What’s the best way to respond to a pandemic? I’m asking out of purely academic interest, you understand, but a study of how twenty-seven countries responded to the pandemic–
Oh, hell, let’s drop twenty-two of those. Life’s complicated enough, and the article I’m relying on already dropped them for us, but let’s pretend we had a choice. We’ll look at two that handled it well and three that blew it. It’s not in depth, but it’s interesting all the same.
The two? South Korea and Ghana–which is to say, one that I knew about and one that I didn’t. Ghana hasn’t been in any of the news that I’ve seen until now.
South Korea acknowledged the threat in January 2020, encouraged people to wear masks, and introduced a contact-tracing app. They avoided a lockdown.
Let me quote the article here: “Each change in official alert level, accompanied by new advice regarding social contact, was carefully communicated by Jung Eun-Kyung, the head of the country’s Centre for Disease Control, who used changes in her own life to demonstrate how new guidance should work in practice.”
In other words, they had a human being leading them through it and acting like a human being. Yes, the advice changed over time, but it wasn’t rocket science.
Then Ghana comes in and ruins my theory that politicians should get out of the way and let the public health people handle public health communications. The president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, “took responsibility for coronavirus policy and explained carefully each measure required, being honest about the challenges the nation faced. Simple demonstrations of empathy earned him acclaim within his nation and also around the world.”
One of the things he said resonates strongly with me, because it’s the opposite of the approach Britain took: “We know how to bring the economy back to life. What we don’t know is how to bring people back to life.”
On the other hand, we have Brazil, India, and the UK, which gave out inconsistent messages about the threat, downplayed the dangers, made impulsive decisions, and ended up with high on the list of deaths per capita.
In Britain, Boris Johnson prioritized the economy over controlling the virus, and before he came down with Covid himself he was tap dancing through hospitals and shaking hands with infected people. Against all public health advice.
If I were giving out public health advice, I’d advise him not to tap dance. Certainly not in public.
For clarity: I made up the tap dancing in an effort to be funny. It’s been a long week here. Sometimes the jokes work and sometimes they don’t.
Britain has one of the highest per capita death rates.
Yay us! We’re the envy of the world.
A year into the pandemic, Jair Bolsonaro (who also managed to catch Covid) is still criticizing attempts to control the disease and at the beginning of March told Brazilians to stop whining about it. Well let that stand in from his approach from the beginning.
Brazil’s death rate is behind Britain’s and the US’s, but it’s high.
And in India, Narendra Modi at least took the virus seriously, but he called a lockdown with four hours notice, doing nothing to support people who would be out of work and desperate. That set off a mass migration of the poorest laborers, who left the cities for their home villages. The choice was to was walk home or starve. Those who were carrying the virus spread it.
India has an impressive death rate too.
The article’s summary is that countries that politicized the virus, made last-minute decisions, or were stupidly optimistic had the most cases and the most deaths.
They don’t say “stupidly.” They’re professionals. They can’t.
News from assorted scientists
This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention, but with some U.S. states dropping their mask mandates, it might be worth mentioning a study that shows a correlation between wearing masks and a lower number of Covid cases and deaths.
I know. I’m shocked too. Who’d have imagined wearing masks would cut transmission of an air-borne virus?
The same study also shows that opening restaurants correlates with a rise in the number of cases and deaths. Probably because it’s hard to eat without taking your mask off.
The study has its limits. It’s hard to isolate a single cause when a lot of factors are bouncing around in the dark and smashing into each other. But we got where we are by not listening to health information that didn’t make us happy. We might outta listen to this.
A different study–a small one–suggests that it’s safe for healthy people to wear face masks when they exercise indoors–even when they do vigorous workouts. Which is good to know, although I’m still trying to figure out why anyone thought it wouldn’t be. If we were being asked to stuff masks down our throats and up our noses, I’d expect problems, but unless I’m seriously misunderstanding the situation, no one’s asking that.
Masks did have a small effect on the workouts–they reduced people’s peak oxygen uptake by 10%.
“This reduction is modest,” one of the researchers said, “and, crucially, it does not suggest a risk to healthy people doing exercise in a face mask, even when they are working to their highest capacity. While we wait for more people to be vaccinated against COIVD-19, this finding could have practical implications in daily life, for example potentially making it safer to open indoor gyms.
“However, we should not assume that the same is true for people with a heart or lung condition. We need to do more research to investigate this question.”
Yet another study reports that spacing out the first and second doses of a vaccine does reduce the number of Covid cases in the short term but that in the long term–well, basically no one knows what impact it’ll have. It’s not clear how long immunity from a single dose will last or how (as they put it) robust it’ll be. If the immune response after one dose isn’t as robust as it would be after two, it could increase the size of a later outbreak.
And then there’s the possibility that people with partial immunity could increase the odds that the virus will mutate in ways that allow it to escape the vaccine.
Isn’t this fun?
Don’t loose sleep over this yet. They’re only raising possibilities.
Still, though, if you’re feeling paranoid about Covid, sleep experts in Australia have reminded us all that sleep is essential to our immune systems.
Yeah, thanks, folks. We kind of knew that.
Just before I got vaccinated (or half vaccinated, since that’s the way Britain’s handling it) I read that to maximize the vaccine’s impact I should get a good night’s sleep beforehand. That was enough to guarantee that I didn’t.
One of the many oddities of getting older has been that I–lifelong insomniac that I was–now sleep well. Except when someone tells me that I really need a good night’s sleep before some particularly important event.
But never mind me. Sleep well. Your health depends on it.
An update on Huge Ma
Remember Huge Ma, a New York programer who spent two weeks and $50 creating a free website, TurboVax, that would simplify the tangle of websites New Yorkers needed to negotiate to get a vaccination appointment? Well, he’s been overwhelmed with gratitude, with requests to set up similar sites in other places, and with so much traffic that the site’s buckling.
I’m not sure what it means, specifically, when they say the site’s buckling, but when he created it he took shortcuts so he could get it working quickly.
“I think that’s a trade-off that I would still make,” he said. “The response has been incredibly overwhelming. There’s been so much gratitude. Hundreds, thousands of emails from people who have gotten appointments through TurboVax, which is honestly kind of just mind-blowing, and humbling as well. . . .
“I would never have thought that I could have built something that has such tangible impact on other people’s lives.”
Other citizen-led sites have appeared around the U.S., but it’s very much hit and miss. “There is a huge need for tools like this,” Ma said. “But I’m just one developer who did a side project that went viral.”
Ma did suspend the site for a weekend to protest hate crimes against Asian Americans, which have increased recently.
“While I have this platform,” he said, “as an Asian American myself I can do more than what is expected and highlight a group and an environment that needs changing.”