Thursday, 31 December 2020

Child labor in palm oil industry tied to Girl Scout cookies

 They are two young girls from two very different worlds, linked by a global industry that exploits an army of children.

Olivia Chaffin, a Girl Scout in rural Tennessee, was a top cookie seller in her troop when she first heard rainforests were being destroyed to make way for ever-expanding palm oil plantations. On one of those plantations a continent away, 10-year-old Ima helped harvest the fruit that makes its way into a dizzying array of products sold by leading Western food and cosmetics brands.

Ima is among the estimated tens of thousands of children working alongside their parents in Indonesia and Malaysia, which supply 85% of the world’s most consumed vegetable oil. An Associated Press investigation found most earn little or no pay and are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals and other dangerous conditions. Some never go to school or learn to read and write. 

Others are smuggled across borders and left vulnerable to trafficking or sexual abuse. Many live in limbo with no citizenship and fear being swept up in police raids and thrown into detention.

The AP used U.S. Customs records and the most recently published data from producers, traders and buyers to trace the fruits of their labor from the processing mills where palm kernels were crushed to the supply chains of many popular kids’ cereals, candies and ice creams sold by Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s, PepsiCo and many other leading food companies, including Ferrero – one of the two makers of Girl Scout cookies.

Ima, a girl who works informally to help her parents in a palm oil plantation, poses for a portrait in Sumatra, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

Olivia, who earned a badge for selling more than 600 boxes of cookies, had spotted palm oil as an ingredient on the back of one of her packages but was relieved to see a green tree logo next to the words “certified sustainable.” She assumed that meant her Thin Mints and Tagalongs weren’t harming rainforests, orangutans or those harvesting the orange-red palm fruit.

But later, the whip-smart 11-year-old saw the word “mixed” in all caps on the label and turned to the internet, quickly learning that it meant exactly what she feared: Sustainable palm oil had been blended with oil from unsustainable sources. To her, that meant the cookies she was peddling were tainted.

Thousands of miles away in Indonesia, Ima led her class in math and dreamed of becoming a doctor. Then one day her father made her quit school because he needed help meeting the high company targets on the palm oil plantation where she was born. Instead of attending fourth grade, she squatted in the unrelenting heat, snatching up the loose kernels littering the ground and knowing if she missed even one, her family’s pay would be cut.

She sometimes worked 12 hours a day, wearing only flip flops and no gloves, crying when the fruit’s razor-sharp spikes bloodied her hands or when scorpions stung her fingers. The loads she carried, sometimes so heavy she would lose her footing, went to one of the very mills feeding into the supply chain of Olivia’s cookies.

“I am dreaming one day I can go back to school,” she told the AP, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Child labor has long been a dark stain on the $65 billion global palm oil industry. Though often denied or minimized as kids simply helping their families on weekends or after school, it has been identified as a problem by rights groups, the United Nations and the U.S. government.

Olivia Chaffin, 14, stands for a portrait with her Girl Scout sash in Jonesborough, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

With little or no access to daycare, some young children follow their parents to the fields, where they come into contact with fertilizers and some pesticides that are banned in other countries. As they grow older, they push wheelbarrows heaped with fruit two or three times their weight. Some weed and prune the trees barefoot, while teen boys may harvest bunches large enough to crush them, slicing the fruit from lofty branches with sickle blades attached to long poles.

In some cases, an entire family may earn less in a day than a $5 box of Girl Scout Do-si-dos.

“For 100 years, families have been stuck in a cycle of poverty and they know nothing else than work on a palm oil plantation,” said Kartika Manurung, who has published reports detailing labor issues on Indonesian plantations. “When I … ask the kids what they want to be when they grow up, some of the girls say, ‘I want to be the wife of a palm oil worker.’”

A boy collects palm kernels from the ground at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

The AP’s investigation into child labor is part of a broader in-depth look at the industry that also exposed rape, forced labor, trafficking and slavery. Reporters crisscrossed Malaysia and Indonesia, speaking to more than 130 current and former workers – some two dozen of them child laborers – at nearly 25 companies. Their locations are not being disclosed and only partial names or nicknames are being used due to fears of retribution.

The AP found children working on plantations and corroborated accounts of abuse, whenever possible, by reviewing police reports and legal documents. Reporters also interviewed more than 100 activists, teachers, union leaders, government officials, researchers, lawyers and clergy, including some who helped victims of trafficking or sexual assault.

Indonesian government officials said they do not know how many children work in the country’s massive palm oil industry, either full or part time. But the U.N.’s International Labor Organization has estimated 1.5 million children between 10 and 17 years old labor in its agricultural sector. Palm oil is one of the largest crops, employing some 16 million people.

In much smaller neighboring Malaysia, a newly released government report estimated more than 33,000 children work in the industry there, many under hazardous conditions – with nearly half of them between the ages of 5 and 11. The study was conducted in 2018 after the country was slammed by the U.S. government over the use of child labor, and it did not directly address the large number of migrant children without documents hidden on many plantations in its eastern states, some of whom have never seen the inside of a classroom.

Olivia Chaffin makes photographs in a wooded area as she works on a Girl Scout photography merit badge in Jonesborough, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Many producers, Western buyers and banks belong to the 4,000-member Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a global association that provides a green stamp of approval to those committed to supplying, sourcing, financing or using palm oil that’s been certified as ethically sourced.

The RSPO has a system in place to address grievances, including labor abuse allegations. But of the nearly 100 complaints listed on its case tracker for the two Southeast Asian countries in the last decade, only a handful have mentioned children.

“It is an issue, and we know it’s an issue,” said Dan Strechay, the RSPO’s global outreach and engagement director, adding that the association has started working with UNICEF and others to educate members about what constitutes child labor.

Strechay said many parents in Indonesia and Malaysia believe it’s the “cultural norm” for their kids to work alongside family members, even if it means pulling them out of school. “And that’s not OK,” he said.

Palm oil is contained in roughly half the products on supermarket shelves and in almost three out of every four cosmetic brands, though that can be hard to discern since it appears on labels under more than 200 different names.

And in a world where more and more consumers are demanding to know the provenance of the raw materials in the products they purchase, many companies are quick to issue assurances that they are committed to “sustainable” sourcing. But supply chains often are murky – especially in the palm oil industry – and developing countries that produce commodities in large volumes cheaply often do so by disregarding the environment and minimizing labor costs.

Most people take words like “organic,” “fair trade” and “sustainable” at face value. But not Olivia. She became increasingly worried about palm oil, rifling through the kitchen cupboards in her family’s century-old farmhouse in Jonesborough, Tennessee, to inspect the ingredients printed on cans and wrappers. Then she began digging through her shampoos and lotions, trying to make sense of the scientific-sounding names she saw there.

Now 14, Olivia has fired letters off to the head of Girl Scouts of the USA, demanding answers about how the palm oil is sourced for the organization’s cookies. She’s started an online petition to get it removed. And she and some other members of Troop 543 have stopped selling them.

The Girl Scouts did not respond to questions from the AP, directing reporters to the two bakers that make the cookies. Those companies and their parent corporations also had no comment on the findings.

“I thought Girl Scouts was supposed to be about making the world a better place,” Olivia said. “But this isn’t at all making the world better.”

A child helps her parents work on a palm oil plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

Many kids are introduced to palm oil soon after they’re born – it’s a primary fat in infant formula. And as they grow, it’s present in many of their favorite foods: It’s in their Pop-Tarts and Cap’n Crunch cereal, Oreo cookies, KitKat candy bars, Magnum ice cream, doughnuts and even bubble gum.

“Let them enjoy it,” said Abang, a skinny 14-year-old who dropped out of the fifth grade to help his father on an Indonesian plantation and has never tasted ice cream. He has accepted his own fate, but still dreams of a better future for his little brother.

“Let me work, just me, helping my father,” Abang said. “I want my brother to go back to school. … I don’t want him in the same difficult situation like me.”

Though many consumers aren’t familiar with it, palm oil became ubiquitous nearly two decades ago after warnings about health risks associated with trans fats. Almost overnight, food manufacturers began shifting to the highly versatile and cheap oil.

Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer and, with a population of 270 million, there is no shortage of strong backs. 

Many laborers migrate from the poorest corners of the country to take jobs that others shun, often bringing their wives and children as helpers in order to meet impossibly high daily quotas.

Others have been living on the same plantations for generations, creating a built-in workforce – when one harvester retires or dies, another in the family takes his place to hold onto company-subsidized housing, which often is a dilapidated shack with no running water and sometimes only limited electricity.

It’s a cycle that 15-year-old Jo was trying to break. Even though he had to help his family in the fields each day, heaving palm fruits high over his head and lobbing them onto trucks, his parents let him keep $6 a month to cover school fees so he could attend morning classes.

“I am determined to finish high school to find a job outside the plantation,” said Jo, who toiled alongside his mother, father and grandfather. “My parents are very poor. Why should I follow my parents?”

Students of a boarding school rest in their dormitory in North Kalimantan, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

But for many migrant children in neighboring Malaysia – which relies almost entirely on foreign workers to fill constant labor shortages – the hurdles to a brighter life seem insurmountable.

Male harvesters technically are not allowed to bring their families to plantations on Borneo island, which is shared by both countries. So children often follow behind, sometimes traveling alone on illicit smugglers’ routes known as “jalan tikus,” or rat roads. The perilous border crossings to the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak can take place at night, either on foot across winding jungle paths or in packed speed boats racing without lights, sometimes colliding or capsizing in the dark.

An official estimate says 80,000 children of illegal migrants, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, are living in Sabah alone, but some rights groups say the true number could be nearly double that. Without birth certificates and with no path to citizenship, they are essentially stateless – denied access to even the most basic rights, and at high risk of exploitation.

Migrant workers without documents are often treated “inhumanely” in Malaysia, said Soes Hindharno, an official from Indonesia’s Manpower Ministry. He said he had not received any complaints about child labor occurring in his own country, but an official from the ministry that oversees women and children’s issues acknowledged it was an area of growing concern in Indonesia.

Malaysia’s Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but Nageeb Wahab, head of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association, a government-supported umbrella group, called allegations of child labor very serious and urged complaints to be reported to authorities.

Olivia Chaffin, center, walks in the woods with her parents, Doug, left, and Kim Chaffin, as Olivia works on a Girl Scout photography merit badge. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Children of migrant parents grow up living in fear they will be separated from their families. They try to remain invisible to avoid attracting the ever-watchful eyes of police, with some keeping backpacks with supplies ready in case they need to flee their houses and sleep in the jungle to avoid raids.

Many never leave their guarded plantations, some so remote that workers must climb hills to search for a phone signal. And for those who dare to go out, trouble can come quickly.

Alex was 12 when he began working 10 hours a day on a small plantation with his father, hoisting fruits so heavy his aching muscles kept him awake at night. One day, he decided to sneak off to visit his favorite aunt in a nearby village. With no passport, Alex said authorities quickly found him and carted him off to a crowded immigration detention center where he was held for a month.

“There were hundreds of other people there, some my age, and also younger children, mostly with their mothers,” he said. “I was very afraid and kept thinking about how worried my mother and father must be. It made it hard to even eat or drink.”

But the biggest obstacles faced by Alex and other child workers in the two countries are lack of access to adequate, affordable education and medical care.

Some companies in Indonesia provide rudimentary elementary schooling on plantations, but children who want to continue their studies may find they have to travel too far on poor roads or that they can’t afford it. In Malaysia, the problem is even bigger: Without legal documents, tens of thousands of kids are not allowed to go to government schools at all.

It’s such an extensive problem that Indonesia has set up learning centers to help some of its children on plantations in the neighboring country, even sending in its own teachers. But with such heavy workloads on plantations, one instructor said he had to beg parents to let their sons and daughters come for even just a half-day of classes. And many children, especially those living in remote, hard-to-reach areas, still have no access to any type of education.

“Why aren’t companies playing a role in setting up schools in collaboration with the government?” asked Glorene Das, executive director of Tenaganita, a Malaysian nonprofit group concentrating on migrant issues for more than two decades. 

“Why are they encouraging the children to work instead?”

Olivia Chaffin displays a 2017 response she received from the chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts to her concerns with palm oil being used in Girl Scout Cookies. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Medical care also is woeful, with experts saying poor nutrition and daily exposure to toxic chemicals are undermining child laborers’ health and development. Many Indonesian plantations have their own basic clinics, but access may be available only to full-time workers. Travel to a private doctor or hospital can take hours, and most families cannot afford outside care. Migrant children without documents in Malaysia have no right to health care and often are too scared to seek medical help in villages or cities – even in life-threatening emergencies.

Many young palm oil workers also have little understanding about reproductive health. Girls working on remote plantations are vulnerable to sexual abuse, and teen pregnancies and marriages are common.

Ana was just 13 when she first arrived in Malaysia, quickly learning, as she put it, that “anything can happen to the female workers there.” She said she was raped and forced to marry her attacker, but eventually managed to break free after years of abuse and return home to start a new life. Now a mother with kids of her own, she abruptly left Indonesia last year again to look for work in Malaysia.

Many children do not have the option to ever leave. They are born on plantations, work there and sometimes die there. Overgrown headstones and crosses marking graves in crude cemeteries are found on some plantations near the towering palm trees.

Others, like 48-year-old Anna’s husband, are buried in community graveyards along the Indonesian and Malaysian border. A month after the palm oil harvester’s death, Anna lovingly tended his plot at the Christian site in Sabah, crammed with the bodies of hundreds of other migrants.

She said her son, whose own newborn baby was buried in the adjacent grave, had inherited his father’s job. He is the family’s main breadwinner now.

The cycle continues.

Olivia Chaffin, 14, displays merit badges that she has been awarded for selling Girl Scout Cookies. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Olivia is not the first Girl Scout to raise questions about the way palm oil makes its way into the beloved American cookies.

More than a decade ago, two girls in a Michigan troop stopped selling S’mores and other seasonal favorites because they worried palm oil’s expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia was destroying rainforests and killing endangered animals like orangutans.

After they campaigned for several years, the Girl Scouts of the USA became an affiliate member of the RSPO and agreed to start using sustainable palm oil, adding the green tree logo to its roughly 200 million boxes of cookies, which bring in nearly $800 million annually.

The RSPO was created with the best of intentions and it attempts to factor in the interests of a wide array of groups, including environmental organizations, industry leaders and banks. Its mission was not to flip a switch overnight, but to encourage the mammoth palm oil industry to evolve after years of breakneck growth and little outside oversight.

Still, for many food and cosmetic companies facing increased pressure from conscientious consumers, the association’s stamp of approval has become the go-to answer when questions are raised about their commitments to sustainability.

Monitoring the millions of workers hidden beneath palms covering an area equal to roughly the size of New Zealand, however, is next to impossible.

Some women and children on remote, sprawling plantations told the AP and labor rights groups that they are ordered to hide or stay home when sustainability auditors visit. They said only the optimal, easiest-to-reach parts of a plantation are typically showcased, with poor living and working conditions in distant areas hidden from outside eyes.

“The RSPO promises sustainable palm oil. But it doesn’t mean that that palm oil is free of child labor or other abuses,” said Robin Averbeck of the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has found pervasive problems on plantations, including those certified as sustainable. “It has simply become a tool for greenwashing.”

When contacted by the AP, companies reaffirmed their support of human rights for all workers, with some noting they rely on their suppliers to meet industry standards and abide by local laws. If evidence of wrongdoing is found, some said they would immediately cut ties with producers.

“We aim to prevent and address the issue of child labor wherever it occurs in our supply chain,” said Nestle, maker of KitKat candy bars. Unilever – the world’s biggest ice-cream maker, including Magnum – noted that its suppliers “must not, under any circumstance, employ individuals under the age of 15 or under the local legal minimum age for work or mandatory schooling.”

There was no response from Mondelez, which owns Oreo cookies, or Cap’n Crunch parent company PepsiCo.

Consumers have their own challenges in trying to buy responsibly. Those, like Olivia, who want to make sense of where their palm oil really comes from often find themselves confused, since the dense terms used to explain what makes palm oil sustainable can sometimes raise even more questions.

Take Girls Scout cookies, for instance, which are made by two different U.S. bakers

Boxes from both are stamped with green palm logos. The maker of Olivia’s cookies, Little Brownie Bakers in Kentucky, has the word “mixed” beside the tree, meaning as little as 1 percent of the palm oil might be certified sustainable. ABC Bakers in Virginia says “credits,” which means money is going toward promoting sustainable production.

The bakers’ parent companies – Italian confectionary brand Ferrero and Canadian-based Weston Foods – would not comment on the issue of child labor, but both said they were committed to sourcing only certified sustainable palm oil.

A child collects palm kernels from the ground at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

Weston Foods, which owns ABC Bakers, would not provide any information about its palm oil suppliers, citing proprietary reasons, so the AP could not determine if its supply chain was tainted.

Palm oil, the highest-yielding vegetable oil, is an important part of the two Southeast Asian countries’ economies and the governments bristle at any form of criticism, saying the industry plays an important role in alleviating poverty.

They have banned products touted as “palm oil-free” from supermarket shelves and created slogans calling the crop “God’s gift.” And when students at an international school in Malaysia were criticized last year for staging a play questioning the industry’s effect on the environment, school administrators responded with an apology.

Back in Indonesia, Ima could give a very different classroom presentation about palm oil, but she has no chance. She continues to toil full time on the plantation alongside her family, even though her mother had promised she eventually could resume her studies.

“Sometimes my friends ask me, ‘Why did you drop out? Why are you not at school?’” Ima said, her resentment readily apparent. “‘Because I have to help my father. If you want to replace me and help my father, then I will go to school. How about that?’”

After learning about Ima, Olivia is even more determined to fight on. She sent letters to her customers explaining her reasons for no longer selling Girl Scout cookies, and many responded by donating money to her Southern Appalachian troop to show support.

Now, Olivia is asking Girl Scouts across the country to band with her, saying, “The cookies deceive a lot of people. They think it’s sustainable, but it isn’t.

“I’m not just some little girl who can’t do anything about this,” she says. “Children can make change in the world. And we’re going to.”

(Source: AP)

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

How an all-girl music band went a note ahead of times in 1980s Assam

 In 1979, five teenagers from Nagaon formed a music band. Four decades later, a documentary tells the story of their quiet rebellion, one that led to the making of Assam’s first all-girl band.

The year was 1979 and Assam was on the brink of a movement that would come to change the course of its contemporary history. In this season of protest, five teenage girls met in a room in Nagaon, their mandolin, guitar and a pair of bongos in tow. 

They locked the doors, bolted the windows and drew the blinds to keep the music they made a secret from the world outside.

A few months after their first practice session, the girls — all between the ages of 15 and 16 — found themselves on stage in front of a boisterous crowd at a Puja pandal. “Girls are playing”, an incredulous member of the audience said. In the cacophony that ensued, the band members were certain no one heard their music. But it gave them enough confidence to give themselves an identity and a name: Sur Samalaya, or a medley of melodies.

Four decades later — Anjali Mahanta, the one who had got them together — chuckles at the memory. “We were young, rebellious and we wanted to do something different, something no one else was doing,” she says.

Sur Samalaya, an all-girl band, at one of their performances in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy: Anjali Mahanta)

And they did. Today, Mahanta, her sister Arati, and their three friends, Kabita Nath, Sewali Lekharu and Nazma Ahmed, are the subject of Breaking The Silence, a 30-minute documentary on Assam’s first all-women modern music band.

A musical evening

Like many small-town stories, Sur Samalaya’s too would have gone untold –– if it were not for an invite Parthajit Baruah, a Nagaon-based filmmaker, received in 2019. “It was for a musical evening at the town’s local auditorium,” he says, “I went not knowing what to expect, but what I saw astonished me.”

On stage was a group of five Mekhela sador-clad women, in their fifties, each holding a different instrument: a guitar, a mandolin, a tabla and a congo. The sight wasn’t all, Baruah remembered being amazed at the energy. “Each member had a signature move on introduction — not a bow or a namaskar, but a drum roll, or a guitar strum, with a flourish,” he recalls.

The following week, Baruah approached Mahanta. “I did a little digging and realised that they were possibly Assam’s first organised all-women band,” he says. “While it is true that women were part of orchestras in the 1940s and 50s, none were organised efforts.”

Intrigued, he requested time with the other band members. “The more I learned about them, the more I wanted to make a film. I realised that this was not just a story about music, or the fact that they could have been the first band— it was a story about five young girls fighting odds to do something they wanted to,” he says.

The five women, each playing a different instrument. (Photo courtesy: Parthajit Baruah)

The film, produced by Sunlit Studio, features a series of interviews in Assamese, with the women speaking about the challenges of forming a band in the 1980s, as well as a glimpse into their daily domestic lives today. You see Ahmed, now a 56-year-old living in Guwahati, practising the drums after a day at work, and talking about the trouble she faced from orthodox members of her community when she joined the band. “But I did not care,” says Ahmed, who now works in the Assam Secretariat, “I would put on my bell-bottoms, get on stage and sing Dum Maaro Dum — the crowd would go crazy. That made up for every negative comment I received.” Then there is Nath, who proclaims she is “married to the guitar” and lives in a home adorned with The Beatles posters.

“I made it a point to bring in their domestic lives — none of them have broken out of the social system, they have families, jobs, lives and yet managed to hold on to their passion,” says Baruah, who is a graduate of Film and Television Institute of India, Pune.

A reunion

In the early 80s, Sur Samalaya became a favourite amidst the Assam Agitation, the anti-“foreigner” mass movement that brought life to a standstill in the state for six years. “People came to know that there was a ‘girl’s band’ from Nagaon, and they would invite us to perform at protest meets, where we would sing Bhupen Hazarika’s songs,” says Ahmed. 

Adds Mahanta: “This was our way of contributing to the movement of our times.”

The band — arguably Assam’s first all-girl group — was formed in 1979. (Photo courtesy: Anjali Mahanta)

While the band played regularly for a decade, the early 1990s saw the members go their separate ways. “Some of us got married, some moved towns, some got jobs,” says Mahanta, “And that was the end of our band.”

But, in 2010, she learnt of Hurricane Gals, an all-girl rock band from Assam. “It made me think of our own band, and on a sudden burst of inspiration, I tracked down my bandmates whom I had lost touch with,” she says. Would they like to regroup again?

“Of course, we did,” says Lekharu, the band’s guitarist, who runs a business in Guwahati “Just because I was married and a mother of two, that wasn’t going to stop me.” Ahmed, too, remembers almost shouting in delight when she received Mahanta’s call. “I told her — Anjali, what a blessing this phone call is. When can we start practising?”

In the last decade, the women have shuttled between Nagaon and Guwahati for weekend practice sessions, and performed locally in events, where only the neighbourhood would show up. “That’s where Partha da saw us — and now, there is actually a film on us. Who would have thought?” asks Ahmed.

(Source: The Indian Express)

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

The mysterious link between Covid-19 and sleep

 The coronavirus can cause insomnia and long-term changes in our nervous systems. But sleep could also be a key to ending the pandemic.

The newly discovered coronavirus had killed only a few dozen people when Feixiong Cheng started looking for a treatment. He knew time was of the essence: Cheng, a data analyst at the Cleveland Clinic, had seen similar coronaviruses tear through China and Saudi Arabia before, sickening thousands and shaking the global economy. So, in January, his lab used artificial intelligence to search for hidden clues in the structure of the virus to predict how it invaded human cells, and what might stop it. One observation stood out: The virus could potentially be blocked by melatonin.

Melatonin, best known as the sleep hormone, wasn’t an obvious factor in halting a pandemic. Its most familiar role is in the regulation of our circadian rhythms. Each night, as darkness falls, it shoots out of our brain’s pineal glands and into our blood, inducing sleep. Cheng took the finding as a curiosity. “It was very preliminary,” he told me recently—a small study in the early days before COVID-19 even had a name, when anything that might help was deemed worth sharing.

After he published his research, though, Cheng heard from scientists around the world who thought there might be something to it. They noted that, in addition to melatonin’s well-known effects on sleep, it plays a part in calibrating the immune system. Essentially, it acts as a moderator to help keep our self-protective responses from going haywire—which happens to be the basic problem that can quickly turn a mild case of COVID-19 into a life-threatening scenario.

Cheng decided to dig deeper. For months, he and colleagues pieced together the data from thousands of patients who were seen at his medical center. In results published last month, melatonin continued to stand out. People taking it had significantly lower odds of developing COVID-19, much less dying of it. Other researchers noticed similar patterns. In October, a study at Columbia University found that intubated patients had better rates of survival if they received melatonin. When President Donald Trump was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for COVID-19 treatment, his doctors prescribed—in addition to a plethora of other experimental therapies—melatonin.


Eight clinical trials are currently ongoing, around the world, to see if these melatonin correlations bear out. Few other treatments are receiving so much research attention. If melatonin actually proves to help people, it would be the cheapest and most readily accessible medicine to counter COVID-19. Unlike experimental drugs such as remdesivir and antibody cocktails, melatonin is widely available in the United States as an over-the-counter dietary supplement. People could start taking it immediately.

Yet Cheng emphasizes that he’s not recommending that. Like any substance capable of slowing the central nervous system, melatonin is not a trifling addition to the body’s chemistry. Its apparent benefit to COVID-19 patients could simply be a spurious correlation—or, perhaps, a signal alerting us to something else that is actually improving people’s outcomes. Cheng thinks that might be the case. He and others suggest that the real issue at play may not be melatonin at all, but the function it most famously controls: sleep.

In fact, several mysteries of how COVID-19 works converge on the question of how the disease affects our sleep, and how our sleep affects the disease. The virus is capable of altering the delicate processes within our nervous system, in many cases in unpredictable ways, sometimes creating long-term symptoms. Better appreciating the ties between immunity and the nervous system could be central to understanding COVID-19—and to preventing it.

Throughout the pandemic, the department of neurology at Johns Hopkins University has been flooded with consultation requests for people suffering from insomnia. Rachel Salas, one of the team’s neurologists, says she initially thought this surge in sleep disorders was merely the result of all the anxieties that come with a devastating global crisis: worries about health, the economic impact, and isolation. Indeed, patterns of sleep disruption have played out around the world. Roughly three-quarters of people in the United Kingdom have had a change in their sleep during the pandemic, according to the British Sleep Society, and less than half are getting refreshing sleep. “In the summer, we were calling it ‘COVID-somnia,’” Salas says.

In recent months, however, Salas has watched a more curious pattern emerge. Many people’s sleep continues to be disrupted by predictable pandemic anxieties. But more perplexing symptoms have been arising specifically among people who have recovered from COVID-19. “We’re seeing referrals from doctors because the disease itself affects the nervous system,” she says. After recovering, people report changes in attention, debilitating headaches, brain fog, muscular weakness, and, perhaps most commonly, insomnia. Many don’t seem anxious or preoccupied with pandemic-related concerns—at least not to a degree that could itself explain their newfound inability to sleep. Rather it is sometimes part of what the medical community has begun to refer to as “long COVID,” where symptoms persist indefinitely after the virus has left a person. When it comes to sleep disturbances, Salas worries, “I expect this is just the beginning of long-term effects we’re going to see for years to come.”

Her colleague Arun Venkatesan has been trying to get to the bottom of how a virus could cause insomnia. He focuses specifically on autoimmune and inflammatory diseases that affect the nervous system. Initially, Venkatesan says, the common assumption among doctors was that many post-COVID-19 symptoms were due to an autoimmune reaction—a misguided, targeted attack on cells of one’s own body. This can happen in the nervous system after infections by various viruses, in predictable patterns, such as that of Guillain-Barré syndrome. In the days after an infection, as new antibodies mistakenly attack nerves, weakness and numbness spread from the tips of the extremities inward. Disconcerting as it can be, this type of pattern is at least identifiable and predictable; doctors can tell patients what they’re dealing with and what to expect.

By contrast, the post-COVID-19 patterns are sporadic, not clearly autoimmune in nature, says Venkatesan. The symptoms can appear even after a mild case of COVID-19, and timescales vary. “We’ve seen a number of patients who were not even hospitalized, and felt much better for weeks, before worsening,” Venkatesan says. And the findings aren’t limited to the brain. At Northwestern University, the radiologist Swati Deshmukh has been fielding a steady stream of cases in which people experience nerve damage throughout the body. She has been looking for evidence that the virus itself might be killing nerve cells. Hepatitis C and herpes viruses are known to do so, and autopsies have found SARS-CoV-2 inside nerves in the brain.

Still, she believes, symptoms are most likely due to inflammation. Indeed, the leading theory to explain how a virus can cause such a wide variety of neurologic symptoms over a variety of timescales comes down to haphazard inflammation—less a targeted attack than an indiscriminate brawl. This effect is seen in a condition known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, sometimes called chronic fatigue syndrome. The diagnosis encompasses myriad potential symptoms, and likely involves multiple types of cellular injury or miscommunication. In some cases, damage comes from prolonged, low-level oxygen deprivation (as after severe pneumonia). In others, the damage to nerve-cell communication could come by way of inflammatory processes that directly tweak the functioning of our neural grids.

The unpredictability of this disease process—how, and how widely, it will play out in the longer term, and what to do about it—poses unique challenges in this already-uncertain pandemic. Myalgic encephalomyelitis is poorly understood, stigmatized, and widely misrepresented. Medical treatments and diagnostic approaches are unreliable. General inflammatory states rarely respond to a single prescription or procedure, but demand more holistic, ongoing interventions to bring the immune system back to equilibrium and keep it there. The medical system is not geared toward such approaches.

But this understanding of what is happening may also offer some hope. Although the technical details are clearly thorny, there is some reassurance in what the doctors are not seeing. When nerves are invaded and killed, the damage can be permanent. When nerves are miscommunicating—in ways that come and go—that process can be treated, modulated, prevented, and quite possibly cured. Although sleep cycles can be disturbed and damaged by the post-infectious inflammatory process, radiologists and neurologists aren’t seeing evidence that this is irreversible. And among the arsenal of ways to attempt to reverse it are basic measures such as sleep itself. Adequate sleep also plays a part in minimizing the likelihood of ever entering into this whole nasty, uncertain process.

A central function of sleep is maintaining proper channels of cellular communication in the brain. Sleep is sometimes likened to a sort of anti-inflammatory cleansing process; it removes waste products that accumulate during a day of firing. Without sleep, those by-products accumulate and impair communication (just as seems to be happening in some people with post-COVID-19 encephalomyelitis). “In the early stages of COVID-19, you feel extremely tired,” says Michelle Miller, a sleep-medicine professor at the University of Warwick in the U.K. Essentially, your body is telling you it needs sleep. But as the infection goes on, Miller explains, people find that they often can’t sleep, and the problems with communication compound one another.

The goal, then, is breaking out of this cycle, or preventing it altogether. Here the benefits of sleep extend throughout the body. “Sleep is important for effective immune function, and it also helps to regulate metabolism, including glucose and mechanisms controlling appetite and weight gain,” Miller says. All of these bear directly on COVID-19, as risk factors for severe cases include diabetes, obesity, and sleep apnea. Even in the short term, getting enough deep, slow-wave sleep will optimize your metabolism and make you maximally prepared should you fall ill. These effects may even bear on vaccination. Flu shots appear to be more effective among people who have slept well in the days preceding getting one.

All of this leads back to the basic question: Is one of the most glaring omissions in public-health guidelines right now simply to tell people to get more sleep?

The only health advice more banal than being told to wash your hands is being told to sleep more. But it’s a cliché for a reason. Sleep fortifies and prepares us for any given crisis, but especially when the days are short and cold, and people have little else they might do to empower and protect themselves. Monotonous days can slip people into depression, alcohol abuse, and all manner of suboptimal health. It may well turn out that standard pandemic advice should be to wear a mask, keep distances, and get sleep.

That’s easier said than done. Asim Shah, a psychiatry and behavioral-sciences professor at Baylor College of Medicine, believes sleep is at the core of many of the mental-health issues that have spiked over the course of the year. “There’s a complete lack of structure. That has caused a huge disturbance in the sleep cycles,” he says. “Usually everyone has a schedule. They get sunlight and they generate melatonin and it puts them to sleep. Right now we’re seeing people losing interest in things, isolating, not exercising, and then not getting sleep.” Depression and anxiety make insomnia worse, and the cycle degenerates.

This may be where melatonin—or other approaches to enhancing the potent effects of sleep—could be consequential. Russel Reiter, a cell-biology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is convinced that widespread treatment of COVID-19 with melatonin should already be standard practice. In May, Reiter and colleagues published a plea for melatonin to be immediately given to everyone with COVID-19.

If the world of melatonin research had a molten core, it would be Reiter. He has been studying the hormone’s potential health benefits since the 1960s, and tells me he takes 70 milligrams daily. (Most bottles at the pharmacy recommend from 1 to 10 milligrams.) After we spoke, he sent me some of the many journal articles he has published on melatonin and COVID-19, at least four of which appeared in Melatonin Research. He blithely referred to them as “propaganda” and noted that he has been studying melatonin since before I was born (without asking when that was). “I know melatonin sideways and backwards,” Reiter said, “and I’m very confident recommending it.”  

The majority of sleep scientists, though, seem to agree that the most crucial interventions that facilitate sleep will not be medicinal, or even supplemental. The general recommendation is that getting your body’s melatonin cycles to work regularly is preferable to simply taking a supplement and continuing to binge Netflix and stare at your phone in bed. Now that so many people’s days lack structure, Shah believes a key to healthy pandemic sleep is to deliberately build routines. On weekends, wake up and go to bed at the same time as you do other days. Take scheduled walks. Get sunlight early in the day. Reduce blue light for an hour before bed. Stay connected with other people in meaningful ways, despite being physically distant.

Even small daily rituals can help, says Tricia Hersey, the founder of a nap-advocacy organization called the Nap Ministry. Light a candle. Have a cup of tea in a specific place at a certain time. “Repetitive rituals are part of what makes us human and ground ourselves,” she told me. They’re also perhaps the most attainable intervention there is. Wherever you are, Hersey says, “you can daydream. You can slow down. You can find small ways to stop and remember who you are.”

To her, feeling in control over sleep is important precisely because order is lacking in so many other parts of life for so many people. Year over year, there are significant sleep disparities across the U.S. population. The amount and quality of sleep we get depend on our environment as much as, if not more than, our personal behavior. Socioeconomic status and quality sleep chart on parallel lines. The most effective way to improve sleep is to ensure that people have a calm and quiet place to rest each night, free of concerns about basic needs such as food security. The pandemic has brought the opposite assurances, exacerbating the uncertainties at the root of already-stark disparities.

As the quest for sleep falls only more to individuals, many are left to think outside the box. That has included, for some, dabbling in hypnosis. Not the kind of hypnosis where you’re onstage and told to act like a chicken, but a process slightly more refined. Christopher Fitton is one of a number of hypnotherapists who have spent the pandemic creating YouTube videos and podcasts meant to help put people to sleep. Fitton’s sessions involve 30 minutes of him saying empowering things to listeners in his pleasant, semi-whispered voice. He tells me he is now getting more than 1 million listens a month.

Hypnotherapy is meant to slow down the rapid firing of our nerves. Similar to guided meditation or deep breathing, the intent is to stop people from overthinking and allow sleep to happen naturally. As you listen to Fitton saying banal things about the muscles in your back or asking you to envision a specific tree in a specific place, “the aim is to get into a relaxed, trancelike state, where your subconscious is open to more suggestion,” he says. Then, when he tells you to sleep, your brain is less likely to argue with him about how you’re too busy, or how you need to worry more about why someone read your text message but didn’t reply.

Hypnotherapists such as Fitton provide tools to ground yourself, ultimately in pursuit of being able to do it unassisted, sans the internet. (It’s better not to bring your phone into your bedroom anyway.) Focusing involves practice; the trancelike state rarely happens easily, and no single way works for everyone. Some experimentation is usually needed. Apparently it still is for me. While listening to one of Fitton’s recordings, I couldn’t fully escape the image of him in his home office speaking softly into his microphone, reading an ad for Spotify, just as alone as everyone else.

But regardless of whom you trust to help relieve you of consciousness, now seems like an ideal time to get serious about the practice. Draw boundaries for yourself, and sleep like your life depends on it. Hopefully it won’t.

(Source: The Atlantic)

Monday, 28 December 2020

Writer retreats to a Kabul that lives only in his memories and books

 FOUR large clocks tick out of sync, puncturing the silence of his Soviet-built apartment. A half-burned candle sits next to a stack of books. A small television is covered in soot.

This is where Rahnaward Zaryab, Afghanistan’s most celebrated novelist, locks himself up for weeks at a time, lost in bottles of smuggled vodka and old memories of Kabul, a capital city long transformed by war and money.

“We live in a vacuum, lacking heroes and ideals,” Mr. Zaryab reads from his latest manuscript, handwritten on the back of used paper. The smoke from his Pine cigarette, a harsh South Korean brand, clings to yellowed walls. “The heroes lie in dust, the ideals are ridiculed.”

The product of a rare period of peace and tolerance in Afghan history, Mr. Zaryab’s work first flourished in the 1970s, before the country was unraveled by invasion and civil war. Afghanistan still had a vibrant music and theater scene, and writers had a broad readership that stretched beyond just the political elite.

“Art, culture and literature have been forgotten completely,” said Rahnaward Zaryab. Credit... Bryan Denton for The New York Times

“I would receive letters from girls that would smell of perfume when you opened them,” Mr. Zaryab, who is 70, remembered fondly.

Mr. Zaryab’s stories are informed by his readings of Western philosophy and literature, the writer Homaira Qaderi said. He was educated on scholarships in New Zealand and Britain. But his heroes are indigenous and modest, delicately questioning the dogma and superstitions of a conservative society.

“He is the first writer to focus on the structure of stories, with the eye of someone well read,” Ms. Qaderi said. “We call him the father of new storytelling in Afghanistan.”

But after he became the standard-bearer for Afghan literature, Mr. Zaryab was forced to watch as Kabul, the muse he idealized as a city of music and chivalry in most of his 17 books, fell into rubble and chaos.

Some of the chaos has eased over the past decade, but that has caused him even more pain. He loathes how Kabul has been rebuilt: on a foundation of American cash and foreign values, paving over Afghan culture.

“Money, money, money,” he said, cringing. “Everyone is urged to make money, in any way they can. Art, culture and literature have been forgotten completely.”

FOR some Afghans, though, there is tragedy in the fact that one of their most renowned and enduring writers has largely withdrawn into his own memories, unable or unwilling to visualize a new identity amid a confusing and traumatic time for his country.

“Zaryab is enchanted by the past that to him is a symbol of the ideal life,” the critic and poet Mujib Mehrdad said. “He can’t disconnect from that past, he lives in the past.”

For his part, Mr. Zaryab insists that he is still looking at the problems of the day, though at times his allegories go unrecognized.

In one of his latest novels, a pompous gallant from Kabul’s old city in the early 1900s gives up his mundane routine after a chance meeting with a wise bird who introduces him to the philosophy of Socrates. He is thrown into meditation and soul-searching.

Mr. Zaryab says the bird is a symbol of the enlightenment push here in the early 20th century, and in the book, it is ceaselessly hounded by the city’s rulers and clergy — a clear and continuing theme in modern Afghanistan as well.

“Unfortunately, no one understood that part,” he said. “They thought it was an imaginative fantasy.”

For someone who reveled in his early fame, and whose international peers became global voices, translated across languages, the disconnect from an audience has not been easy.

Mr. Zaryab still enjoys minor celebrity status in public, and it once inspired him to try to reconnect to fans through a Facebook page. But he soon considered it a waste of time: Their interest was superficial, he felt; they were not after a deeper understanding of his work.

“In reality, I write for myself,” he said. “There is something inside that needs to come out, otherwise it bothers me. Not important whom I write it for.”

Born in the Rika Khana neighborhood of old Kabul in August 1944, Mr. Zaryab was one of three children. Neither his mother nor his father, a china trader, could read. A large age gap between him and his siblings meant that he grew up mostly a lone child.

After graduating from Kabul University with a degree in journalism, he went to Wales for postgraduate studies. His first job after his return was as a crime reporter for Zhwandoon Magazine, one of the prominent publications at the time. He sought the job because the details of the crime scene gave him inspirations for his stories, Mr. Zaryab said.

He continued to work as a reporter and editor for newspapers and magazines, as well as taking senior positions in the Culture Ministry, even after his fiction found acclaim.

Mr. Zaryab at his home in Kabul, where he shuts himself in for weeks at a time. Credit... Bryan Denton for The New York Times

When the civil war intensified in Kabul in the 1990s, Mr. Zaryab was briefly exiled to France; his wife and three daughters remain in Europe, not wanting to return to the violence and uncertainty of Afghanistan. After the Taliban were toppled, he returned to his old apartment in Kabul with more than 650 pounds of books and about $22 in his pocket, he said.

The city of his youth, of his stories, however, no longer existed. “I have this attachment to this place, I don’t know why,” he said. “I know there is poverty here, lies, hypocrisy, but still my heart is here.”

LITTLE of a readership culture remains these days, even in Kabul. Bookshops are saturated with bootleg copies of Iranian books. Local authors make no money from publishing their work. In return for a manuscript, Mr. Zaryab gets a number of copies from the publisher to distribute to friends.

Consider his latest work, “Qalandar Nama,” a collection of minimalist vignettes that he submitted in return for 150 free copies. The book has sold only 100 copies in the three months since its publishing, said the publisher, Wasim Amiri. In contrast, Mr. Amiri picks off the shelf a slim collection of poems by Fazel Nazari, a young poet from neighboring Iran. In its 32nd reprint over five years, the book has sold more than 80,000 copies.

Since Mr. Zaryab’s return, his daily routine has been simple, much of it spent reading and writing in his sixth-floor apartment. In the mornings, he goes for a walk around the block. If the air is too polluted already, he does yoga at home.

In the afternoons, a driver picks him up for his part-time job: For two hours a day, he edits news for Tolo TV, the country’s largest private channel. When he disconnects from the world during his weeks of solitude, his employer understands.

Mr. Zaryab’s desire for solitude has roots in his childhood. He fondly remembers walking alone along the Kabul River. “It had beautiful, clear water at the time,” he said. “Fishermen would fish with nets, not hooks. I would spend all my day along this river.” Not only has the river changed, he lamented, but also the city’s people. In a shrine on the same river, a mob recently accused a young woman of blasphemy and beat her to death in daylight. They dragged her body to the riverbed, now filled with trash, and set her on fire.

“In old Kabul’s Rika Khana, one shopkeeper had said something rude to a little girl once. Without a collective decision, the residents stopped buying from that shop and he was forced to move,” he said. “Do we have such people anymore? Today, they kill a girl and then burn her.

“How could I not be attached to the past?”

(Source: NYT)