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Rallies, religious gatherings aggravate India’s worst COVID-19 surge

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Rallies, religious gatherings aggravate India's worst COVID-19 surge

NEW DELHI – India’s COVID-19 cases have soared 13-fold in barely two months, a vicious second wave propelled by open disregard for safety protocols in much of the vast country.

Election rallies led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other major figures, as well as crowded festivals and religious gatherings, have characterized the record resurgence of the new coronavirus.

After quelling the first surge late last year, India’s leaders let down their guard. Allowing or even encouraging dangerous behaviour, they underestimated the virus, reopening the economy too fast and too broadly, experts say.

With daily infections hitting a record 127,000 on Thursday, the most in the world and the third day this week over 100,000, the third-hardest hit country is soaring past its mid-September peak of around 98,000 cases a day.

Days after the health minister declared India’s COVID-19 outbreak contained in late January, Mumbai reopened its massive suburban train network and authorities let tens of thousands of visitors into stadiums for international cricket matches.

Many of the South Asian nation’s 1.35 billion people ignored masks and social distancing, while politicians including Modi and Interior Minister Amit Shah greeted hundreds of thousands of mostly mask-less supporters at election rallies.

When daily infections fell below 10,000 in early February, some experts predicted India would see only a modest second wave at most.

“We were really premature to celebrate,” said University of Michigan epidemiologist Bhramar Mukherjee.

“This is a lesson,” said Mukherjee, who leads a team of researchers modelling the trajectory of India’s outbreak. “The really treacherous thing about this virus is how silently it casts its footsteps. By the time you see the cases and deaths, the damage is done.”

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan told officials of 11 of the worst-hit states this week that “people largely gave up on COVID-appropriate behaviour, became very careless” as activity resumed.

“There have been elections, religious gatherings, reopening of offices, lots of people travelling, attending social functions, not following rules, little mask-wearing in functions like weddings, even on crowded buses and trains,” he told a video conference.

Vardhan himself has faced criticism for tweeting dozens of images and videos of party rallies.

With 12.9 million cases, India remains close behind Brazil and well below the United States, which has recorded more than 30 million infections. India’s COVID-19 deaths are above 166,000, although its fatality rate is one of the lowest in the world, partly because of its relatively young population.

New Zealand on Thursday suspended entry for all travellers from India, including its own citizens, for about two weeks.

Authorities have imposed some curbs on movement, but federal ministers and industrialists have advised against another national lockdown. Last year’s curbs thrashed the economy and threw millions of poor people out of jobs.

Instead, an increasing number of states are imposing local curbs, including night curfews in mega-cities such as Delhi and Mumbai.

Authorities have refused to call off a weeks-long Hindu festival, held once every 12 years on the banks of the Ganga river in the northern state of Uttarakhand.

A successfully run Mahakumbh, which is expected to draw millions of devotees, is seen as crucial for the campaign of Modi’s Hindu nationalist party in the state, which votes next year.

Political parties have largely flouted COVID-19 rules during campaigns for multi-phase elections in four big states and one federal territory that started last month.

“Political leaders are themselves responsible” for the resurgence by allowing the packed rallies, said Subhash Salunke, a former World Health Organization official who advises the worst-hit state, Maharashtra. “The upward trend is going to be there for another couple of weeks.”

Shashank Tripathi, a professor at the Centre for Infectious Disease Research at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, said that even if most people are eventually exposed to the virus, “there is no guarantee that it will not come back and infect you again.”

“The lesson is the same for any country.”

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‘Fairy doors’ open hearts in California neighborhood

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'Fairy doors' open hearts in California neighborhood

A California community has bonded over a profusion of tiny, colorful wooden doors that are popping up all over.

The so-called “fairy doors” in Alameda, an island community adjacent to Oakland, have been around for years but they’ve grown in number since the pandemic.

So many of the brightly colored, diminutive portals have turned up at the bottom of trees, fences and benches that an army of volunteers has created a Facebook group to celebrate and map the phenomenon — helping fairies and human fans alike find them during self-guided walking tours.

Fred Hogenboom and his daughter are credited with launching the fairy door movement in Alameda about seven years ago, only to watch it grow.

“It’s a great phenomenon that was embraced by the whole community,” Hogenboom told SFGate.com.

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Author reveals how his brother killed his mother in new memoir

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Author reveals how his brother killed his mother in new memoir

Most memoirs are a recounting of the author’s own life and experiences. “Everything is Fine” by Vince Granata (Atria Books), out April 27, is a memoir of an entire family — and a tragedy that forever changed its members. 

Granata was an only child for the first 4 ½ years of his life. On the day his mother and father returned home from the hospital, he remembers writing “welcome home mommy” in sidewalk chalk outside their Connecticut home. His parents had arrived home with not one but three siblings in tow — triplets Christopher, Timothy and Elizabeth. It was a joyful event. But the birth of his siblings put in motion a tragedy that would take years to unfold. 

On July 24, 2014, his brother Tim, 24, attacked and killed their mother in the family home. Claudia Dinan Granata was 58. Tim suffered from schizophrenia. “I won’t take the medication, the medication destroys me, takes my mind, takes me away from God,” he ranted to his mother on the morning of the attack. He had frequently threatened suicide. 

“Tim’s demons, electric in his ill mind, convinced him that the woman who had made him peanut butter sandwiches when he was a grass-stained child was the source of his constant pain,” Granata writes. “…After he killed her, he dialed 911, sitting on our front steps, clutching a white Bible.” 

This is a memoir about a horrifying crime, but it is also a book about mental illness, and the family’s ongoing attempts to get help for Tim in a system that is hopelessly flawed. Tim was hospitalized at the Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital in February 2014. In the weeks leading up to the murder, there were numerous signs that he needed to return, but he refused to go back. 

“Eventually, I had no choice but to look at loss and pain, at all the pieces of my family’s story that I didn’t think I could ever understand,” Vince writes. “It was this process, recognizing the pieces, struggling to put them in order, that almost destroyed me. It’s also what allowed me to live again.” 

Tim was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

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These colleges require students to get vaccinated if they want to live on campus

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These colleges require students to get vaccinated if they want to live on campus

As academic institutions look toward the post-COVID-19 future of education, some are implementing strict vaccine requirements ahead of the upcoming semester as others incentivize or urge students to pick up the inoculations.

Many colleges already require students to provide proof of certain vaccines, but those have been in use for years. The three FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines are all less than a year old.

But now that vaccines are open in many places to people age 16 and up, colleges are beginning to look into how that can benefit their reopening plans.

Colleges that will require proof of vaccination for students who want to live on campus include Oakland University in Michigan, Cornell University in upstate New York, Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Brown University in Rhode Island.

“Students have an option to come to Oakland University and not stay in residence halls,” Oakland President Dr. Ora Pescovitz told Fox 2 Detroit this week. “Only 20% of our students live on campus. The other 80% are commuter students.”

The school is offering religious and medical exemptions to students who provide proof to the dean of students.

But she said more than 1,000 people signed up for vaccines within the first six hours after the school announced the new requirement.

Northeastern University in Boston is going a step further and requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for all students before the fall 2021 semester as part of its plan to return to full-time, in-person learning.

Nova Southeastern University announced last week it would require vaccinations by Aug. 1 – then backtracked after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a statewide ban on “vaccine passports,” citing concerns about individual liberty and patient privacy.

“We will continue to follow all state and federal laws as they evolve,” Nova President George L. Hanbury II said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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