About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

Local lockdowns and, as always, money: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

Britain’s Covid test and trace system may be a functional disaster, but boy is it a moneymaker. Management consultants are taking home as much as £6,250 a day. Admittedly, not all of them, but you know, in a pinch a person could live on that.

One of the big track-and-trace players here is Boston Consulting Group, known to its friends as BCG. You and I can call it Boston Consulting Group. Senior execs are being paid as much as £1.5 million a year to salvage the test-and-trace mess. 

To throw another set of numbers at you, 40 people were paid £10 million for four months’ work. The government’s budgeting £12 billion for the program. 

I have no idea how all those numbers come together. Are we supposed to add them together? Divide? Multiply? Hide them under the floorboards? All I get out of them is that a lot of money’s flying around.

There’ve been too many screwups to list, but a recent one saw the program giving out used swabs for people to test themselves with. 

Irrelevant photo: roses.

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In the meantime, the government’s at odds with its scientific advisory committee, SAGE, which advocates a short national lockdown–now called a circuit breaker–that would last a couple of weeks. Instead, the government’s doing local lockdowns.

How do they work? 

If you’re in tier one, you can get together with 6 people from up to 6 households (or 6 people from 12 households if your friends are divisible) indoors or out, with or without alcohol. If you add enough alcohol, you won’t care if you’re indoors or out. You’ll find yourself falling on people you barely know, people who come from 12 or 14 different households, telling them how much you love them. That’s not allowed, but it happens anyway. 

If you’re in a pub or restaurant, you have to sit at a table, which means you can only fall on the random acquaintances who are sitting next to you, but you’ll have to leave at 10 p.m., because that’s when pubs and restaurants close now. Once you’re outside, you can fall on all sorts of people and tell them you love them, and it’ll be all the sweeter for not being allowed.

If you’re in tier two, you can get together with 6 people from, oh, you know, hundreds of households, but only outdoors, with or without alcohol. See above for alcohol and closing times and love.

In tier three, you get multiple paragraphs because your life’s going to be complicated. Or at least your restrictions will be. You can’t socialize with anyone you don’t live with or who isn’t in your support bubble. What’s a support bubble? It’s an idea that at one point made sense but no longer does because politicians poked so many holes in it that all the logic leaked out. We’ll talk about it some other time, okay? 

Casinos, betting shops, bingo halls, and soft play centers are closed but gyms and leisure centers aren’t. Why? They have better lobbyists, that’s why.

Pubs are closed unless they serve substantial meals, in which case they can serve alcohol with the meal, but only with the meal. 

Eat slowly.

What’s a substantial meal? The evening news had lots of fun interviewing people about whether a pasty qualified or whether it had to have a side salad or potatoes with it to be a meal. Since a pasty’s pastry with potatoes and some other stuff inside, that’s sort of like having potato pie with a side of potatoes, so nutritionists might get huffy about it, but even they will have to admit that it’s substantial. 

Okay, a traditional pasty has meat and a stray bit of veg, but yeah, it still has a fair bit of potato. 

If you live in, say, a tier three area but work in a tier two area, whose restrictions are you supposed to follow? I haven’t seen anything that explains that. The government’s advising against traveling to any part of the country in a higher tier except for work, education, or a few other reasons. If it advises against traveling to a lower tier, I haven’t seen that either, although you’d think it would make sense. 

Which may be why they haven’t addressed it.

A separated parent asked the prime minister whether he’d be able to see his son. The prime minister, true to form, gave the father the wrong information. The correct answer is yes, you can see your kid, regardless. Johnson’s answer was–well, there’s no point in repeating incorrect information. What he meant was, “Why are you asking me? I’m the prime minister. Go ask someone who knows something.”

What about people in established relationships who don’t live together? If they’re in one of the higher tiers, they get to see each other outside and not touch. Unless they’re in a support bubble. Remember support bubbles–those things I’m working so hard not to define? But they can only ecstatically unite into a single bubble if one of them lives alone, at which point they can safely hold hands. 

By now it would’ve been simpler if I’d just explained support bubbles, but I’ve got too much invested in not doing it. Besides, we all need a little mystery in our lives.

As you can see, it’s a simple system.

In the meantime, the prime minister and the local leaders in Greater Manchester are arguing about whether the area belongs in tier two or tier three. Rumor has it that Johnson wants to impose tier three restrictions but is afraid the police would side with local government and refuse to enforce them. The main difference between the two sides–I think–is how much the government is willing to pay workers who are locked out of their jobs. So far, they’re offering less for the local lockdowns than they did for the national one.

On Saturday, the prime minister and the mayor couldn’t even agree on whether they’ve scheduled a phone call to discuss the problem on Sunday. 

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Gordon Brown, who was Britain’s chancellor and briefly its prime minister, warned that the country’s facing a double cliff edge, Brexit and the costs of Covid. He knows a shitload more about finances than I do but he’s not so great with a metaphor: “I think we’ve got two cliff edges coming,” he said hallucinogenically. He did modify that by adding, “If it’s possible to go over two cliff edges at once,” but he doesn’t seem to have noticed that cliff edges mostly stay put and insist that you come to them.

Never mind. The point’s still valid.

Suffragists, sufragettes, and votes for women

English women’s fight for the right to vote began in the nineteenth century, and it started out politely enough. Bills were introduced in Parliament. Bills were defeated in Parliament. 

What could be more polite than that?

In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies gathered local groups into a national organization and by 1914 it had 54,000 members. Most of them were respectable and middle class, and it’s not too much of a leap to assume that the campaign made a huge difference in individual women’s lives and in how they saw their role in the world. We can make a wild guess and say that many a couple argued about it over their respectable breakfast tables. Or didn’t argue and just let the tension build. 

They also made the issue part of the national conversation.

Irrelevant photo: a red hot poker. Not, obviously, a real one. A flower.

The organization was efficient and nonviolent and the members were, for the most part, dedicated. And you know what? Women kept on not getting the vote. 

Their work played out against a complicated background involving political parties and a lot of wrestling over not just whether women should vote but which men should. So as usual, we need a bit of background: 

From as early as the 1830s, the Chartists, a working-class movement, had been pushing to open the vote up to all men. They presented petitions to Parliament: 1.25 million names on the first one, 3 million on the second, and nobody I checked with says how many on the third. In response, Parliament blew a raspberry and ignored them.

Before the First Reform Bill (that was in 1832) only 3% of adult males could vote. Your right to vote (or not vote) depended on how much you earned and what your property was worth.

After the bill, the vote was broadened but not to all men. Shopkeepers, tenant farmers, and small landowners got the vote. That’s in the counties. In the boroughs, householders who paid at least £10 a year in rent could vote and so could (gasp) some lodgers. 

What’s the difference between counties and boroughs? Beats me, but that comes from Parliament’s own website, so it must be right. It’s probably about the difference between cities and the countryside, but don’t take my word on that. I’m a stranger here myself. The point is that more people could vote, but only a safely respectable kind of more. And since women had come into the conversation they were, for the first time, specifically excluded. 

Isn’t progress a wonderful thing?

The Second Reform Act in 1867 did more of the same, doubling the number of men who could vote in England and Wales from 1 million to 2 million.

Leave Ireland and Scotland out of it, will you? This is complicated enough already.

By 1885, 8 million people out of a population of 45 million could vote–two-thirds of adult men. (Any numbers that don’t add up here can be blamed on women and children being left out of the accounting.)

So when women started pushing for the vote, the first question that popped its divisive little head up like a jack-in-the-box was, Which women? If all women had the vote, then presumably all men should as well. Or should only women who could meet the same property qualifications as men vote? Or how about unmarried women who met the qualifications, since married women were–or so the argument went–represented by their husbands. Or should it be only married women, since unmarried women were at best faintly embarrassing.

Or only women with those huge, amazing hats.

And this is where party politics came into it, because different choices were to the advantage of different parties. 

And if that wasn’t complicated enough, the women’s suffrage movement  was pulled between the women who wanted a single focus for the organization–votes for women–and those who wanted to address other issues too, because wasn’t the purpose of voting to have an impact on issues?

As women’s suffrage gained momentum, the Conservative Party could see the value of having propertied women vote: Well, of course they’d vote Conservative. And you could see why both non-propertied women and working-class (and presumably non-Conservative) men might oppose that. If the country allows only a small group of campaigners into the hall and they go in, closing the door on the rest of them, the people left outside might well ask themselves why they’d bothered supporting the ones who went in and didn’t return that support.

In 1893, the Independent Labour Party was formed–the forerunner of today’s Labour Party. Its goal was to represent the interests of the working class–a tough job at a time when large parts of the working class were still disenfranchised. 

In those conflicting currents, the suffragists bobbed around, lobbying politicians and campaigning for candidates who supported women’s suffrage, getting their hopes raised and crushed with each new bill. But the question of whether women should vote was, increasingly, an issue that couldn’t be ignored. Even people who made fun of it couldn’t ignore it. The Liberal and Conservative parties formed party women’s groups. They weren’t where the power lay, but they involved women in the machinery.

In 1894, women who met the same qualifications as men gained the right to vote in local elections.

In 1897, a women’s suffrage bill that had looked promising was defeated. You probably know what follows when a movement with a lot of momentum runs into a wall. Either it collapses or it explodes.

It exploded. The Women’s Social and Political Union was formed in 1903. The names you might recognize here are Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela. The group appealed to working-class women, not just respectable ones, and they were called suffragettes by a hostile press. The name was meant as an insult but the group adopted it. Why not? The words Tory and Whig had originally been insults, and both groups ended by embracing them.

In 1905, Christabel and Annie Kenney got themselves arrested when they interrupted a political speech and unfurled a Votes for Women banner. And when I say “got themselves arrested,” I mean that Christabel had to work at it. The police threw them out of the hall and were going to let it go at that until Christabel spat in a police superintendent’s face and hit an inspector in the mouth. 

That did the trick: They both got arrested, they refused to pay a fine, and they were jailed, one for three days and one for seven. 

When they came out, they were met by a thousand supporters and the press, which got them national publicity. 

By 1909 the WSPU was a national organization, selling 20,000 copies of its paper every week, and it had a genius for attention-grabbing actions. Members disrupted political speeches and by-elections. They tried to rush the House of Commons. They broke windows, blew up pillar boxes (which in other versions of the English language would be called mailboxes), attacked paintings in galleries, and bought gun licenses not so they could use guns but to scare the authorities into thinking they might.

They also chained themselves to railings, getting the grill that sectioned off the House of Commons Ladies Gallery removed by chaining themselves to it.

They took advantage of a Post Office service that allowed postmasters to “arrange for the conduct of a person to an address by an Express Messenger,” posting two women to the prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, so they could talk with him.

The delivery was refused. 

The sad part was that social media hadn’t been invented. 

It was the eye-catching actions that gave them their reputation, but most of what they did was legal and even peaceful. They drove (at the time that involved horses) around town with placards on carriages. They carried placards themselves, on foot. At a time when women were supposed to be quiet, passive, deferential, and to the best of their ability and training to imitate doormats, this was shocking enough, but they also addressed crowds in theaters and restaurants–crowds who hadn’t come to hear them and were often hostile. They threw leaflets from theater balconies. Many of them were roughed up by crowds of men or by the police. 

In 1913, Emily Davison tried to stop a horse race and was hit by the king’s horse. She died of her injuries a few days later.

In a lot of these actions, women were arrested, and when they were released they were greeted by supporters, who sometimes pulled them through the streets in open carriages, increasing the visibility of their actions. And in prison, many of them went on hunger strikes and were force fed–a brutal and very painful process. 

In The English Rebel, David Horspool asks whether their militancy delivered or delayed votes for women and answers that it probably did both. If you have trouble working that out, go argue with him. I’m not sure both are possible at the same time, but I can see his point anyway. The same argument goes on, although the parallels aren’t exact, when Black Lives Matter demonstrations spill over into rioting or looting. Does it help or does it hurt? It depends on where you do your counting and how. In the case of the suffragettes, even a century later historians can still argue over it.

Whatever the answer turns out to be, it won’t be a simple one.

In 1910, a bill that would have given unmarried women the vote failed. The Liberals thought it might harm their interests. The Conservatives weren’t strongly enough in favor. Militancy had been winding down, but the bill’s defeat wound it up a notch. Asquith’s car was attacked. 

Somewhere in here, the Suffragists’ leadership–and the Pankhurst family–split over tactics. Should they work with men? How violent should their actions be? Should any bill introduced expand the vote for both men and women or should it only be for women?

I’ve been around political activism long enough for this all to sound familiar. If you get deep enough into politics, it can get very crazy very easily, but the alternative is–or at least seems to be–what someone I once knew called crackpot realism, where you dial your goals down to fit what looks possible, accomplishing somewhere between less than you wanted and nothing at all. 

And there things stood when everything was interrupted by World War I. Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the European powers all dug trenches and shot at each other, and 20 million soldiers and civilians died. Another 21 million were wounded. 

That was the war to end all wars. 

Yeah, they really did say it would.

The more radical branch of the Suffragettes (that was Emmeline and Christabel’s) suspended their activities, partly, according to Horspool, because Emmeline and Christabel were exhausted but also because they were realistic about how much political oomph women’s suffrage could have in the circumstances. And they did something I find more interesting: They moved to the political right. They suspended the campaign for the vote, backed the war, changed their paper’s name from The Suffragette to Britannia, and diverted the organization’s funds to the war effort, but many suffragettes were pacifists and the organization broke up for good. 

Their support for the war, according to Horspool, consisted of making speeches and editorializing in the direction of industrial workers, who were probably looking for their news and editorials elsewhere.

 Sylvia’s branch of the Suffragettes had become the East London Federation. Its membership was working class and it aligned itself with the Labour Party, campaigning for both workers’ and women’s rights. And–since changing newspaper names was in style–it changed the Woman’s Dreadnought to the Workers’ Dreadnought.

In 1916, the government faced the prospect of an election in which most servicemen wouldn’t be able to vote because of a residency requirement. 

Crisis. Conference. 

The moderates (remember the suffragists, working politely away in the background?) made a pitch for women’s suffrage. The former radicals (remember half the Pankhursts?) withdrew their support for women’s suffrage in case if ended up disenfranchising servicemen.

Aren’t humans strange?

A compromise bill passed in 1918. It gave the vote to women over 30 who were qualified to vote in local elections or whose husbands were qualified. That was about 8 million women. And there it sat for the next ten years, when the voting age was dropped to 21 and all other restrictions were lifted–in other words, women voted on the same terms as men.

Christabel ran for Parliament as a Women’s Party candidate and lost. Later she became a born-again Christian and lectured in California. Emmeline moved to Canada for a while and lectured on social hygiene until the winters drove her out.

I know just how she felt–minus the social hygiene part.

What is social hygiene? “The practice of measures designed to protect and improve the family as a social institution; specifically: the practice of measures aiming at the elimination of venereal disease and prostitution.” 

Bet you didn’t see that coming. 

The pandemic news: Science, social media, and the rule of six

England’s in three separate stages of Covid restrictions right now, with the stage depending on where you live and how high the local infection rate is, but weeks ago the government’s official scientific advisory group urged it to impose a short, tight lockdown to stop the rise in infections. To which the government said, “What do you know? We’re following the science.”

“Wait a minute,” the scientists said. “We’re the scientists.”

“Not the scientists,” the government said. “The science.”

It’s not clear at the moment exactly what science they’re following. I’ve been wondering if they got hold of one of those “The Science of. . . ” books. You know: The Science of Getting Rich, The Science of Storytelling. Or if they have science confused with Scientology.

Entirely relevant photo (if you read to the end), which won’t play well on social media: This is Fast Eddie thinking deeply.

In the meantime, though, everyone’s mad at everyone. Local governments in the areas with tighter restrictions are furious that they’ve been allowed no power (never mind funding or serious consultation) to deal with their local situations. People whose workplaces will be shuttered are mad that they’ll be paid a smaller percentage of what they’d have earned than they were paid during the national lockdown. Disregarded parts of the country are feeling more disregarded than usual. They tend to be the places where the infection rate’s high, because transmission’s highest among low-income groups and minority ethnic groups, which aren’t groups that get a lot of help from governments in general but that get even less when the Conservative are in power. So they’re mad. Parts of the Conservative Party are mad because they don’t want the government closing things. The Labour Party’s mad because it’s sure it could handle the pandemic better than the Conservatives–and to be fair, it would be hard work not to. And I’m not particularly happy because I’m buried in newspaper clippings. 

Yes, I work from actual paper, at least to start with. Some days, all you can see of me is a tuft of white hair and a pile of newspaper. 

Send tea. The dogs will know how to find me. 

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It’s not just local governments who are feeling slighted. MPs from hard-hit areas are finding out about government plans for their areas via What’sApp or being given twenty minutes notice of briefings. One, from Wigan, claimed she was left out of a briefing because the ministers in charge didn’t know where Wigan is. To make up for that, another was invited to a briefing for an area her constituency isn’t part of. 

A third heard about a twenty-minute briefing eight minutes after it had started.

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You know those face shields that are (presumably) more comfortable than masks? It turns out that they’re the next best thing to useless. Almost all those lovely, airborne droplets and aerosols that the wearers breathe out escape through the gaps. But you’ve got to admit they make a person look like they’re serious about not spreading the disease.

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In September, while England was learning to count all the way to six in order to figure out who it was safe to get together with outside of a work or educational setting, a stag hunt not only got 130 people together, almost all without masks, the outfit putting it on also got a £10,000 government grant and a £50,000 loan from pandemic-related programs.

Grouse hunts are also exempt from the six-person get-together limit. But if you want to get together and grouse about how inconsistent the rules are, the limit’s still six.

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People (predictable creatures that we are) increased their use of social media during lockdown, and it turns out that people who send more pictures on social media are at greater risk of depression. Or so says an admittedly small study involving 170 participants, an online questionnaire, and absolutely no photos of anyone standing on a beach looking 30 pounds thinner and 10 years younger than their actual weight and age. 

Does that mean photo-sharers are depressed (or at risk of . . . ) because they send photos or do they send photos because they’re depressed or at risk of? We don’t know. Or I don’t, and the report I saw doesn’t say. All I know for sure is that one fact one lines up with the other one. So can we be safe, please, just in case sharing photos does cause depression. Tell the cat he can stop doing that thing with the lettuce and the chisel because you’ve put the camera down and you’re going to face an entire day without clicking the imitation shutter even once. Even if he starts playing the banjo, you’re not picking it up. Not today.

Yes, bare-assed reality’s tough, but it’s out there anyway. Might as well see what it looks like.

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In an earlier post (and if you think I know how much earlier, you don’t understand how things work around here), I mentioned a Covid bailout program for small businesses that the British government set up so loosely that it screamed “Scam me!” and people obligingly did. Well, for the sake of balance, it set up another one to be so complex that only one company got all the way through the process. 

The idea behind Project Birch was that big companies would get emergency finance and in exchange give the government a stake in the company. Ten companies were interested but found the process so complicated that they walked away.

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The U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, said that the pandemic has shown us that the world needs universal health care if it’s going to deal with the next pandemic. 

By not responding adequately to this one, we’ve let the pandemic cause more than a million deaths, infect more than 30 million people in 190 countries, wipe out 500 million jobs, and cost the global economy $375 billion a month. 

The standard indicators of human advancement and well-being are going in reverse for the first time since the U.N. started measuring them in 1990.

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It’s not news that the pandemic’s put a strain on health systems everywhere and that both non-urgent and damn urgent treatments have been postponed. But how is NHS England (NHS being the National Health Service) planning to respond? It plans to fine NHS trusts (that means hospitals, or at least the organizations that run them) that haven’t gotten back to near-normal schedules by the end of the month. Because what could possibly make more sense than taking money away from an overstretched system when it shows signs of being overstretched?

You bet. That’ll learn ‘em.

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Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine trial has gone on hold while they frantically try to figure out why one of the participants got ill. That’s roughly all the information that’s available, although any decent reporter can fill several paragraphs with it. I’m not a reporter, so all you get is two sentences.

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The following is a note from that deepest of thinkers, Fast Eddie the cat. He doesn’t usually communicate with strangers, and since he’s broken his silence I believe we should pay attention: 

sddddddddd bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbm,

Please, people, give it some thought.

 

How to choose a new career, courtesy of the British government

With 300,000 job cuts planned back in June and July (sorry–statistics lag behind reality) and more cuts hitting the headlines every day or three, with the possibility that unemployment among young people will hit 17% later this year, never let it be said that the government isn’t trying to help the least among us. 

And believe me, they think we’re all the least. 

What are they doing for us? Why, they’ve created a quiz to help us figure out what jobs we’d be good at if our old careers have crashed and burned, or if we never had a career but our jobs are now cinders, or if we graduated to find the job market in flames and the fire department at half mast due to a decade of austerity budgets, or–

Well, you get the picture.

Ever anxious to help people (that was one of the questions on the test), I’ve taken the quiz so that you don’t have to trouble yourself. And by way of full disclosure, I should tell you that this is a test version of the test, so I’m sure–

I’m sure of nothing. Never mind. It’s a test version. We’ll leave it there.

Irrelevant photo: A flower I’ve forgotten the name of–and a butterfly. If someone would remind me, I’d be grateful (for whatever use that is). A friend once called it “that tall, ethereal thing” and it knocked the real name right out of my head.

What the test asks you to do is agree or disagree with a series of statements, and with each question you go deeper into the essence of who you are and what you’re capable of. Then an algorithm compares that with every available shred of information about the job market and spits out your own personal economic self-improvement plan.

How scientific a portrait of you does it build up? Oh, very. Especially when you pick the “it depends” box. 

The questions include: 

I am comfortable telling people what to do. (I am, but I sometimes need to wait until they’ve pissed me off. Then I’m very good at it.)

I make decisions quickly. (I had to switch to a different tab and type that question up for your benefit, so even though I claimed to make decisions quickly, I took my own sweet time with the question. I don’t think I was penalized for it, but they don’t really tell you.)

I take control of situations. (It depends. On what? Oh, lots of things.) 

I like taking responsibility for other people. (It depends. On what? Time, place, and circumstance, mostly.)

I set myself targets and usually meet them. (I accidentally left that one blank and tried to go on. The test sent me back and I said that yes, of course I meet my own targets. But filling out the test correctly was never one of them.) 

I think I am a competitive person. (I think I am? If they don’t trust me to know this about myself, why would they think I’m non-delusional about the others?)

I set myself goals in life. (You asked me this once already. Standardized tests often do that to see if you come up with the same answer when the questions come in different forms, but most of them are subtle enough not to hit you on the head with it.)

Doing well in a career motivates me. (Geez, no. What could be less interesting?)

I try to think differently to others. (I don’t try, sweetie. This is the brain I was issued. This is how it works. Yes, it can be interesting in here at times.)

And so on. 

At about the halfway mark, I started hitting “It depends” on most of the questions. Because I was bored. Because I wanted to see what they’d do with someone in the absence of any discernible personality. And, of course, because it does depend. Everything depends. It depends on how we’re going to interpret the question. It depends on whether I want to make a good impression on myself. It depends on whether I want to play the game fairly. 

Basically, yes, I cheated by not representing my real self, so I don’t claim that the careers scientifically chosen for me are entirely tailored for my oddities, but it turns out that I’d make a good soldier or a good cake decorator.

Also a nursery worker (to translate that, it means working in a preschool; you can see why someone who’d be a good soldier is a natural fit there), a judge (my lack of a law degree doesn’t seem to be a problem), or a dance teacher (the startling number of left feet that were included in the package when I was born present no problem).

And since the travel industry’s thriving right now, I could also retrain as a travel agency manager, a tourist guide, or hotel room attendant. That last one is career-guidance speak for a cleaner. 

An assortment of other people who took the test report that they’d be good boxers, lock keepers, or movie projectionists. Lord Google left me with the impression that lock keeping’s a volunteer job. With time and dedication, you can progress up the ladder to be a volunteer coordinator, but probably still as a volunteer. And one of the big movie chains just closed its doors. 

Reality has also closed its doors. Movie projectionists are looking to retrain as lock keepers.

That leaves boxing. I’d make a good boxer, competing in the overage runt category. But when they asked if I was competitive I said, “It depends,” so they didn’t suggest it for me.

If you’ll excuse me now, I have a couple of cakes to shoot.  I don’t like doing this, but orders are orders.

 

Tumble dryers and Twitter: It’s the nonpandemic news from Britain

A university student near Hull got stuck in a tumble dryer that she’d climbed into on a dare. 

Why yes, she and everyone within three miles of her had been drinking. What made you ask?

Her housemates called the fire department and three firefighters worked her loose. Before they left they checked the washing machine. Just in case. To save themselves another trip. 

I was hoping to say that this is what students do when they’re in lockdown, but I don’t know that the University of Hull was in lockdown. What I can tell you is that the university webpage about keeping students safe while they’re on campus doesn’t mention either laundry or laundry-related hardware–an oversight that I’m sure they’ll remedy as soon as I bring this to their attention. I’d have called by now but I wanted to let you know first. 

The student herself admitted that she’d never done her own laundry before. That doesn’t strike me as entirely relevant, since everyone who washes clothes once did it for the first time. The first time I ever took that daring step, I don’t remember being overcome by an impulse to climb into the dryer. Admittedly, my mother talked me through it: See, she told me, this is the water. These are the dirty clothes. What you want to do is introduce one to the other in the presence of this detergent that’s all stuck together because the basement’s a little damp. Just chop some out with this measuring cup, trying not to spray it all over the floor.

But even so, I don’t remember for one second wanting to measure the dryer for size. In fact, thousands upon thousands of people do their own laundry for the first time every year without climbing into the dryer. 

Maybe we’re all repressing the impulse. If you repress it well enough, you can’t be sure it was ever there.

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Irrelevant photo: a hellebore.

As long as we’re in the Hull area and visiting with firefighters, a nearby crematorium got carried away with its work and set itself on fire. It took eight hours to put out the blaze, which started just before a service, so someone just missed their chance to go out in a blaze of glory.

Sorry. I couldn’t help myself. It’s a genetic problem.

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A tour group in Iceland lost a tour member and, when she didn’t show up after an hour, hit the panic button and set off a search involving mountain search teams and the rest of the tour party. 

At 3 a.m., a member of the tour realized that she was the person she was looking for. She’d gone back to the bus and changed her clothes, so the 5’2” Asian woman in dark clothes was now a 5’2” Asian woman in some other kind of clothes. 

Cue many headlines about going to Iceland to find yourself.

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Gay men invaded the Twitter hashtag of the Proud Boys, a far right group (or neofascist, if we’re calling a fascist a fascist this week) that was mentioned approvingly by Donald Trump before Trump himself was mentioned approvingly by the Covid virus. 

The invasion consists of gay male couples posing proudly–with each other, with their kids, with a Canadian Army uniform and a partner.  

The claim that the Proud Boys changed their name to Leathermen to get away from the invasion is, sadly, a spoof, but funny enough that I was happy to believe it until someone challenged me. If you’re not familiar with leathermen, Twitter will introduce you to a bunch of muscular gay men looking very kinky. 

Movies, apps, and money: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

 

Boris Johnson responded to the news that a movie chain is closing by urging Britons to go to the movies. Or in British, go to the cinema. But the closure’s only temporary, so presumably your patriotic visit to the cinema can also be temporary. 

So can your exposure to the Covid virus.

How does going to the movies fit with the world-beating, Covid-containing rule of six that the government keeps explaining to us? As usual it’s simpler than you moaners are trying to make it sound. You can’t get together with more than six people at your house. Or at theirs. Or at the pub. Or outdoors. You can’t mix socially or go to the movies together. But you can go to the movies with, say, twenty-five strangers if you all happen to go to the same show. And if you happened to meet 24 ½ of your closest friends at the movies by accident, that would be okay because the accidental nature of the gathering keeps the virus from spreading. 

Virii are methodical little beasts. Throw a few random moves at them, like running into 24 ½ friends at the movies, and they get confused. Throw popcorn at your friends to remind yourself of what friendship and community used to feel like and the virii will be knocked out of their orbits.

And there’ll be those empty seats between you, which may genuinely help, although more and more evidence is landing on the side of nearly weightless aerosols dancing the virus through the air of enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces, in which case an empty seat may not be enough.

Irrelevant photo: mallow

Masks do help. The question is, will people keep them on in the dark while they eat their popcorn. 

Remember that the rule of six is a guideline, not a law. 

Or maybe it’s a law, not a guideline.

Oh, hell, no one knows anyway. Don’t worry about it. Enjoy the show.

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Scotland’s Covid app isn’t the same as England’s. It’s called Protect Scotland, and–have I mentioned that the apps have glitches? A man downloaded it, picked up a ping, picked up another ping, and–I won’t take you through all the details–eventually figured out that the app thought he could catch the virus through the floor from the guy downstairs. Who must either levitate or be extremely tall and store his phone on his head to get within two meters of the upstairs phone, which (I’m going to assume) doesn’t live on the floorboards.

Or maybe the neighbor stores his phone on a top shelf. And the downstairs phone does live on the floorboards.

Anyway, I keep reading that the apps have glitches, but I wouldn’t have predicted that one.

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Speaking of glitches, the one that disappeared some 16,000 positive Covid test results from England’s test and trace system may have been caused by a size limit on the files Excel spreadsheets can accept. Send anything more and it smiles serenely and cuts off whatever’s at the bottom of the file. 

Problem solved, at least from its point of view.

Excel’s habits aren’t news. In 2013, it masked a loss of–oh, something like $6 billion from JP Morgan’s books. So yes, this could’ve been predicted. 

The test and trace contract, by the way, is up for renewal. Given how expensively it’s been screwed up, I’m going to bet they’ll renew it.

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The Bounce Back scheme, which was supposed to help small businesses survive the pandemic, may have been scammed out of £1.9 billion. The government was warned ahead of time–twice–that it was a vulnerable program but decided to go ahead. 

And Britain’s five biggest banks will make £1 billion out of it. Legally.

Another £238 million will be spent on work coaches to help people who lost their jobs in the pandemic by coaching them on interviews, CVs, and moving into growing sectors. You know growing sectors, like, um, hang on. Work coaching. That’s a field where they’re hiring. 

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More evidence is landing on the side of Covid not spreading via contaminated surfaces. Scientists aren’t saying it’s impossible, just that it’s not the root of the spread. 

Yes, it’s still worthwhile washing your hands obsessively, and it may be worthwhile disinfecting the groceries and boiling the mail before you so much as look at it, but the real danger is in sharing poorly ventilated spaces with our fellow human creatures. 

 

Covid, the Great British Bake Off, and other pandemic news

Every country has cultural institutions that it can’t function without. In Britain, one of them is the Great British Bake Off, a TV show where, um, people bake. 

It’s riveting.

So how are they handling filming during the pandemic? The entire cast and crew went into isolation together in a hotel. That meant 20 hotel staff, 80 members of the cast and crew, and 20 kids, chaperones, and dog walkers.

So yes, they’d pared it down to the essential roles. 

Everyone involved had to isolate themselves for nine days beforehand, taking three Covid tests, and then the producers had to work out ways to get everyone to the hotel without using public toilets. 

Dirty dishes. The part they don’t show you on those baking shows.

How’d they do that? I’d love to know. I’ve walked enough public footpaths to know that Britain’s full of hedges. Admittedly, they hide you from only one half of the country at a time, but at a certain point you convince yourself that that’s good enough. I doubt the Bake Off resorted to that, but whatever they did, their precautions meant everyone could crawl all over each other if they wanted to, although that’s not really what baking’s about. Or the show, come to think of it. But all that care did allow them to pose shoulder to (gasp) shoulder and to appear maskless. 

These days, that’s quite shocking.

They shot for six weeks, working two days on and two days off. I don’t know if the dog owners walked their own dogs on their days off.

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No Covid update would be complete without the latest mention of England’s test and trace system tripping over its own feet: In a short stretch of time between late September and early October, it lost track of 16,000 cases. The people were informed of their test results, but not only weren’t the cases counted as part of the national statistics, their contacts weren’t notified. 

But don’t let’s get grumpy about it. We’re only dealing with a life-threatening disease that we don’t have any effective treatments for, and everyone makes mistakes. Look on the bright side, as Money Python so wisely counseled: As the number of Covid cases rises, a health minister and hereditary peer, Lord Bethell, assured us that when Britain looks back on this time it will be “extremely proud” of its response to the pandemic. 

Not to mention amazed. Absolutely amazed.

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Meanwhile, to prove he was fit to work, Donald Trump appeared in photos from the hospital, maskless and signing what looks like a blank sheet of paper

As of a week or so ago, more Americans had died from Covid than died in World War I.

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As seems to be true of everything about the pandemic, nothing’s certain yet, but a large-scale study is looking into whether antibodies to those colds that kids trade with such enthusiasm might be protecting them against Covid. Covid is a coronavirus. So are  a fifth of those boring old colds, which may mean there’s some cross reactivity between them. 

Adults get coronavirus colds every two or three years. Kids get them five or six times a year, so some 60% of them have coronavirus antibodies. But even before the British population had been exposed to Covid, some 6% already had antibodies that recognized Covid–possibly because of those cold germs. 

The question is whether the antibodies protect against Covid or whether their presence explains why some patients’ immune systems overreact to the disease in life-threatening ways. The study’s looking at both possibilities.

If they’re protective, that raises the hope of finding a vaccine against all coronaviruses, covering Covid, colds, and the next pandemic.

Assuming the next pandemic comes in the form of a coronavirus.

The scarier possibility is related to a small number of kids who get the virus, get better, and then have intense inflammation and multi-organ failure. If their antibodies are the problem, what’s happening is called antibody dependent enhancement. It happens with dengue fever. If you had one strain and got better but then catch a different strain, you can get seriously sick. Your immune system, instead of being primed to fight the disease, makes things worse.

It’s gotten in the way of efforts to make a dengue vaccine. 

Can we go with scenario one, please? I like scenario one.

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The British plan for vaccinating the population–whenever that becomes possible–is to vaccinate something less than half of it. The priorities will be first care home residents and workers, second people over 80 and health and social care workers, and third anyone over 75. After that come people over 50, then everyone else goes in a grab bag and Boris Johnson will reach in and pull them out one at a time. We’re all grateful that it won’t be Donald Trump. God only knows where those hands have been.

No. The part about the grab bag isn’t serious. I’ve learned not to take anything for granted. I’m still recovering from a couple of people who thought I was serious about the Druids worshiping the Great Brussels Sprout. 

Kids will not be vaccinated. 

The plans are still preliminary.

Problematically, any vaccine’s likely to be most effective on the young–and all or most of them are being tested on younger people. It’s unclear how much they’ll protect the old and the frail, so social distancing will need to continue. 

Covid, singing, and the London Marathon: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The London Marathon was supposed to happen last April but it was postponed until October 4 because of the pandemic, and somewhere in between those two dates they decided to make it a virtual marathon. A handful of top runners will follow the marathon’s route and have what used to be called a race. 

What do we call it now? I’m not sure. The language tested positive the other day, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful language and it’s only in the hospital because there were some people here who wanted to be cautious. Very, very cautious. 

The test’s fake anyway. The virus is a fake. 

But with all that hospital equipment beeping, it’s hard to remember words. So never mind what we call it these days. It used to be a race. A very beautiful race.

Where were we? 

All the other runners will do their miles wherever they happen to be–Cornwall, Australia, it doesn’t matter–and log their time onto an app, which will take their word for it and give them a medal. 

Okay, the app won’t give them the medal. It has humans to do that for it.

This being Britain, a certain number of the participants will run in costume, which could be anything from a tutu to a telephone box. If you’ll click the link, you’ll see someone running in a 10 kilo a rhino costume. That’s 22 pounds, or to put it simply, a shitload of weight to go running in, especially since she has to hunch forward inside there and can’t see very well. And that’s just when she’s in training. On the day of the actual marathon, her husband will be on hand to steer her around trash barrels and gawping kids. 

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Irrelevant photo: This flower is orange. You’re welcome.

A third of Britain is living with tighter-than-the-national Covid restrictions because of a localized rise in case numbers. And what really matters in all of this is who’s to blame.  

Boris Johnson blames the public’s “fraying discipline.” It has nothing to do with the government having encouraged people over the summer to travel, eat out, drink out, get out with their wallets in hand, or with guidelines and laws so murky that Johnson got them wrong when he explained how simple they were. Or with its own advisors (and more recently an MP) breaking them. Or with a heroically useless test and trace system. 

The mayor of one affected area, Middlesbrough, said the new measures were based on “factual inaccuracies and a monstrous and frightening lack of communication, and ignorance. . . . We do not accept these measures.”

Cases have managed to double in the majority of cities and towns under the tighter restrictions. I don’t have a start date for that–the restrictions started at different times in different areas–but it ended on September 20.

The best educated guess on why they haven’t been effective is that the rules are confusing and that the communities and their leaders haven’t been involved and don’t support them. Plus that when you try to talk about what’s wrong with the test and trace system the discussion quickly falls off the edge of the English language.

Okay. The expert whose opinion I’m paraphrasing, Chris Ham, said the test and trace system was “still not working well enough.” But I’m channeling what he really thinks. You know I am.

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Serious, labor-intensive contact tracing in two Indian states shows that just a few events were responsible for a disproportionate number of Covid infections. It also suggests that, contrary to what’s generally been thought, children transmit the virus quite efficiently, thanks. Every time I read a study about kids and transmission, it contradicts that last one, so let’s not rest too much weight on that frail bridge, just acknowledge that it’s all still preliminary.

Still, this is the biggest epidemiological study of the spread so far. 

What they found is that 8% of the people they followed caused 60% of the infections. The things that seem to separate an event from a superspreader event are how close people are to someone who’s infected, how long they’re close, and how good the ventilation is. 

Contact tracers followed 78 people who’d been on a bus or train with one lone infected person, sitting within three rows of them for more than six hours, and found that 80% of them had gotten the virus. In lower-risk environments–being in the same room but three feet away–only 1.6% got the virus.

Kids between the age of five and seventeen passed the virus on to 18% of the close contacts in their own age groups. That’s not exactly parallel information–how close, how long, how well or badly ventilated, or what percent of adults passed it on to close contacts –so it doesn’t tell us whether they’re passing the bug along as efficiently as their older, wiser, creakier relatives, but what the hell, it’s information. I thought I’d throw it at you. 

The study also doesn’t answer the question of whether any biological factors separate your average infected person from your superspreader. 

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Back at the start of the pandemic, the British government set up a loan program to help businesses survive. The British Business Bank warned that it was vulnerable to being scammed by people setting up fake businesses. 

Actually, not just vulnerable to: at high risk of. The British Business Bank is state owned and was supposed to supervise the program, and it sounded the warning twice.

And surprise, surprise, exactly what they warned of has happened, although I don’t think anyone knows yet how often, or how much money the government’s on the hook for because of it. What I’ve seen so far is anecdotal–the ”someone stole my name to steal money from the government” sort of thing. But I thought you might need cheering up by now, so I wanted to mention it.

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A new study of Covid spread and singing is drawing from “faith communities” to find its participants. I’m putting that in quotes because on the one hand it manages to include every religion you can think of and several you can’t, so it’s useful, but on the other hand it sounds so prim and tippy-toed that I want to throw crockery at it.  So I’ll use the phrase and disown it at the same time. 

I just hate when people do that. Which is why I’m spending more time explaining it than I am talking about the study.

Other than its focus on religious groups, the study’s inclusive: It’ll involve people from a range of heights, sizes, sexes, ages, and ethnicities. Also with and without hairy faces in case any of that affects things. They’ll sing at different volumes, chant, or hum, using assorted face coverings, while lasers measure the aerosols they spray out. 

These days I do all my singing from inside the large plastic wheelie bin that the county supplies for green waste recycling. With the lid down. As long as the green waste guys don’t come when I’m singing and the neighbors don’t get together to push me down the hill and into the ocean, it’s perfectly safe. 

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It seems to be accepted at this point that Covid can catch a ride on the aerosols that we breathe out when we do all those noisy, communicative things that human evolution has given us, but it’s not clear to what extent aerosol-borne germs actually spread the disease. 

What is known is that aerosols travel more than six feet–the magic distance that’s supposed to keep us all safe from other people’s germs. The six-foot recommendation was based on the larger particles–droplets–which fall to the ground relatively close to the breathing, singing, humming source. But aerosols can hang in the air for hours. They hold dances up there. They run marathons in rhinoceros costumes. 

Okay, we don’t know what they do up there, or how dangerous it is to us. All we know for sure is that ventilation is a good thing. So are air purifying systems.

Mind you, I don’t know what qualifies as an air purifying system and I’m not in a hurry to take any non-expert’s word on it. I do know that open windows work. I also know that in a Minnesota January open windows aren’t as simple a solution as they are in June.

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An article in Journal of General Internal Medicine surveyed 28 experts in vaccinology (yes, there is such a thing) and on an average they thought a vaccine would be available to the general public (this would be in the US or Canada) at the earliest in June 2021 but more probably in September or October.

For people at the greatest risk, the soonest would be February but more probably March or April.

But as the great Yogi Berra may or may not have said, “It’s hard to make predictions. Especially about the future.”

Berra also may or may not have said, “I never said half the things I said,” which is why I’m being cautious about attributing that quote to him. Someone will, inevitably, let me know that someone else said it. And they’ll probably be right.

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Having Neanderthal genes, as 16% of Europeans, 50% of south Asians, and 0% of Africans do, can make a person three times more likely to need ventilation if they’re infected with Covid.

But Professor Mark Maslin added a however to that: “Lots of different populations are being severely affected, many of which do not have any Neanderthal genes. We must avoid simplifying the causes and impact of Covid-19. . . . Covid-19 is a complex disease, the severity of which has been linked to age, gender, ethnicity, obesity, health, virus load among other things.”

I only mentioned it because it’s so damn weird.

Quinine, malaria, and empire

Quinine reached Britain (not to mention the rest of Europe) by way of Jesuit missionaries in South America. Browse around the internet and you’ll read that quinine is the dried, powdered bark of a tree that grows in the Andes and that it was discovered in the seventeenth century: The Jesuits, you’ll read, may or may not have used it to treat a Spanish countess’s malaria. Or the countess may or may not have discovered its uses herself. She may or may not have brought it back to Europe with her. 

Had the bark’s uses been discovered long before that by the people who were known as Indians thanks to Columbus having put too much trust in a glitchy SatNav (or GPS, since he was headed for the Americas)? 

Um, yes, according to biologist Nataly Canales. She says the bark was known to the Quechua, Cañari, and Chimú peoples long before any countesses or missionaries barged onto the stage.

Irrelevant photo: a begonia

Once it got to Europe the bark was added to a liquid–usually wine–and drunk as a treatment for malaria.

Now let’s put quinine on the shelf and talk about malaria for a few paragraphs.

I don’t know about you, but the random reading I did when I was younger (and I spent a shocking amount of my life being younger) left me with the impression that at least the British and probably Europeans in general were exposed to malaria as a result of empire. In other words, I assumed they caught it when they left their nice, safe home climates and broke into other people’s (warmer, mosquito-prone) countries, taking them over.

Not so. Malaria in Europe predates predates the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, and while we’re at it, the Roman Empire. It was around in the ancient Mediterranean and it was also around in marshy, fenny parts of England from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, and in London itself for at least for part of that time.

Starting in the early nineteenth century, it went into decline in England. Lots of causes have been proposed, from swamps being drained to an increase in the number of domestic cattle, which meant mosquitoes could bite creatures that weren’t able to swat them. Any combination of those reasons is possible. I found a perfectly respectable article that told me no one’s sorted the reasons into piles yet or measured which one is larger. 

Was malaria present in England before the fifteenth century? Probably. In “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” Chaucer writes about tertian fever–a recurring fever that was probably malaria. That takes us back to the fourteenth century and we won’t chase it any further back than that or we’ll never get out of here.

Malaria was also called ague or intermittent fever, and ague appeared in any number of the crumbly old novels I read when I spent all that time being younger. I had no idea what ague meant, I just accepted it as some vague kind of sickness and went on as if I understood more than, in fact, I did.

Those characters had malaria. And although some caught it by breaking and entering in other people’s countries, some caught it right there at home.

In fact, Europeans may have exported the disease to the Americas. That’s not certain, but a second strain of malaria was definitely imported with the slaves Europeans dragged over from Africa.

The long-standing European belief was that malaria came from bad airmal’aria–and that made a kind of sense. Folks had noticed that it was associated with stagnant water, vapors, swampy places. They were missing a piece of the puzzle, but as far as it went, it was good observation.

By the seventeenth century, the English were treating malaria with the latest wonder drug, opium, which both doctors and patients agreed cured pretty much everything: pain, fever, financial embarrassment, although it only cured that last problem if you were selling the stuff, not if you were taking it or buying it.

Opium was also used as an antidote to poison. Like I said, it cured everything.

Then along came quinine and–well, there was a problem. It came from the hands of Jesuits–in fact, it was called the Jesuit powder–and England wasn’t just Protestant, it was aggressively Protestant. Puritan-flavored, Cromwellian Protestant. And Cromwellian Protestants didn’t want a Catholic-flavored drug, even if it would cure a serious problem. 

Cromwell himself is thought to have died of malaria and he might (it’s not certain) have refused to take any of that dread Jesuit powder. Andrew Marvell (another staunch Puritan and a poet; nothing to do with the comic books) also had malaria and might have died from an accidental overdose of opium that he might have taken for it instead of quinine. 

Sorry–lots of mights in there. History’s full of things we don’t know for sure, and one of them is whether anyone dangled Jesuit-inflected quinine in front of them. (“Here, kid, the first one’s free.”) The consensus, though, is that Cromwell, at least, refused it. In a definitely very probably likely kind of way.

Opium wasn’t the only treatment for malaria. I’m not sure when Europeans gave this one up as a lost cause, but at some point the remedies they tried included throwing the patient head-first into a bush. The idea was the patient should get out quickly and leave the fever behind.

Britain’s full of thorny bushes, and I know that because I’ve met every one of them personally, so I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the British gave this remedy up early.

Eventually, England settled down enough to realize that taking quinine for malaria didn’t necessarily turn you into a (gasp) Catholic (and didn’t leave you full of thorns) and it accepted the drug.

All of this mattered because malaria was and is, to varying extents, debilitating. The extent depended on the strain. Some strains killed people and others didn’t. Britain’s version was on the milder end of the spectrum, but many strains were capable of leaving individuals, whole regions, and armies debilitated. Some historians tag malaria in the fall of the Roman Empire. It wanders into discussions of the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, and assorted other historical turning points. The European colonization of Africa was slowed by malaria. Europeans had no immunity to it, while some (although not all) Africans did. If you inherit two copies of a particular genetic mutation, you have sickle cell anemia, but if you inherit only one it protects you against malaria. 

By the nineteenth century, Europe was in the process of eradicating malaria, so the Britons who went abroad to build and serve the empire (not to mention to build their own fortunes and serve themselves) were moving from a relatively low risk of the disease to a higher one. Which explains my impression that malaria was something they got in the hot countries where they practiced breaking and entering. 

In India, the British Empire ran on quinine. In the nineteenth century the active ingredients was isolated and purified, and Britons in the Indian colony mixed it with sugar and soda water, called it tonic, and took a dose of it daily as a preventive. 

In 1858 it was first made commercially, and from the colonies it eventually took over the home market.

At about this same time, gin was overcoming its reputation for dragging people into sin and degradation. It became respectable enough for British colonial officials to pour a bit into their tonic water. Or possibly a bit more than a bit.

For medicinal purposes only, you understand.

In 1880, the malaria bug was finally identified. It was a nearly transparent, crescent-shaped beastie. Then, as the world was falling off the edge of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the anopheles mosquito was identified as its carrier.

Quinine remained the treatment of choice, as it had been for four hundred years, but the stuff had–and has–side effects that range from mild headache, nausea, and hearing problems to severe vertigo, vomiting, marked hearing loss, loss of vision, hypertension, and thrombosis, asthma, and psychosis.

Its use is not recommended if you take a long list of drugs that you can’t pronounce anyway.

All of which explains why other drugs are often used for malaria these days and why so many websites tell you not to use it to treat leg cramps–although a few swallows of tonic water won’t leave you psychotic and vomiting by the side of the road.