was breached, taking about 110 days. The latest million was crossed in just over 94 days.

As of April 16, Brazil leads the world in the daily average reported deaths. It reported over 2,860 deaths on Friday. It accounts for one in every four deaths every day worldwide. India is reporting the second highest number of average daily deaths.

Bustard poaching in Pak. desert shocks activists #GS3 #Environment

The recent shooting of two Great Indian Bustards (GIBs) in Pakistan’s Cholistan desert, with the poachers brazenly getting themselves photographed with the carcasses of birds in their hands and guns on their shoulders, has left wildlife activists in Rajasthan shocked and outraged. The GIB, which is the State bird of Rajasthan, is considered India’s most critically endangered bird.

A group of hunters, allegedly led by a retired Major of the Pakistan Army, shot down two GIBs in a protected area of southern Punjab’s Cholistan game reserve in Pakistan earlier this month.

The grassland habitat with grass cover in the Cholistan desert, where the GIBs were foraging, is similar to the habitat in Rajasthan’s Desert National Park (DNP), where the GIB’s last remnant wild population is found. The DNP, situated near the towns of Jaisalmer and Barmer, forms a part of the mighty Thar desert.

The GIB’s population of fewer than 100 in Rajasthan accounts for 95% of its total world population. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), a global authority on species survival, which categorised the GIBs as “endangered” in 1994, was forced to upgrade the species to the status of “critically endangered” in 2011 because of continued threats faced in the survival of these large birds.

The Tourism & Wildlife Society of India (TWSI) has condemned the poaching of GIBs, while expressing surprise that the people in the neighbouring country continued to kill this rare species of birds.

Mr. Vardhan said the wildlife authorities in Rajasthan had permitted captive breeding of GIB, protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, in the DNP through a project executed by the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India in 2019 after a prolonged debate. Sixteen chicks of GIB are in hands now being reared in DNP by a team supported by the Houbara Breeding Centre of UAE.

Junta leader set to join ASEAN summit #GS2 #IR

Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing will join a special ASEAN summit next week, the Thai Foreign Ministry said on Saturday, his first official trip since masterminding a coup against the deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The February 1 putsch triggered a massive uprising, bringing hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets to demand a return to democracy, while civil servants have boycotted work in a bid to shutter the junta’s administration.

The military has deployed lethal force to quell the anti-coup movement, killing more than 720 people. The international community has largely condemned the generals for use of force against unarmed civilians — imposing targeted sanctions against top military brass, their families and army-linked businesses.

ARIES facility will host the support centre for Aditya-L1 #GS3 #SnT

The Indian programme to study the Sun and the region between the Sun and the Earth from space – Aditya-L1 – is due to be launched next year. It will carry seven payloads which have been developed by various institutions across the country. Once the mission is launched, there will be a need for a ground support centre to monitor and coordinate the work on its various payloads.

This role will be played by the ARIES facility (short for Aryabhata Research Institute for observational Sciences) which is situated near Nainital. In January 2021, an agreement was signed to this effect based on the proposal submitted by the ARIES team. With about four to five personnel, this centre will come up at Haldawani, where ARIES is setting up a data centre also.

Guest users

Researchers who may not even be associated with core Aditya-L1 team will be able to book a specific payload to conduct observations for a particular time. Any PhD student or postdoctoral fellow in a research institution can submit observing proposals through the online proposal submission system.

The main aim of this centre is to let every researcher in India perform analysis over scientific data obtained from Aditya-L1. The total number of guest users will be from a few tens to a few hundreds.

A time allocation committee comprising senior and expert scientists will evaluate proposals based on their merit and feasibility to decide the priority. “We are open to users outside India by giving hand-outs of data analysis during international meetings and online training in the later phase of the mission.

Studying lower corona

The Aditya-L1 Support Centre (ASC) will provide training through regular workshops for the guest users. Apart from this, it will provide ready-to-use Python and Java apps for the satellite data and demos and handouts to facilitate the guest users.

An ARIES team has recently developed an algorithm to study the accelerating solar eruptions in the lower corona called CMEs Identification in Inner Solar Corona (in short, CIISCO), where CME stands for coronal mass ejection.

The group has also developed several advanced image processing algorithms to detect fine-scale structures in the solar atmosphere. Such techniques are important to capture dynamics at different spatial and temporal scales.

Prof. Banerjee gives an example of this: “While ISRO will provide raw and calibrated spectra of the solar atmosphere, at ASC we will further process the spectra to derive meaningful quantities such as intensity, Doppler velocities and line widths and provide these quantities to the scientific community.”

The facility will store co-aligned data from other observatories. That is, data taken at other wavelengths of observation than by Aditya-L1 and aligned in time and space so that they complement Aditya-L1 observations.

Long-term plans

The centre will host a compendium of the location and duration of different features on the solar surface such as coronal holes, prominences, flares, CMEs and sunspots. “We will employ automated methods to detect these features.

Continuous monitoring of the location and duration of these features will help in monitoring the Earth directed CMEs and thereby, the space weather. “Also, it will help us to understand the long-term evolution of these features and underlying physical mechanisms responsible for this. This centre will expand the visibility of Aditya-L1 beyond India at the international level.

COVID-19 vaccines and blood clots #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: Reports of rare blood clots occurring after COVID-19 vaccination have led some countries to limit the usage of AstraZeneca’s vaccine for certain categories of people, while other countries have paused the administration. More recently, the United States put the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on hold after reports of blood clots emerged.

What are these adverse effects?

An adverse effect following immunisation with the AstraZeneca jab is not merely blood clots in large vessels, but also a low platelet count. The effect is similar to heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (HIT), where heparin, which is used to clear clots, actually causes blood clots and a fall in the platelet count. “The heparin combines with platelet factor 4 to form a complex.

This immune complex induces an abnormal immune response, in which antibodies are generated against the complex. This antibody-platelet factor 4-heparin immune complex binds to platelets and activates them. The platelets form clots everywhere. The low platelet count is because the platelets are used up.

A similar process seems to follow vaccination, except there is no heparin trigger. Scientists are still trying to establish a clinical definition for this adverse effect.

The World Health Organization’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety conducted a review of the latest evidence of rare adverse blood coagulation events with the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

It said, “A very rare new type of adverse event called Thrombosis with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome (TTS), involving unusual and severe blood clotting events associated with low platelet counts, has been reported after vaccination with COVID-19 vaccines Vaxzevria and Covishield.”

Further, the WHO committee said that a specific case definition for TTS is being developed by the Brighton Collaboration to assist in identifying and evaluating reported TTS events and aid in supporting causality assessments.

At this stage, a ‘platform-specific’ mechanism related to the adenovirus-vectored vaccine is not certain, but it cannot be excluded. Research should include all vaccines using adenoviral vector platforms. So far, TTS has not been linked to vaccines built on mRNA platforms (Pfizer or Moderna), the group added.

Why are we discovering this only now?

While specific TTS has not been assigned to any post-vaccination adverse event in India, post facto analyses have shown that heart attacks and brain strokes (that could be caused due to clots) were major factors for hospitalisation and deaths.

In India, where Covishield (from the AstraZeneca stable) is being used widely, an analysis, by the expert group investigating serious adverse events following immunisation (AEFI), of 79 deaths caused after vaccination found that over 50% of the people had heart attacks and brain strokes.

The concern is that even with the very low rate of occurrence, in a few otherwise healthy people, such adverse reactions have proven to be fatal. Another issue is the current inability to identify vulnerable groups in a population.

Does the vaccine prevent more harm than it may cause?

Decisions in the medical field are governed by the risk-versus-benefit principle. If the benefits of undergoing a procedure or taking a drug far outweigh the risks, then it is sensible to proceed. But in this case, the clots have the potential to cause fatalities, and that is seen as an “unacceptable risk” by some.

Gagandeep Kang, eminent virologist and vaccinologist who worked on the Rotavirus vaccine, said, “I’d like for every vaccine and drug to be 100% safe. But that is not possible. So, we have to try and handle the situation as best as we can.”

Her argument is that adverse events are bound to occur, but we need to make sure that every such event is investigated thoroughly. With any adverse event, there will be reasonable geographic variation. For instance, there is a difference in the occurrence of TTS between the U.S. and the U.K.

In India, there is a mechanism in place and an analysis of deaths after vaccination is available in the public realm. But detailed analysis for every case is important, added Dr. Kang.

As of now, since a larger number of people have got their first dose, we are seeing these adverse events among them. When the population that is totally vaccinated increases, it might even manifest among that group, said Dr. Kang.

In fact, Panagis Galiatsatos and Robert Brodsky said in Hopkins Medicine, “Some people infected with SARS-COV-2 develop abnormal blood clotting … In the lungs (pulmonary embolism), legs (deep vein thrombosis) and elsewhere.”

Arecent studyby researchers at the University of Oxford stated, “The risk of the rare blood clotting known as cerebral venous thrombosis (CVT) following COVID-19 infection is around 100 times greater than normal, several times higher than it is post-vaccination or following influenza.”

The authors counted the number of CVT cases diagnosed in the two weeks following the diagnosis of COVID-19, or after the first dose of a vaccine. They then compared these to calculated incidences of CVT following influenza, and the background level in the general population.

They concluded that compared to current COVID-19 vaccines, the risk of CVT following COVID-19 is eight to 10 times higher, and compared to the baseline, approximately 100 times higher.

What lies ahead?

Dr. Kang has a prescription: “We know what we have to do. You need to watch out for symptoms to indicate clotting, and you must know when it occurs — adverse effects usually occur four to 20 days after the first dose right now.”

While fever, body pain and tiredness after vaccination last a couple of days and are not worrisome, symptoms of concern during this extended period include chest pain, persistent abdominal pain, shortness of breath, pain in the extremities, severe headache and blurry vision.

“Fortunately, we know that HIT has a specific treatment — treating with intravenous immunoglobulin and anticoagulants (other than heparin). We will be able to prevent deaths as a result of vaccination.

There are two takeaways, said Dr. Kang. First, a rare side effect does not have the same rate of occurrence around the world. So, each country must pay attention to AEFI that manifest as TTS. Second, since a class effect is suspected, paying attention to vaccines built on adenovirus platforms is important.

Meanwhile, a German and Austrian group led by Andreas Greinacher of University Medicine Greifswald, Germany, has differentiated the blood clots arising after vaccination. It has also outlined a way to test patients exhibiting the symptoms. The group has developed a screening assay to determine whether the person has developed these specific antibodies.

Assessing students amid a pandemic #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: Faced with a massive surge in COVID-19 cases, the Central government cancelled the Central Board of Secondary Education’s (CBSE) Class X examination and postponed the Class XII examination scheduled to be held from May 4.

The decision, which will be reviewed by the Ministry of Education on June 1, was followed by the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE or Class X) and Indian School Certificate (ISC or Class XII) examinations also being postponed, with a review scheduled in the first week of June. As of Saturday, the International Baccalaureate and several State Boards had taken similar decisions.

What are the challenges?

Aligning examinations of various Boards is a practical necessity since admission to higher education courses must be done uniformly and entrance examinations have to be conducted for professional courses.

While the government has bought itself time to address the wildfire spread of COVID-19 by getting public examinations out of the way, students are left wondering about the nature of formative academic assessment that will be applied to their Class X performance during the year gone by, which was marked by a shift to online classes and TV-based instruction.

For many, it was a total lack of access without electricity, connectivity, computers and smartphones. The challenge now is to take up formative assessments where pen-and-pencil annual examinations cannot be held.

What is formative assessment?

The annual high-stakes public school examination is referred to as a summative assessment. It had to be cancelled or deferred this year due to the pandemic, and the academic system had to fall back on continuous evaluation techniques or other metrics. This is known as formative assessment.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the key aspects of this pattern are use of observation, quizzes, assignments and feedback. While summative assessment is described as a ‘testing of learning’, formative assessment is ‘testing for learning,’ which helps teachers assess the strengths and weaknesses of individual students and suggest remedial measures.

The CBSE introduced a formative assessment system through a Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) framework in 2009-10, but abandoned it in favour of a compulsory public examination for Class X, eight years later.

However, the year 2020-21 stands apart due to the disruption to routine schooling and the use of online and remote instruction. UNESCO says that in such a remote-learning situation, formative assessment has to rely on Learning Management Solutions and digital tools such as the open-source Moodle, Google Classroom and Schoology, and other tools that facilitate the creation of adaptive instructions for personalised learning.

Many teachers in India used video-calling tools to deliver instructional material and to coach and assess students. The Boards must now come up with a formative assessment framework that fixes clear metrics.

How have schools responded?

After the latest move by the Centre, prominent CBSE schools say they will not face disruption because they conducted periodic internal examinations, practicals, as well as “pre-Board” testing for Class X. This will be useful to evaluate students.

However, the switch from a reformist model of formative assessment to the traditional public examination was not seen as a move forward by others. The decision to reintroduce a public examination for Class X in CBSE was defended by the then Human Resource Development Minister, Prakash Javadekar, as the removal of discrimination against 1.93 crore secondary students of State and other Boards who continued to take an exit examination.

Can all schools assess fairly?

The question of schools’ capabilities to conduct sound formative assessments has become important because not all have similar facilities. While CBSE schools may be more urbanised, the picture for other Boards is mixed. The Unified District Information System for Education data show that in 2017-18, there were 1,88,742 rural schools and 83,207 urban schools under all managements.

Data from the National Sample Survey (NSS) for the same year indicate that only 4% of rural households and 23% of urban households had a computer. Internet access was restricted to 15% of rural and 42% of urban households.

What reforms are needed?

As COVID-19 cases from the first wave dropped, CBSE launched a competency-based assessment plan for Classes VI to X in March this year, aligned with the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020. It was prepared jointly with the British Council, for science, mathematics and English. The aim was to strengthen critical thinking and analytical capacity for competency-based learning.

In fact, even the National Policy on Education, 1986, had de-emphasised rote learning and recommended a CCE-like framework. The NEP 2020 emphasises (formative) assessment for learning and critiques existing Board examinations as forcing students “to learn a very narrow band of content/material in a single stream”.

Future reforms would, therefore, have to work on two fronts — to ensure access to learning for every student, in classrooms or remotely, and make formative assessment possible through a scientifically designed set of metrics.

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