LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF PANDEMIC: WITNESSING THE SHADES OF GREY - The Daily Guardian
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LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF PANDEMIC: WITNESSING THE SHADES OF GREY

The way the second wave is lapping at us makes me wonder if we have faced this pandemic recently — a couple of weeks back. We’re in a health emergency despite the lurking threat for over a year. Does it even qualify to be a sudden emergency? Hadn’t we enough time for planning and preparation? If only we knew our priorities.

Suravi Sharma Kumar

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Spring in Lutyne’s Delhi is a burst of colours — the brightest bougainvillaeas covering porch tops, trellis over entrance gates, the Gulmohar trees flaunting scarlet clusters, the sensuous purples, the purest whites, and at places confetti of cotton wicks from bursting pods of a cotton tree — paint a classic picture of spring in the city. Spring arrived this year too like many more before.

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It was in January last year we all were first introduced to the term social distancing. Back then the virus had seemed, to me at least, a threat unique to China. Social distancing would make a good novel title, I joked, never imagining that Americans would be doing the same in a matter of weeks, that the phrase would soon be joining so many others — community spread, an abundance of caution, flattening the curve. 

It was around this time last year my sons’ school had moved to online learning, and shops and restaurants began to shut. My kids like all others I believe, suddenly found themselves sealed within the walls of their homes — no school, no sports, no outings. Both my sons in their early teens initially responded by immersing in the world of video games — Call of Duty, Clash of Clans, and soon started lamenting the impossibility of hanging out with friends and making new friends in what we call the old analogue style. A die-hard soccer aspirant, my elder son appeared relatively cheerful despite his suspended coaching classes. The scheduled tournaments that he had been eagerly waiting and preparing for got cancelled, one after another where there was an immense possibility for him. Slowly, I found him adapt to the circumstances and embrace the life of an ascetic, practising all by himself passing, shooting, and chipping the ball in a small park; and then running fifteen kilometres a day round and round the colony we live in.

The growing realisation that like last year this time around I,too, have no choice like my boys. This has given me panicky loneliness. During the first wave last year, as a doctor and a writer, I found solace in writing medical pieces, short stories, and gorging myself on electronic media. Those days I worried for the millions of workers who had lost their jobs, students without a computer or a smartphone of their own, and the migrant workers who lived on day-to-day earnings and how dozens of them had to stay packed into a single room in a city under lockdown. And this time, the same thoughts surfaced in me. The way this second wave is lapping at us makes me wonder if we faced this pandemic recently — a couple of weeks back. We’re in a health emergency despite the lurking threat for over a year . Does it even qualify to be a sudden emergency Hadn’t we enough time for planning and preparation? If only we knew our priorities. 

Soon started the onslaught of social media posts about all the adorable quarantine activities that seemingly everyone, including doctors with the highest super-specialisations, people with shining degrees in management and law, were undertaking with their families — making cakes, cookies, reenacting famous paintings for photography, and at times, quite frequently, virtual get-togethers and alumni meets. I preferred to avoid such meets simply because you need to wear proper clothes and make-up to sit in front of the camera, and more than in physical/real meets, here one may have to undergo closer scrutiny. Days passed by at times in a whirlpool and at times at a snail’s pace. I took perverse pleasure in newspaper articles about China’s spiking mental diseases, rising divorce rates, and increasingly desperate dispatches from parents who had failed at homeschool. 

Then, one day last year I figured out that one of my two pet dogs, Nancy was rapidly losing weight; the vet I consulted on a video call suspected intestinal lymphoma, but there was no one in the office who could administer an ultrasound. ‘I’m feeling lonely, yet too busy without the house helps and two kids to tend to!’ I wrote this to every close friend on WhatsApp text. “(((HUG))),” they would reply, which felt more comforting than you might think. Old friends sent me a selfie in their quarantine grey hairs, hairy upper-lips and overgrown beards. I told my close friend Nayna who lived abroad all about my life, my writings, cancelled literary events, and my ailing pet. She at times reached out through a WhatsApp call, and/or “weird FaceTime things.”          

Last year, in the last week of April, when a dialysis patient walked in and came positive on RT PCR in the hospital I work in, and the whole hospital was marked as a containment area. So along with a few others, I had quarantined myself for having examined his body fluids under the microscope. I had no option but to lock myself in one of the rooms at home. With that, I became ‘lonely without being busy’. As my husband and kids managed the house chores, and I sat on the bed with my laptop. But I did no constructive writing, and instead ended up signing up for a free fifteen-day trial of NatureGlow and started watching YouTube stuff like how to wear your hair to bed, how to grow your lashes longer, and developed a costly impulsive online shopping habit. Every day, by the time the sun had sunk beneath the treetops as I could see through the window, I would struggle to do some yoga practice. By seven in the evening, I had caught up with the latest news alerts — “Italy surpasses China’s death toll, becoming world’s highest”; “New York tells nonessential workers to stay home.”

 Those days, one old acquaintance surfaced on WhatsApp chat who I barely knew. He reached out every day or so, sending me his art and poetry to praise. I responded occasionally with a ‘nice’ and thumbs-up emoji. I didn’t block him until the day I came across quotes like, “If you treat your first wife well, God blesses you with a second one.” This man I heard was doing well as a lawyer and was almost out of work due to the pandemic. His unsolicited texts I thought was his response to the virus skewed toward obsession or madness.

My husband who works in the government had his workload go up as the pandemic soared. His texts (we had to communicate through phone as I quarantining in a room), were around why the media wasn’t reporting on the bleakest epidemiological models, why a freight train’s worth of tanks was heading up the Himalayas to the Indo-China border when the country is battling to hold its rickety healthcare system. I would sip my coffee (had a coffee maker installed in my room) and text back in encouragement and validation.

On the last day of the Lockdown 1.0, the government extended it by another couple of weeks, and that stirred my fantasies of a doomsday tryst. That night Abha, a friend living in the UK sent me a crying cat emoji — I called up. Her husband was Covid positive with mild symptoms though, and she had been worrying for her parents with co-morbidities who were away from her across continents and whose neighbour was positives with severe breathlessness. I pacified her and spoke to her husband too whose plan was to drink his way through the isolation period. “Perhaps a little mind adjustment and drinks could get your mood elevated,” he advised his wife too. 

One evening after the lockdown in India was over and I was on an evening walk, my friend from nursery school, Nayna in NYC had been complaining of a sore throat, was admitted to a New York City hospital as she couldn’t breathe. When I heard this, I remember the sudden cold that passed through my body. It was the first time I had been able to conceive of the disease that had been obsessing me for weeks now, and the first time, too, that I realised that we would — every single one of us — be intimately touched by it in one way or another. I tried for a moment to imagine a world in which Nayna no longer existed, in which I could no longer call her up to say hello, in which her son grew up without a mother, and then I tried to multiply that desolation by 13,700, which was the global death toll, though of course, I failed the calculation — our minds aren’t built for such vast numbers.

On a Sunday, after sitting with my elder child with his Civics and History books for about three hours, I went to the grocery store for the first time in six weeks, staring at the bottles of disinfectant in the vestibule, at the cashiers wearing masks and plastic gloves. After having spent that morning reading through the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Indian history, the Civil War, and the Great Depression, it was startling to recognise in that supermarket scene an approximation of the black-and-white images that decorated my son’s textbook. I had never felt so much a part of history before, nor understood so acutely how little there was to separate us from the men and women of the past, how we had always just been people. 

Now in 2021 spring, the virus began its exponential climb as we all feared, in fact quite expected actually. My phone buzzed with a WhatsApp video call from Nayna who survived Covid-19 in NYC in 2020. I sat on the sofa as I spoke to her, my sick pet Nancy now lying on the floor resting her head on my feet. Nayna was lying on her couch and was still suffering from post-Covid symptoms – neurological manifestations of pain, and tingling.  

Abha and her husband were again under lockdown in 2021 and she told me that they had been spending their isolation microdosing some psychedelic stuff that was legally allowed in her country, and tidying up their home and garden. She texted me that she was getting rid of contact numbers and gifts of friends from those she lost contact with and was burning any gifts or stuff like that from her ex-lovers so that she is all neat and sorted from within for the new lease of life after the pandemic. This last one filled me with a sense of deja –vu or something — I could still picture how she had looked at 15, filling notebook after notebook with her scripts—and yet she was adamant when she had said that she and her then-boyfriend Ravi had already built a pyre in an open field as they planned on performing an elaborate burning ceremony of her diary where she wrote every detail of their relationship; that would rid them of the past and pave the way for new beginnings as they decided to part ways. 

Now the TV screen right in front of me was filled with burning pyres in a certain crematorium in Delhi. Bodies burning in rows of pyres. Ambulances brought bodies and one sole man appeared in PPEs in the crematorium with a task of burning bodies placed on dozens of wooden pyres.

The days continued to pass, and it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between them. Friends would call, and we couldn’t remember whether we had spoken two hours, or two weeks ago. The virus now coloured everything, giving birth to alien emotions, blurring boundaries between the real, and the imagined. I felt blind fury when I see people in election rallies walking with political party flags especially youngsters on two-wheelers joining the rallies uttering slogans, stabs of anxiety when the characters in the movie walked into a crowded room, and the worst of anguish at the sight of a film heroine flaunting her pouted lips, a nose-pin. 

My sons (and their friends) were sleeping till noon and burst in annoyance when I asked if they completed their share of daily exercise, or had finished fifteen pages of The Alchemist, or To Kill a Mocking Bird. My mother had started penning daily emails that doubled as absurdist literature — had I heard that the stray dogs were getting quite exhausted and behaving unpredictably, and found recipes of beer bread that she had never baked before. “Why,” asked my friend Abha, “is everyone on the internet baking bread these days?”

Yesterday I drove Nancy to a vet. Pet mothers were no longer allowed inside the clinic; instead, you had to call from the parking lot and a technician wearing a face mask and plastic gloves would retrieve your animal from the passenger seat. While I waited, I received about eight calls out of that three from my two sons expressing their apprehension about Nancy’s diagnosis as they desperately wanted to accompany but I couldn’t allow them considering the situation. By the time I was on the eighth call, Nancy was returned to me trembling, her belly shorn. That day, I spent the rest of the day trying to make a list of reasons why it would be all right if she had cancer or any other equally grave condition.

Early that evening when my sons and I sat in front of the TV, my husband arrived. Soon he joined us with wine in coffee cups (that’s to trick the kids into thinking that it was coffee in the cup). He had been taking a life-must-go-on approach to the virus and was doing good and getting engrossed in his work. We discussed his work and then mine and then we ordered pizza, coke, and then retired to our rooms. 

One by one, all my/our plans have been cancelled of buying a home, sending the elder son for exclusive football coaching, and younger son to join tennis classes etc. I find myself in a kind of continuous present, with the distinction that this time around almost all the world’s people are in the same boat. Every day or so I end up texting or talking to friends across the globe, listening to their tales of quarantine in this wave or the previous one — the virus has invaded human life the way it does the human body, it seems, latching on and wreaking havoc. There is a friend Betsy, a single mother who fears she is becoming abusive to her children —“No, really,” she says when I protest, “they run away from me when I so much as look at them.” There is a good friend from college Pinaki, who is married to another friend Lana and both living in London, whose lifeline was the pub and just doubled his dosage of antidepressants. And Veena, a dermatologist who is learning for the first time how to intubate a patient. It will be interesting to see, Nayna and I agreed when we last spoke, she in her Manhattan pigeon-hole apartment, me in a New Delhi home, how this contagion will bring us together and rip us apart. “Just think,” said my now-single-again friend Lana as we looked for silver linings, “of all the new depressions, abuses and divorces that will soon be flooding the market.” Lana was the one who for the first time shared with me samples of sexts that she had sent or received in her now interrupted search for true love or the perfect partner. She told me how the sale of sex toys was skyrocketing when the pandemic was raging in NYC and also in London.

Now many weeks through a deadlier pandemic in Delhi, I’ve kind of gone numb. I stopped calling friends and neither have I received as many calls as before. It has been weeks since I last heard from Nayna or Lana, or from Abha or Pinaki — perhaps, like me, they realised after our initial flurry of communication that it is lonelier to grasp at some simulacrum of intimacy than it is to try and make peace with one’s solitude. Journey inwards is the panacea of all ills for our generation. 

The writer is a medical doctor (pathologist) and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of London. The views expressed are personal.

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Economic woes, curbs on dissent in Pakistan marred 2020: Report

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The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP)’s annual report has asked the Imran Khan government to deliver to the public the “rights and freedoms to which they are legally and constitutionally entitled.”

An HRCP release said that the pandemic aggravated existing inequalities, leaving millions of vulnerable workers at risk of losing their livelihoods. “The Benazir Income Support and Ehsaas Programmes, which the government sensibly made part of its approach to the pandemic, likely saved thousands of households from sinking deeper into poverty, but these programmes are only a small facet of what a robust, pro-poor strategy should look like,” HRCP said.

The report noted that the pandemic was also a huge blow to educational institutions, with students compelled to attend online classes to the detriment of thousands in Balochistan, the tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Gilgit-Baltistan, who had little or no access to reliable internet connections.

This is now the third year running in which HRCP has underscored escalating curbs on freedom of expression and opinion in its report.

“From the abduction of senior journalist Matiullah Jan to the arrest of Jang Group chief Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, it is clear that media groups continue to be pushed into towing the line. Worryingly, the National Accountability Bureau continued its operations as an instrument that violates fundamental human rights, including the right to fair trial and due process, among other things,” the report said.

Prisons in Pakistan remain sorely overcrowded, with an occupancy rate of 124 percent. This is marginally lower than in 2019, but the ever-present risk of infection in the country’s prisons shows that the state has failed in its duty of care, the report added.

“The long-awaited bill aimed at criminalising enforced disappearance has still not been passed despite commitments to this effect by the incumbent government since 2018. Indeed, despite the fact that the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has failed to address entrenched impunity, the government extended the latter’s mandate by another three years,” HRCP said.

Meanwhile, Balochistan remained especially vulnerable to excesses of power, from the extrajudicial killing of Hayat Baloch, an unarmed student, by a Frontier Corps soldier, to the shooting of four-year-old Bramsh and allegations that the men responsible had been sent by the alleged local leader of a ‘death squad.’

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U.S. TO SEND ASTRAZENECA VACCINE TO COUNTRIES BY JULY 4

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President Joe Biden on Tuesday (local time) provided an update from the White House on goals for providing AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine to countries by July 4. “I am not prepared to announce who else we will be giving the vaccine to, but we are going to by the Fourth of July have spent about 10 per cent of what we have to other nations including some of the ones who you mentioned,” said Biden while responding to a question about when vaccines will be provided to countries like India and Brazil.

“We’re helping Brazil and India, significantly. I spoke to Prime Minister Modi. What he needs most is the material and the parts to be able to have his machines that can make the vaccine work, we’re sending oxygen. We’re sending them a lot of the precursors. So, we’re doing a lot for India,” he said.

The US will be sending 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to other countries starting from June 2021, the White House announced earlier.

“That means of all the vaccines we produced for the United States at that time, we will have given about 10 per cent to the rest of the world as a significant humanitarian commitment in addition to our funding of COVAX,” said Biden.

On Tuesday, Biden announced a plan of ensuring 70 per cent of American adults receive at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine by Independence Day.

“Our goal by July 4 is to have 70 per cent of adult Americans with at least one shot and 160 million Americans fully vaccinated,” Biden said at the White House on Tuesday.

“That means giving close to 100m shots – some first shots, others second shots – over the next 60 days.”

At the briefing, President Biden said that he has not yet announced whether his administration will support a global push to waive intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines.

“We’re going to decide that as we go along,” he told reporters following a White House briefing on vaccine distribution. “I haven’t made that decision yet.”

The Biden administration is facing pressure from the international community, drug pricing advocates and congressional Democrats to back a move that would temporarily waive the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement (TRIPS), that protects pharmaceutical trade secrets.

The World Trade Organization will assess the waiver, which has effectively provided pharmaceutical companies monopoly over vaccine production, potentially locking out poor countries from expanding their supplies. The Biden administration is expected to set its position clearly at the World Trade Organization meeting on Wednesday.

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CONSIDER USING ARMY ENGINEERING WING FOR SETTING UP OXYGEN STORAGE FACILITY: DELHI HC TO CENTRE

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The Delhi High Court, on Wednesday, while hearing a plea on various issues arising due to the rapid surge in Covid-19 cases in the national capital, asked the Centre to consider utilising the engineering wing of the Armed Forces for setting up a storage facility for oxygen.

Appearing for the Centre, Additional solicitor general (ASG) Chetan Sharma informed the division bench of justices of Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli, who was hearing various aspects relating to the crisis that arose due to spike in Covid-19 infection, that Armed Forces› help can be taken for transportation of oxygen. The High Court had earlier asked the Centre to respond to Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia›s letter to Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on seeking Army›s help in dealing coronavirus crisis in the national capital.

ASG Chetan Sharma apprised the court today about details of help extended by the DRDO and said he has received a communication that the Army, Air-Force and Navy are on the job. «Airforce has helped in the transportation of tankers,» Sharma submitted.

The High Court also told Sharma about the direction passed in the afternoon regarding developing a channel for production and distribution of liquid medical oxygen like Petroleum products and on availing services of the engineering wing of the Army for storage of oxygen. ASG Sharma stated that the said aspect would be considered and will inform the court after seeking instructions from the Centre.

Meanwhile, Deepti, Joint Secretary (Health), Armed Forces joined the hearing via video conference. ASG Sharma informed Deepti about the Court›s suggestion of involving the army in the storage aspect.

The Court asked Deepti to discuss it within the Army hierarchy. Deepti told the court that she did not see any difficulty as these are unprecedented times. She assured the Court that despite Army›s resources being stretched, it will do its best.

The Court was hearing a petition filed by advocate Rakesh Malhotra on various issues that arose due to an unprecedented surge in Covid-19 cases in the national capital. The matter was disposed of on 14 January but after the national capital was hit by the fourth wave of coronavirus infection, the Court revived the petition in April again.  WITH ANI INPUTS

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Ministry of Steel supplies 4,076 MT Liquid Medical Oxygen

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Oxygen

The Ministry of Steel on Wednesday said it has supplied 4,076 MT Liquid Medical Oxygen in view of the Covid-19 situation in the country.

Steel companies from across the country, from both the public and private sectors, have stepped up efforts to meet the nation’s requirement of medical oxygen. Yesterday, the Total Liquid Medical Oxygen (LMO) Production by the steel plants was 3680.30 MT, and the Total LMO Supply was 4076.65 MT. “In comparison, the LMO supply was 3131.84 Metric Tonnes to various states on 25 April 2021. In mid-April, on an average 1500-1700 Metric tonnes /day was being dispatched,” read an official release by the ministry.

Union Minister of Steel and Petroleum and Natural Gas, Dharmendra Pradhan last week had held a series of meetings with captains of steel companies of both public and private sectors. He had called for doing everything possible to enhance the supply of medical oxygen from steel plants and also for building jumbo-sized Covid-care facilities with oxygenated beds to augment the healthcare infra.

Steel Authority of India, one of the largest domestic steel producers, has been enhancing its capabilities to supply Liquid Medical Oxygen in the country. The daily delivery of LMO from its integrated steel plants situated at Bhilai (Chhattisgarh), Rourkela (Odisha), Bokaro (Jharkhand), Durgapur and Burnpur (West Bengal) has been increased from a level of about 500 Metric Tonnes (MT) in the 2nd week of April to more than 1100 MT per day currently.

The company has so far supplied over 50,000 MT of LMO. In the month of April 2021, SAIL delivered more than 17500 MT LMO to 15 states across the country including the states in which the plants are located.

14 “Oxygen Express” trains carrying more than 950 MT LMO have been loaded by yesterday for various parts of the county from SAIL plants at Bokaro, Rourkela and Durgapur. SAIL plants have also received tankers, which have been airlifted and after loading has moved to their destinations by road and rail.

WITH ANI INPUTS

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EXTENSIVE COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS IN WEST BENGAL ANNOUNCED

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Hours after taking oath as the chief minister of West Bengal for the third term, Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday announced various steps to contain the spread of Covid-19 in the state, adding that hawkers, transporters, and journalists will be given priority when it comes to vaccination.

Announcing extensive restrictions across the state, Chief Minister said shopping complexes, gyms, cinema halls, beauty parlours will remain close in West Bengal. Local trains will be suspended from today and Friday onwards, those entering the state will have to show a negative Covid test report.

“Hawkers, transporters, journalists will be given priority in administering of the first dose (of vaccine). Looking at the Covid-19 situation, we have to take some steps. Wearing of masks to be mandatory, there’ll be only 50% attendance in state government offices. Shopping complexes, gyms, cinema halls, beauty parlours to be closed. Social/political gathering prohibited,” he said. Trinamool Congress Supremo said that all markets, retailers, standalone shops in the state will be allowed to function from 7 am to 10 am and later from 5 pm to 7 pm only. Talking about interstate and intrastate movement, Banerjee said, “local trains to be suspended from tomorrow. State transport, including metro, to function with 50 per cent capacity: From May 7, nobody will be allowed to arrive at airports without RT-PCR negative report not older than 72 hours. Those who will be positive will be sent to 14-day quarantine, arranged by the airport authority with the state government.”She said that random checking will be done in inter-state buses, RT-PCR negative report not older then 72 hours is mandatory for the passengers. “The ruling is also applicable to the passengers of train services,” she said. The Chief Minister informed that banks in the state will operate from 10 am to 2 pm, while Jewellery shops will remain open from 12 pm to 3 pm only.“Work from home for the private sector, for 50% of the staff allowed. Home deliveries should be encouraged,” she added. Moreover, Banerjee also reinstated IPS officer Virendra as Bengal Director general of police(DGP) along with Jawed Shamim as Additional Director General (ADG) (Law and Order). Before the Assembly elections in West Bengal, Election Commission had directed the state government to appoint P Nirajnayan as the Director General (DG) and IGP of the state in place of the serving DG and IGP Virendra, and Jag Mohan as ADG (Law and Order).

WITH ANI INPUTS

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Delhi Police registers 113 FIRs related to black marketing of Covid medicines

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Delhi Police has registered 113 FIRs, of which 61 cases pertain to cheating and fraud in the name of providing Covid-19 medicines or oxygen, while 52 cases related to black-marketing, hoarding or overcharging.A total of 100 arrests have been made in these cases, the police informed on Tuesday. The Delhi Police has also begun action against fraud callers and cyber financial cheats. In the last two days, 200 mobile numbers, 95 bank accounts, 33 UTR and 17 UPI/Wallet involved in this inhuman crime have been identified, the police said. The Delhi Police cyber unit CyPAD has also aligned with the Cyber and Information Security Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs, to create an integrated platform for law enforcement agencies and financial intermediaries like banks, wallets, merchants for real-time incident reporting, transmission, escalation, estoppels and resolution. “The singular objective of this platform is to prevent the defrauded money from exiting the financial ecosystem and ending up in the hands of the fraudsters either in hard cash or as goods purchased over e-commercial sites,” the statement said.

WITH ANI INPUTS

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