About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

It’s the sex, not the money: a small political scandal hits Britain

Nothing’s as delicious as a scandal unless it’s a scandal involving a government you dislike. So forgive me, but I’m enjoying the resignation of Britain’s former secretary of state for health. 

What brought Matt Hancock down was sharing a kiss with an aide. Or more accurately, sharing a kiss with an aide within range of the office CCTV, which an anonymous someone released to the press. Or even more accurately than that, sharing a kiss with an aide within range of the office CCTV during LockdownLite, when people weren’t supposed to even be hugging people outside their household (or “bubble,” in pandemic-speak), nevermind trading long and apparently passionate (CCTV can only tell us so much) kisses with them.

It was the pandemic hypocrisy that gave it resonance. Lots of people wouldn’t have minded making physical contact with a wider range of humans, but they were sticking to government guidance and here was the person allegedly responsible for that guidance conducting an extensive germ exchange with someone he was supposed to stay two meters away from. Because the health of the nation was at stake. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose.

Both Hancock and the aide are both married. To other people. So it’s a safe bet that their bubbles burst at the point where they wedged each other inside.

And just to give the story a bit more resonance, in the early stages of the pandemic Hancock criticized a scientist on the government’s scientific advisory board for breaking lockdown by getting together with someone he was in a long-term relationship with. Hancock said at the time that it left him speechless. 

The scientist resigned, taking his expertise with him. 

The real scandal, though, is that Hancock had appointed his aide to a (well paid) position as a non-executive director of the Department of Health and Social Care, which ever so incidentally oversaw his performance as secretary of state for et cetera. Without either of them mentioning their relationship. But that’s less fun than two people playing grab-ass in the office, so although it gets mentioned I doubt it’s what brought him down. 

How well paid is well paid? For 15 hours of work a year, the position pays £15,000 pounds. Unless I’m hallucinating, that’s £1,000 an hour. The aide has now resigned too. 

The role of the non-executive directors is to challenge the government as well as provide oversight, and fifteen other people with tight connections to the Conservative Party hold the positions in various departments. They include donors, former Members of Parliament, and peers. Let’s say it all gives the appearance that it wasn’t their expertise that got them their jobs.

But that’s nowhere near as much fun. 

 

A report from the Not out of the Woods Yet Department

One of the world’s most highly vaccinated countries, Israel, has reimposed indoor mask rules as the Delta variant becomes Covid’s dominant strain. The number of Covid cases was doubling every few days. Admittedly, it was starting from a low number, but so does any spike. 

And the same thing’s happening in other highly vaccinated countries–and even more so in largely unvaccinated countries. Delta has raised the stakes in the herd immunity poker game. People who’ve recovered from earlier Covid infections–the kind caused by other variants–seem to be vulnerable to Delta. 

A good news/bad news study shows that while two doses of the vaccines that Britain’s using are 96% effective against hospitalization and 79% effective against symptomatic infection, one dose is only 35% effective against Delta. 

Delta is so contagious that over 80% of a population would need to be fully vaccinated in order to contain it. So far, only 1% of Africa’s population has been vaccinated, and the Delta variant has been identified in 14 African countries. 

In spite of all the promises to get vaccines to poorer countries, contributions to the Covax vaccine program have dried up. “The world is failing,” a spokesperson for the World Health Organization said. “Just give us the vaccines.”

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Six cases of the Lambda variant have been identified in Britain. That’s a variant that the World Health Organization has labeled a variant of interest, which translates to Don’t panic yet, but we’re watching it. It was first identified in Peru and has now been found in 26 countries. 

Don’t panic yet. At this point, it’s just something to know.

 

And a counter-report from the On the Other Hand Department

In the US, according to a study, almost all Covid deaths are of unvaccinated people. Breakthrough infections–the ones that happen to people who’ve been vaccinated–are 0.1% of the total hospitalizations. Of the Covid deaths recorded in May, 0.8% were among people who’d been vaccinated.

If I’m not mistaken (and I can’t be trusted with numbers), the second percentage is larger than the first, which does seem odd. I’m guessing here, but it could be because breakthrough infections happen in people whose immune systems are in one way or another out of order, so they’re not only vulnerable to infections in spite of vaccination, but having once gotten infected, are more vulnerable to the disease–again, in spite of being vaccinated. But that comes with a wild-ass guesswork alert. If anyone has some solid information on that, I’d love to hear it.

A short history of the 1918 flu pandemic

Now that we know at first hand what a pandemic is, this might be a sensible time to learn more about the 1918 flu–that thing most of us know as the Spanish flu. 

Spain’s connection was minimal. The disease first got public recognition there and that’s about it. World War I was still being fought, and newspapers were still censored in Germany, Britain, France, and the US–and possibly in assorted other countries that don’t get a mention. They weren’t allowed to mention the flu. You couldn’t publish anything that might lower morale.

Epidemics, you might have noticed, do lower morale.

Spain, though, sat on the sidelines in World War I. It didn’t censor its papers–at least not for any mention of morale-lowering diseases, although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of censorship on other issues. So Spain broke the story and its reward was that the world blamed it for the disease it had mentioned. 

Irrelevant photo: a peony

Recent epidemiological research hints that the virus might have been circulating for two years before reaching pandemic levels, and US troops could have been–well, I don’t know if calling them the source of the epidemic would be correct, but the first known cases were in Fort Riley, Kansas, and they didn’t stop the US from shipping soldiers to fight in Europe. So you could make an argument that the US was the source. 

Alternative theories, on the other hand, point to China, Britain, and France. 

 

Numbers

Although a lot of us learned to call the 1918 flu an epidemic, it was a full-blown international pandemic. (Hands up: How many of us even knew the word before last year?) The only part of the world that didn’t report an outbreak was Marajo, which I never heard of until I started researching this post. It’s an island in Brazil’s Amazon Delta. 

The pandemic ran from 1918 to 1919 and killed over 50 million people worldwide. Or possibly 100 million. No one was keeping count, so we’ll have to settle for guesswork. And to confuse the picture further, even if folks had been counting, the symptoms were easy to confuse with other diseases. 

An estimated 500 million people were infected–a third of the world’s population.

In Britain, 228,000 people died of the flu; 1918 was the first year on record in which deaths outnumbered births. And Britain got off more lightly than many countries.

By way of comparison, worldwide Covid deaths are currently just under 4 million, although that’s generally agreed to be an underestimate. Britain’s had 128,000 Covid deaths.. 

The flu pandemic killed between 10% and 20% of the people who became infected, and more people died of it in a single year than died of the Black Death between 1347 and 1351. I believe that’s in Britain. Or in England. Or somewhere. Who cares? It’s a sobering comparison.

It hit young adults particularly hard–people between 20 and 40, who you’d expect to have the most resistance–but it also hit children under 5 and people over 65. Most of us, though, will have heard about  the 20-to-40 age group because it’s unusual for a disease to zero in on them.

 

Spreading the flu

The flu spread both through the air on droplets–those things that people breathe, sneeze, coughe, or talk into the air. It also spread on surfaces. You’d touch a surface that had germs on it, give them a ride to your face, and have yourself a nice little bout of the flu. 

Soldiers returning home from northern France get a special mention in any discussion of how the virus spread. In France, they’d been coming down with la grippe, which consisted of sore throats, headaches, loss of appetite, and the cramped trenches it circulated merrily. But they tended to recover quickly. Doctors called it a three-day fever. 

From that, though, the disease evolved into something deadly. We’ll come back to that. In the meantime, let’s go back to those British soldiers returning home on cramped troop transports and trains. Following their path, the flu spread from railroad stations to city centers, from city centers to suburbs, and from suburbs to the countryside. 

 

The pandemic’s waves

The first wave of the pandemic hit in the spring of 1918 and was relatively mild. The second came in the winter and was the most deadly. In the past, when I’ve read that the second wave was worse than the first, I assumed that meant only that more people got sick. No such luck. The disease itself had changed. In the second wave, you could be fine at breakfast and dead by nighttime. 

Let’s go to Historic UK for the gory details: “Within hours of feeling the first symptoms of fatigue, fever and headache, some victims would rapidly develop pneumonia and start turning blue, signalling a shortage of oxygen. They would then struggle for air until they suffocated to death.”  

The third wave hit in the early spring of 1919, and was somewhere between the first and third in its virulence. Smaller, localized outbreaks went on into the mid ‘20s. But in August 1918, an observer could reasonably have thought that the disease had ended, and since the government still had a war to fight it kept its attention on that. 

For the most part, pubs stayed open. The Football League and FA Cup had been canceled because of the war, but men’s regional tennis competitions went ahead and so did women’s football, which in the absence of men’s games attracted big crowds.  

Hospitals were overwhelmed, and it didn’t help that medical personnel had been vacuumed up by the war. Medical students were brought in to help fill the gaps. Doctors and nurses worked themselves to the point of exhaustion. 

Graveyards were also overwhelmed. Think of them as the kind of high-end restaurants where you need advance bookings. The draft meant the country had a shortage of grave diggers, of funeral workers, of coffin builders. Horses had been drafted as well, so even getting the dead picked up was a problem. In Sunderland at one point, 200 bodies were left unburied for over a week. 

When the war ended (November 11, 1918, in case anyone asks, at 11 a.m.), crowds turned out to celebrate, helping to spread the disease. There just might be a lesson hidden in there for us.

 

The expert advice

Sir Arthur Newsholme, the chief medical officer of the Local Government Board, wrote a memorandum in July 1918 advising people to stay home if they were sick and to avoid large gatherings. It wasn’t bad advice, and he promptly buried it. Britain had that war to fight.

Looking back on it in 1919, he said it could have saved many lives, but “there are national circumstances in which the major duty is to ‘carry on’, even when risk to health and life is involved.”

Keep smiling. Keep morale up. If you have to die, do it off stage.

The cabinet never discussed the epidemic. No lockdown was imposed, and I’m not sure the concept was available to be discussed. In 1917, it talked about forming a ministry of health to prevent disease and coordinate health care, but it did nothing about it until 1919, leaving localities to respond to the pandemic as well or badly as they could. 

In places, theaters, dance halls, movie theaters, and churches were closed for varying lengths of time, and in some places streets were sprayed with disinfectant. Some people wore masks. Some didn’t. Whatever happened, happened locally.

Public health messages ranged from the vaguely useful to the batty. Some factories relaxed no-smoking rules because cigarettes were known to prevent infection–or at least some people knew about it and probably thought the ones who didn’t were idiots or deliberately suppressing information.

But that’s just a guess.

In a Commons debate, M.P. Claude Lowther asked, “Is it a fact that a sure preventative against influenza is cocoa taken three times a day?”

The News of the World told people to “wash inside nose with soap and water each night and morning; force yourself to sneeze night and morning, then breathe deeply. Do not wear a muffler; take sharp walks regularly and walk home from work; eat plenty of porridge.”

Cleaning your teeth was also recommended. It might not keep you alive, but at least you’d die with clean teeth. Brandy and whisky were popular preventatives. So was ventilation, which would have actually helped, along with warm clothes. Worrying about your health, on the other hand, would make you more vulnerable. Besides, it could interfere with the war effort.

Predictably, in the absence of solid information, individuals were often blamed–for catching the disease; for spreading it; for taking risks that no sensible person would take, like passing up that third cup of cocoa.

People rushed to chemists to buy quinine, which was useful against malaria but roughly as helpful against the flu as turkey feathers. 

We can–and we might as well–laugh, but remember that there weren’t any antibiotics yet, which could have been useful against flu’s secondary infections. And there were no antivirals. The first vaccine for the flu wasn’t licensed until 1940. 

Many doctors prescribed what they had available: aspirin. Its patent had expired in 1917, so new companies moved in to produce it–I’d assume cheaply. Patients were told to take up to 30 grams a day, which is now considered a toxic dose. If you take anything above four grams these days, red lights start flashing and sirens go off. 

The symptoms of aspirin poisoning include hyperventilation and pulmonary edema, which is a buildup of fluid in the lungs. Some flu deaths may have been either caused or speeded up by aspirin poisoning.

To be fair, some of the recommended public health measures were useful, including ventilation, disinfection, limiting or banning large gatherings, quarantine, and isolation of patients, but they were applied unevenly. 

 

The pandemic’s legacy

Industrialized countries went into the pandemic with atomized health systems. Doctors worked for themselves or for charities or religious institutions. Public health policies–and this isn’t particularly about Britain–were colored by eugenics, a theory that, to simplify wildly and irresponsibly, managed to show that the people at the top of society were there because they were better genetic specimens and the people at the bottom were degenerate and a mess. So public health policy–or so the Smithsonian tells me–tended to be about protecting the elites from the diseases of the poor. 

When the pandemic died down and they had some space to think, the lesson many countries took from it was that healthcare had to be available to all, and free, although the moves in that direction weren’t universal or, at first, complete. Public health embraced the idea of not just treating disease but preventing it. Epidemiology–the study of diseases’ patterns, causes, and effects–came into its own, and epidemiology demands data, which governments, or some of them anyway, began to gather. One of the problems that article after article mentions about the flu pandemic is that it wasn’t a reportable disease, so doctors weren’t required to report cases to the government and wouldn’t have had a bureau to report them to if they’d been inclined that way. That meant no one knew the size or shape of the crisis.

In 1919, the forerunner of the World Health Organization was founded–an international bureau to fight pandemics.

Covid, Cornwall, and the G7 meeting

 

Cornwall’s had a low Covid rate throughout most of the pandemic, but it now has the fourth highest Covid growth rate in England. That’s not the highest number of overall cases–that’s still relatively low. It’s the rate of growth, which went from 12.2 cases per 100,000 people to 99.5 per 100,000. 

Did that happen because the G7 met here? Or is it because the county’s a tourist center and we’re visitors have flooded in–more than usual, since going abroad’s a gamble just now? County councilors (which I initially misspelled as counselors, as noted in a comment; councilors is British for politicians, not for mental health professionals) are arguing both sides, but heavy Covid concentrations have shown up in Falmouth, St. Ives, and Newquay, where assorted people associated with the summit stayed, and in Carbis Bay, where the meetings were held 

Most other parts of the county haven’t seen spikes. That argues for the G7 as a superspreader event. 

Irrelevant photo: honeysuckle

On the other hand, the spikes started three weeks after what we’ve learned to call hospitality venues–those place we might once have called cafes and pubs and things like that–opened back up. Staffed heavily by young (by which you can understand largely unvaccinated) people, and customered at least in part by people visiting from parts of the country with higher Covid rates, many of them accompanied by children (by which you can understand smallish unvaccinated people). 

Also on that second hand, some spikes point toward a local university campus at Penryn.

Those points argue for reopening hospitality venues as a superspreader idea.

The national government’s announced that the spikes have nothing to do with the G7. It’s also announced that it’s not about to publish its summit risk assessment and anyone getting themselves into a state about reading it should go have an ice cream cone and settle down.  

Someone may manage to untangle the threads in the next week or three, but until then you can take your pick of the causes.

My small patch of the county is still fairly Covid free, but we’re full of visitors and the cafes, pubs, and restaurants are open. We’ll see what happens next. 

 

Covid transmissibility

A study of two Covid variants–the one first found in South Africa and the one first found in Britain–looked at why they’re more transmissible and found that the people they infect don’t have increased viral loads, which a person might logically think would be linked to high transmissibility. But nope, that doesn’t seem to be it.

People with the variants are less likely to have asymptomatic cases, though. And although they’re not more likely to die of Covid, they are more likely to be hospitalized. 

I can’t draw any conclusions from that. All I can do is toss it on your doorstep and hope you find something useful to do with it. 

 

Covid test effectiveness

Not long ago, the US FDA–that’s the Food and Drug Administration–urged the public to stop using the quick Covid tests that Britain relies on to test asymptomatic people. To which Britain said, “What do you know anyway?” and extended its emergency use approval. 

One of the problems with the tests is that when the number of Covid cases drops below a certain point, they produce more false positives than genuine positives, turning them from a not terribly accurate but possibly useful tool to an outright pain in the neck. Other tests are available and better supported by test data. But we like our lateral flow tests and we’re not about to abandon them. I have no idea why. 

 

Stay safe: avoid birthdays

A study in the US found a link between the spread of Covid and–guess what–birthdays. Yes indeed, gathering data from 45 weeks in 2020, a study found that in areas where Covid was circulating heavily, a birthday was 30% more likely to be followed by a Covid diagnosis in the household than a non-birthday. If it was a kid’s birthday, the rate was higher. 

The study was designed to look at the impact of small gatherings in spreading the disease. It didn’t specifically look at whether the household had a party–it drew its information from insurance records–but it is suggestive.

But don’t worry. If you don’t have a birthday in any given year, you should be safe enough.

What does “we have to live with Covid” mean?

Periodically, someone announces, as if it ends the discussion, that we’ll just have to live with Covid. But that doesn’t end the discussion, it only begins it. What does living with Covid mean?

To some people, it means, end the lockdowns, burn the masks, and get together in an unventilated space with a few thousand of our closest friends so we can all get shitfaced and dance. Because that’s what normal looked like, at least in retrospect, and we need to get back to normal.

To others, it means that we keep wearing our masks and hoping to hell other people do the same, because someone out there is contagious and someone else is vulnerable. It means staying out of closed, crowded spaces. It means admitting that we only liked six of those few thousand closest friends anyway and haven’t missed them this past year and a half.

But forget what we think. I’m making it up anyway. Let’s turn to the experts. 

An article in the Medical Xpress says that we may never reach full herd immunity–that point where so many people are immune to a disease that those who aren’t immune are protected by not being exposed to it, ever. 

Irrelevant photo: poppies

Why aren’t we likely to reach that point? Because Covid immunity seems to wane over time. Because the disease continues to evolve, especially where unvaccinated groups of people create pools that the virus can spread through and evolve in. And because animals can harbor the virus and pass it back to humans. 

There may be conflicting arguments that say we will reach herd immunity, but I haven’t found them. Let’s go with what we’ve got. 

The article’s authors say that even if we don’t reach full herd immunity, we could still reach practical herd immunity, allowing us to go back to near-normal levels of activity. Their measure of near normality seems to be how far a country can open up without overwhelming the health-care system. It depresses the hell out of me that we measure safety not by the deaths and disabilities the disease would cause but by how many cases of it a health system can sustain, but–well, there it is, written in black and white. That’s what happens, I guess, when you enter the land of policy making.

How many people need to be immune to reach practical herd immunity? It depends on the level of restrictions–or adaptations, if you want a more user-friendly word–we’re willing to live with. Masks? Contact tracing? Mass testing of asymptomatic people? Measures to stamp out outbreaks? 

It’s interesting that although this is a consideration, how many deaths and disabilities we’re willing to live with isn’t. 

Practical herd immunity also depends on vaccination levels: “Some estimates,” the article says, “suggest that we may need two-thirds of the population to be protected either by successful vaccination or natural infection. If 90 percent of the population is eligible for vaccination, and vaccines are 85 percent effective against infection, we can obtain this two thirds with about 90 percent of the eligible population being vaccinated or infected naturally.”

Don’t let those numbers scare you. They’re safely contained within quotation marks.

There’s still a possibility that new variants will escape our immunity, but the fewer outbreaks we have, the fewer chances we’ll give the disease to reach escape velocity.

And we’ll all live happily–if cautiously–ever after.

I hope.

 

The cost of herd immunity in cold, hard cash

But if you’re in love with the idea of restricting nothing and either pursuing herd immunity or in letting Covid circulate freely because it’s no worse than the flu–or if you want to argue with someone who is–academics have calculated the cost to Western Australia if it had pursued a herd immunity strategy: They say the state saved $4.9 billion and avoided 1,700 deaths in a year by locking down hard. It also prevented 4,500 hospitalizations.

In Britain, it was the cost of a hard lockdown that made the government hesitate, repeatedly, to either stamp out or contain the virus. It sounds like it was an expensive savings.

 

Vaccination news

In Britain 52% of the people who said they’d never get vaccinated have now gotten vaccinated, along with 84% of the people who said they weren’t likely to. The percentages shift when you break the population down into religious and ethnic subgroups, but in all of them the trend is in the direction of vaccination.

Part of the change, I’m sure, comes from work that’s being done with community leaders and work to counter misinformation campaigns, but I can’t help wondering if a kind of herd immunity isn’t at work here too: People around us have been vaccinated. We see that keys don’t stick to their faces and that axe heads don’t pursue them down the street, so we figure they probably haven’t been magnetized after all–or at least not heavily. There probably hasn’t been enough time for them to demonstrate that they can still get pregnant–at least those of them who could’ve gotten pregnant in the first place. That–allow me to remind you–excludes all males of the species and enough categories of females that I won’t list them. Even the real but very rare serious side effects of some vaccines–well, they’re very rare. Have they happened to anyone we know? Um, no.

It’s an odd thing, but a 1 in 100,000 chance looks more likely to happen if it happens to someone you know and less likely to if it doesn’t. Even if the numbers don’t care who your friends and acquaintances are.

Humans do seem to be herd animals. We see people around us getting vaccinated and going on with their lives, not visibly marked by the vaccine, and it starts to look like a safe thing to do. Even a smart one. 

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The Netherlands is offering pickled herring to people who get vaccinated. Traditionally, the year’s first barrel of Hollandse nieuwe is auctioned off to raise money for a good cause, but since that couldn’t happen this year it was given, “on behalf of the Dutch people” to the head of the health services. Other barrels were sent to vaccination sites and people are being offered herring when they show up.

 

Counterfeit and Covid

Counterfeit Covid vaccines, tests, and vaccination passports are becoming big businesses. Vaccines and test kits are sold through online pharmacies. Amazon, Etsy, and I’m sure other places sell vaccine passports, with no proof of vaccination required. 

Why not? Everything’s available online. This Christmas, I bought my partner a certificate making her a minister in the Church of the 400 Rabbits. All I had to do was make a donation (it went to a food bank) and print it myself.

Although the article I found talked about the danger of counterfeits infiltrating the supply chain that countries use for genuine vaccines and tests, it didn’t say it had happened. So we’re talking about individuals–people made desperate enough by the world’s uneven rollout that they’re willing to roll the dice and hope that luck will lead them to the real thing.

 

Odd ways to fight Covid

Okay, just one odd way, but the plural made a better subhead. Scientists have developed a sticky wall surface that uses ingredients in hair conditioners to trap the aerosolized droplets that contribute so heavily to the spread of Covid. 

The theory works like this: Droplets bounce off indoor surfaces all the time. Add sticky stuff to your plexiglass divider, though, and their bouncing days are done. 

The developers coated a barrier and it captured almost all the aerosolized microdroplets and 80% of plain old droplet-size droplets. (The comparison point for those numbers is an uncoated barrier. I have no idea how you compare them.) The coated barrier didn’t need cleaning any more often than the uncoated one did, and once it was wiped down with water the coating could be reapplied.

It also works on fabric, concrete, and metal, turning low-touch surfaces into Covid fighters.

This won’t eliminate the need for ventilation, though. We’ll still need air filtration systems and open windows. But it does give us another tool. 

The bad news? A lot more work needs to be done to confirm its usefulness and get it authorized. 

“We understood that the current pandemic may end before this concept is implemented,” said engineering professor Jiaxing Huang. “It may or may not be used now. But next time, when an outbreak like this happens, I think we will be better equipped.”

Food: A quick history of the British curry

Nothing–as Brits are fond of saying with a straight face–is as British as a curry. 

The first time someone said that to me, I had to recover from the mental jolt of curry/India running its voltage through Britain/not India, but after that I could see the truth of it. Go into any small town in Britain (she wrote, as if she’d been to all of them) and you’ll find an Indian restaurant. 

Britain has 12,000 curry houses according to the BBC, which knows all–and probably more–so we’ll take their word for it. By way of comparison, Britain also has 47,000 pubs. That’s not entirely relevant, but with a little work I could make it sound as if it was.

Oh, hell, forget the numbers. Let’s indulge in a little food history.

Irrelevant photo: cistus

 

How did the curry get to Britain?

The first mention of curry in Britain dates back to the end of the sixteenth century: to 1598, if you want to be precise. To anchor that a bit, Queen Liz wasn’t dead yet but her mechanism was winding down and King James hadn’t yet trotted down from Scotland to sit–awkwardly, I’d think–on two thrones simultaneously, because Britain wasn’t Britain yet. England was England and Scotland was Scotland. Even once James owned them both, they had separate thrones and were separate countries.

[Acknowledgement: When I first posted this, I killed Elizabeth off a few years early. Thanks to April Munday, who caught my carelessness.]  

I throw that in partly to fill in the picture and partly because I haven’t been able to find anything more about that first mention of curry, so I’m distracting you from the blank space.

You’ll never notice. 

 

History and food collide 

Why was curry being mentioned in England? Well, the English East India Company (which when England and Scotland became Britain became the British East India Company) started out by trading with India from there moved on to taking it over piece by piece and governing it. 

I really do need to write a post about that. In the meantime, though, by way of a promissory note, we have curry. And the knowledge that England had extensive contact with India.

From the British point of view (which makes considerably more comfortable reading than the Indian one, since it doesn’t focus on the unpleasant stuff), that meant thousands of British men and women had lived and, more to the point, eaten in India. Some of them lived in grand style there, with Indian cooks and servants. Others weren’t as high up the colonialist ladder and would have met Indian food in less grand settings, but it was still Indian food, in all its stunning variety.

Inevitably, some of those Brits did their damnedest to recreate Britain on the dining room tables they sat at in India, but others noticed that Indian food had a range of tastes that pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold hadn’t prepared them for. Their taste buds woke up and understood that they’d been installed on the human tongue for a purpose, which was to taste things. And they wanted to keep doing that. 

It’s an odd thing how the contempt you need if you’re going to take over someone else’s country can coexist with admiration for parts of their culture, or at least for their cooking. But sometimes it does.

And no, the British didn’t really live entirely on pease porridge before they met Indian food. That’s from a nursery rhyme. But by comparison with the range of tastes Indian food offered them [biased writing warning here] they might as well have. So, many of the conquerors were primed to want Indian food after they returned home. British food had somehow become bland and boring.

And a few people did their best to recreate Indian food for them. As early as 1733, people could buy curry in London’s Norris Street Coffee House. 

How Indian was it?

My best guess is, not very, and I’m basing that on the first recipe for curry published in England, in 1747, when it appeared in The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse. In the first edition, the only spices were black pepper and coriander seeds. Let’s try not to be snooty about it. Spices were expensive. And Hannah had never been to India, so this was like someone painting a picture of an elephant when they’ve never seen one. (A later edition added turmeric and ginger.) 

It’s probably fair to say that even at this early stage curry had become a British dish, because I’m reasonably sure India would’ve disowned the stuff. Admittedly I’m not Indian and I don’t know Indian cooking in any depth. Comments, especially from people who are and do, are always welcome, as always.

Authentic or not, though, by the 1780s, a few London restaurants were selling curry and rice.

In 1810, Sake Dean Mahomed, who’d served in the East India Company’s army, opened a curry house, the Hindoostanee Coffee House, which tried to recreate India in London, complete with bamboo chairs, paintings of India, and a separate room for people who wanted to smoke hookahs. I get the impression that the food was more authentically Indian than it was in the more general restaurants that served curry. 

The Epicures Almanak described as a place “for the nobility and Gentry,” complete with an inexplicable capital G. 

But Mahomed had to compete with the already established curry houses and he went broke in 1812. https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-British-Curry/

Curry became popular enough that between 1820 and 1840, imports of turmeric (a central spice in curry) increased threefold. By the 1840s, it was popular enough that any damn fool could’ve told you that curry stimulates the stomach and invigorates blood circulation, which would lead to a more vigorous mind.  

Curry was also a good way to use up leftover meat, so whatever you thought of the health claims, it had a good, practical argument in its favor.

Then an 1857 mutiny against British rule soured the British attitude toward all things Indian. Englishmen (no mention of women–or the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish) in India weren’t allowed to wear Indian clothes. “Going native” was an insult–and eating curry was frowned upon. The upper classes abandoned it, although if you weren’t in fashion to start with you’d probably go on eating what you liked. 

That shifted, though, at least in Britain, when Queen Victoria became fascinated by India. What the hell, playing monarch over the place had elevated her from queen to empress, so why not be impressed with it? She lent Indian food some class among anyone who took that sort of thing seriously, thereby reviving the curry’s fortunes. 

In the early twentieth century, some 70,000 people from South Asia moved to Britain. A few high-end-of-the-market Indian restaurants opened in London. How are those two statements linked? I don’t know, but after World War II some of those migrants opened cafes and canteens serving their own communities. And another group of them–Bangladeshis, for the most part–opened restaurants aimed at the British market, selling food at prices working people could afford. Curry went enthusiastically downmarket. Among other things, the restaurants became places to stop and grab a meal when you staggered homeward from the pub. 

In recent years, curry’s been trying to go back upmarket, with expensive wine lists and menus that draw on India’s range of regional cooking.

Some 80% of Britain’s Indian restaurants aren’t owned or run by people from India. The owners are from Bangladesh and their food is from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. 

 

So how Indian is the curry?

You know what happens when a word from one language gets adopted into another, right? The pronunciation changes. Sometimes the meaning changes. After a while, it’s hard for the original language to recognize its offspring.

It happens to food too. People who have to sell it to a new public adapt it to suit their tastes. And to match the ingredients at hand. That happened to Indian food when it got to Britain.

According to a HuffPost writer whose name I couldn’t find on the article, curry isn’t Indian at all.  “ ‘Curry’ is not even a word in India. . . . There are a few specific dishes in India whose names sound like ‘curry.’ One is ‘Kadhi,’ and another is ‘Kari.’ Both of them are sauce-like with a gravy.” 

From one or both of those words, the British generalized and anglicized and used the word curry to mean anything vaguely Indian with a spiced gravy. It’s sort of like calling all noodle dishes spaghetti, our nameless author says. 

And just to prove that no one’s listening, HuffPost follows her article with a link to curry recipes.

Some days you can’t win.

What about curry powder? It takes, the writer says, a bunch of spices used in Indian food and dumps them all together, but no Indian cook would use them all. They’d use some and leave out others, depending on the dish. 

That means that using curry powder to get the flavor of Indian food is sort of like pouring all the words in the dictionary into your document and calling it a novel. The trick that real writers have learned is to select some of the words and leave others out.

I just let you in on the secret of good writing. Are you blown away?

But authenticity be damned, Britain had grabbed hold of the curry and it isn’t letting go.

Will the pandemic ever end?

The pandemic, it turns out, is not a war. It won’t end in either complete victory or in a negotiated treaty. That leaves us with no clear line between pandemic and not-pandemic. 

The consensus among public health experts and epidemiologists is that Covid will, at best, turn into a background danger, something that pops up in localized and seasonal outbreaks that we have to live with and work around. 

But that’s the best outcome, not the guaranteed one. Everything depends on how many people get vaccinated and what variants develop. And because no variant can be contained in one country or region, one country’s problem is every other country’s problem.

According to Alessandro Vespignani, professor of physics, computer science, and health sciences, “Vaccination of the low- and middle-income countries is the most altruistic thought and at the same time, the most selfish. Because we have to protect those populations so that we can protect us.” 

Irrelevant photo: The Bude Canal

So that’s a definite maybe on the pandemic ending, not a resounding yes. Pack away the trumpets, the confetti, the Mission Accomplished banners. That banner stuff looked a little silly anyway, back when Bush Jr. tried it. And keep your eye on what’s happening in the worst prepared countries, because what happens there will be knocking on your door and mine in no time at all.

 

More on long Covid

First, the disclaimer: There’s no one definition of long Covid, so if this all seems a little murky, that’s because it is. Long Covid’s symptoms range from the annoying to the life-changingly disastrous, and at this point they all get lumped in together. Some of them go away after a while and others get milder. Some do neither–they set up housekeeping. 

If that sounds ominous, allow me to make the picture worse:

Almost a fifth of the people who caught Covid infections but had no symptoms show symptoms “consistent with long Covid” a month after they got infected. In other words, people who had no symptoms may be going on to develop long Covid. 

And 27.5% of non-hospitalized people with symptomatic Covid did the same thing, as did 50% of the people who were hospitalized. 

That comes from an analysis of medical insurance claims by 1.96 million people in the U.S. The weaknesses of the study are that it didn’t have a control group and that it only studied people who had certain kinds of insurance. In the U.S., what kind of insurance you have says a lot about your class, which in turn says a lot about how Covid hits you.

Did I say “class”? Sorry. Everyone in the U.S. is middle class. It’s just that a very few members of the middle class are obscenely rich, some are doing fine, some are just hanging on, and some are long-term broke.

I’ve been away so long. I sometimes forget. 

But back to the study. Its strength is that it’s huge. 

But you can’t look at it and say, “This group of people definitely had long Covid.” On the other hand, with no solid definition of long Covid, it’s hard to look at any group of people and say that. At the very least, it’s enough to make us stop and think about what we’re dealing with in the long term. The pandemic is likely to leave us with a long-term public health problem, something individuals, families, health systems, and governments will all have to deal with.

The report also “drives home the point that long Covid can affect nearly every organ system,” according to Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, chief of the research and development service at the Veterans Administration St. Louis Health Care System. “Some of these manifestations are chronic conditions that will last a lifetime and will forever scar some individuals and families.”

Just to keep from scaring ourselves witless, let’s remember that some of the manifestations (that translates to symptoms) aren’t likely to leave scars forever. No one seems completely sure of how wide and how deep the problem of long Covid will go. It scares the hell out of me, but there’s no point in getting so scared we can’t function anymore.

If, in fact, we ever did function (she said cheerily).

 

So when do we go back to normal?

England–or its government, anyway–has put off lifting the last of its lockdown rules. That makes the prime minister very sad. He wanted to let us know that we all live in paradise, have enough money to live well, and are at our ideal body weight. 

Yea, every last lumpy one of us.

The postponement came because multiple experts have been warning of a possible third wave. Last I heard, England’s R number–the rate at which the virus is spreading–was estimated to be 1.4. Anything above 1 means the number of infections is growing. The numbers aren’t high yet, but the direction’s not good. 

If we do have a third wave, it’s expected to be caused by the more transmissible and possibly more dangerous Delta version of Covid. The hope is that keeping those last restrictions for a while means there’ll be time to vaccinate more people, preferably with two doses of a vaccine, not just one. 

 

Vaccine updatelets

In the region at the center of Britain’s outbreak, vaccination numbers have dropped in the last month. I’d love to give you more detail, but the article’s behind a paywall on a site I don’t want to subscribe to, so it’s headlines only on this. 

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People working in care homes in England will have to get vaccinated in the next 16 weeks if they’re going to keep working with patients–or in some cases, keep working at all. The only exceptions will be people with a medical reason not to get the vaccine. No one knows how this will play out, but assorted organizations of medical professionals are opposing it.

The requirement may be extended to National Health Service staff.

“Compulsion is a blunt instrument that carries its own risks,” the British Medical Association said. An (unnamed) NHS boss said it was setting up a confrontation with staff “at a time when you’re denying them a decent pay rise but also saying how much you love them.”

Both fields already have staff recruitment problems. That have been made worse by Brexit. And low pay. And at least in the NHS, pandemic working conditions. 

In early June, 89% of NHS staff was at least half vaccinated and 82% fully vaccinated. In adult care homes, that was 83% and 68%. 

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A new vaccine, this one made by Novavax, has come through stage 3 trials showing 90.4% effectiveness against mild and moderate Covid and 100% effectiveness against severe cases. It was tested against the Alpha, Beta, and Gamma variants. The Delta variant overslept and missed the test.

Delta will receive a failing grade but will be eligible to take the test the next time it’s scheduled. A spokesperson for the variant said, “Delta has other priorities at the moment and will be in touch when its schedule allows. It has no further comment at the present time and will not take questions.”

The Novavax is a two-dose vaccine. 

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A small study dropped hints that a third Covid vaccine does might give transplant patients a better immune response. People with transplanted organs have to take drugs that suppress their immune systems in order to keep their transplants from being attacked by the aforesaid immune systems. Two doses don’t seem to be enough to rev up their Covid immunity.

A larger study is planned. In the meantime, the people who understand these things are feeling hopeful.

 

How well are China’s vaccines working?

China is exporting two vaccines, and although they’re less effective than the gold standard vaccines like Pfizer and AstraZeneca, they do work. Sinopharm is 78% effective and Sinovac is somewhere between 50% and 78%. I’m not sure why the range is so large there. Sorry. And while I’m apologizing, apologies for not having a link on this. It’s from an email newsletter the New York Times sends out. It usually has links. Maybe I’m being particularly dense today.

There’ve been questions about the vaccines, especially after vaccinated people in the Seychelles became infected, but they do seem to be useful. In the Seychelles, when vaccinated people got Covid they had mild cases and recovered at home. It’s not what we’d all hope for, but it’s a lot better than being hospitalized. Or dying. China says it can make 5 billion doses a year. The U.S. has promised to donate 500 million doses of other vaccines (I don’t think they’ve specified which) to poorer countries. Britain has promised 100 million. 

The world’s population–since this is relevant to the discussion–is 7.6 billion. Or it was in 2019. I haven’t counted it since. I did try last month but I lost track somewhere around 5 billion and didn’t have the heart to start over. The vaccine rollout in poorer countries is beyond dismal. The vaccines are going to rich countries and poor ones just can’t get them.

So weigh 600 million against 5 billion, then weigh both of those against the number of countries that can’t get hold of any useful amount of vaccine and it makes the two Sino- vaccines appealing. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose

Not much is known yet about how well they protect against the variants. There seems to be some reduction against the Beta and Gamma variants, but that’s still not solidly established. 

China, having gotten off to a slow start in vaccinating its population, is now working at high speed. 

I had links for all that and have succeeded in losing them. Apologies.

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Early reports are that mixing vaccines–I think they were playing mix-and-match with the Pfizer and AstraZeneca, although the Moderna might have slipped in as well–may make them more effective, and Canada and a few European countries have started doing that. 

 

How times have changed

To boost the number of people getting vaccinated, Washington State is allowing marijuana retailers to offer a free joint to anyone who can show proof that they’ve had either their first shot or second shot. Or both at once. What the hell. If the stuff they’re offering is strong enough, who can count that high?

It also allows other businesses to offer a beer, a cocktail, or a glass of wine. Arizona and New Jersey have done similar things. Other states are running lotteries.

What are they up against in their effort to promote the vaccine? People who think getting vaccinated will cause keys to stick to their faces and forks to–

I stopped listening right about there, so I’m not sure where the forks stick. I’ve heard of food that sticks to your ribs, but we seem to have entered new territory here.  

Whether or not you’ve been vaccinated, plastic forks will not attack you. Covid restrictions allowing, you can go back to the food courts.

Antiviral drug update

If an antiviral drug that’s in late-stage testing works–and that’s not guaranteed–it could stop a Covid infection in its early stages. It could be available by the end of 2021–again, if it works.

With all those coulds in there, that sentence has a lot of wiggle room. Still, as everything we read lately says repeatedly, it could (there’s that word again) be a game changer. 

Cards? Jenga? A football team crashing through the front door and out the back?

The drug is one of several attempts to tackle Covid by treating the infection rather than vaccinating people, so let’s not bother to name this particular one and instead hope one of them comes through. Even the people weren’t cranking themselves up to be afraid of flying forks might accept this.

Or possibly not. It’s gotten so crazy out there that I’ve given up trying to predict where we’re headed.

Indentured labor in the British Empire

Abolishing slavery left Britain with a problem: How was it going to produce sugar without lowering profits? 

Because of the second part of that sentence, I don’t think paying a livable wage entered into the conversation. 

This was an issue for both planters and theBritish government itself, because sugar was a huge part of the economy. And the monied class that owned the plantations was a huge part of the government. You know the old saying, money talks? Well, it doesn’t have a physical voice, but it does this odd way of amplifying the voices of people with a lot of it.

Last week, if you’ll stretch your minds back to that distant time, now passing almost into myth we looked at the apprenticeship system that, for a while, replaced–and closely reproduced–slavery in the Caribbean colonies. This week, lucky us, we come to indentured labor, which replaced it more widely and for longer. 

Irrelevant photo: geranium

 

Indenture

Britain abolished slavery in 1833 and the first indentured laborers arrived in British Guiana in 1836. They were from India, and Indian indentured laborers were also sent to Fiji, Natal, Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, British Guiana, Jamaica, and Trinidad–to nineteen countries in all. Eventually indentured workers replaced enslaved Africans on plantations throughout the British Empire. 

Was I bullshitting you about the government being involved? Sorry, but no. According to the National Archives, the secretary of state for the colonies, Frederick Stanley, known as Lord Stanley by his nearest and dearest, ordered the scheme.

Scheme, in American English, has an unpleasant whiff of sneakiness, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t in British English. British governments introduce schemes all the time and are happy to brag about them, and this was very much a government project. British colonies–which is to say, plantation owners–had appealed to the government for help and it ordered and approved the plan. The whiff you’re picking up isn’t one of sneakiness but–forgive me if I use an old-fashioned word here–exploitation.

Initially, Guiana’s indentured workers were treated pretty much the way slaves had been–as they were elsewhere, but I happened onto a small stash of detail about Guiana. Their contracts were for five years, and during that time they couldn’t leave the plantations where they worked. They were paid 1 shilling a day. I can’t tell you what a shilling’s buying power was, but the National Archives calls it a pitiful sum. 

Those who didn’t work were left to starve.

If they were found to have breached their contract in any way, they faced automatic penalties: two months in prison and a £5 fine. 

How many shillings in a pound? Twenty. So the fine was more than three months’ pay. 

A special magistrate in British Guiana wrote that the laborers were “with few exceptions . . . treated with great and unjust severity, by overwork and by personal chastisement.” And historian Hugh Tinker wrote that, “the decaying remains of immigrants were frequently discovered in cane fields.” 

Importing contract labour from India was suspended in 1840. They tried importing Europeans but couldn’t find enough willing people, and the plantation owners pleaded with the government for a new supply of labor. Freddy Stanley tried recruiting Chinese workers from Malacca and African workers from Sierra Leone, but again they couldn’t round up enough people and turned back to India, this time under an new act setting out minimum standards for housing, food, clothing, and pay. 

How well those standards were enforced is–in the absence of a source I didn’t manage to find–anyone’s guess. The plantations were a long way from governmental supervision, and that’s assuming that the government officials had the will to enforce standards. 

A hefty proportion of indentured labor involved Indian workers and the sugar industry, but the Transvaal gold mines brought 64,000 indentured workers from China, and in Australia the indentured workers were Aboriginal and from the South Sea islands.

 

A nasty little bit of economic and political information

In 1846, Britain got rid of a tariff that had kept the domestic price of sugar up and prevented non-British colonies from selling sugar cheaper than the stuff produced in British colonies. That lowered the cost inside Britain, making it a popular move, but it also meant that British colonies were competing against sugar produced by slave labor, which put pressure on the indenture system to be more like slavery. Not, I suspect, that plantation owners needed much of a push, but it’s worth mentioning all the same.

Doesn’t studying history make you feel good about your fellow humans?

 

Recruitment in India

Until 1858, India was run by the British East India Company, making it a huge country governed by a corporation from a much smaller country. 

Give yourself a minute to take that in.

Between 1834 and the end of World War I, India was Britain’s recruiting ground for indentured laborers. To put that in human terms, my father would have fought in World War I if his parents had agreed to sign for him–which fortunately for me (and him) they didn’t. It’s not much more than a hundred years ago. 

This is not ancient history. It’s not all that far outside of living memory.

Why was India such a fertile recruiting ground? The simple answer is desperation, poverty, famine. Land that had been in Indian hands had, with the country under British control, miraculously, found itself in the hands of British owners. Famine was no longer uncommon. 

Most recruits were from the lower castes, but not all. 

By way of an example, take the people who worked on the indigo plantations. In the off season, they’d migrate to towns and cities looking for work, and recruiters would pick them up, lie to them about where they were going, the length of the trip, and the work they’d be doing, and get them to sign a contract. Or since most of them couldn’t read, put their thumb prints on one, with no idea what it really said. Then they’d be held in depots until a ship was ready. 

They were called coolies, and if the word didn’t start out as an insult it became one quickly enough. 

Conditions at sea were bad enough that in 1856-57, 17% of the Indian workers travelling to the Caribbean died on the way. In 1870, 12% died on the way to Jamaica and to Mauritius. 

To understand the mindset of the people who established, ran, and profited from the system, consider what the recruitment firm Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co wrote to a planter who was considering using it. Its recruits, it said, had “few wants beyond eating, sleeping and drinking.” It said the Adivasi, the indigenous people of India, were “‘more akin to the monkey than the man.”

In the fifty years between 1860 and 1910, 150,000 indentured Indian laborers went to Natal–now part of South Africa–to work on the sugar plantations. So many indentured laborers went to Mauritius that the Indian community now accounts for two-thirds of the population.

They were promised pay, sometimes land at the end of their contract, and in some cases passage home. What their contracts promised would have varied over time, but one source says that the promises often weren’t met. 

 

Australia

Australia’s history is different but it borrowed the indenture system. Starting in 1863, it brought in some 62,000 South Sea Islanders to work on sugar plantations. Some went by choice and others were kidnapped, coerced, or lied to. Their conditions weren’t particularly different from slaves’. They were kept apart from the rest of the population and their languages were banned. Between malnutrition and exposure to European diseases, some 15,000 died within a year. 

The practice continued for forty years. Then in 1901 most of them were deported–and their deportation was funded by their own pay, which the Queensland government had appropriated.

 

The Kenya-Uganda Railway

Indian indentured laborers built the Kenya-Uganda Railway, and 7% died before their contract was up. Many tried to escape but were recaptured and imprisoned, and some had their contracts doubled to ten years.

Many contracts specified that workers would be returned home, and the majority did return, but some stayed, especially women who–according to one article–had left home after a disagreement with their parents and might not be welcomed back into the family.

 

The end of indentured labor

Throughout its history, the indenture system was under attack by the same people–or the same sorts of people–who’d campaigned against slavery and defended by the same sorts of people who’d defended slavery (including the write the novelist Anthony Trollope, for whatever that shippet of information’s worth). And it was under attack from indentured workers themselves, who went on strike, who fled, who–sorry, what’s the verb for staging an uprising? Uprose? They resisted in whatever ways they could. Unfortunately, although I can find references to all that, they’re light on the specifics.

It also came under attack by Indians from higher castes and classes, who found that in the colonies they were swept into the same category as indentured workers. 

Toward the system’s end, opinion in India was turning against it, and one reason it was ended was to improve Britain’s image there.

Of course–she added cynically–another factor was the sugar industry’s increased reliance on sugar beets instead of cane.

Britain formally abolished indentured labor in 1917, although it carried on for some years after that. The last ship carrying indentured laborers left for Mauritius in 1924.

By then, over a million Indians had been sucked into the system.

Fighting Covid: the useless gestures and the useful ones

An article in a Canadian medical journal notes that the country’s Covid prevention advice hasn’t caught up with the current knowledge about how the disease spreads. It’s airborne, so the advice, the article says, should focus on ventilation, filtration, and better masks. 

Having recently been at a meeting where before going home we dutifully sprayed and wiped the furniture, even though it’s pointless–

Yeah. How many other people are ending meetings that way? It’s like sanitizing our hands when we walk into a shop. It’s not a useful way to keep Covid from spreading, but it’s basic politeness these days–one of those many meaningless gestures that you do to keep from scaring people.

Irrelevant photo: I wish I could tell you what this is. It’s one of a whole set of large white wildflowers that I’ve never been able to tell apart. They don’t look all that much alike, but somehow I just can’t sort out large white flowers.

A fair number of people seem to think of masks the same way, putting on masks only when other people come in, even though if they have any virus to share the breathing they did when they were alone in the room would go a long way toward sharing it.

At the meeting, we did at least open the windows, keep a decent distance, and wear masks, although not all the masks covered all the relevant body parts. You have to hope people do better with the placement of their underwear. 

As far as I know, Britain’s advice hasn’t caught up with what’s now known any better than Canada’s has.

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Someone I know likes to tell me, with great confidence, that face masks funnel air–along with whatever germs the wearer’s sporting–off to the sides and from there to whoever’s behind the wearer. 

Okay, when I say “likes,” what I mean is “seems to like,” basing that on how often she talks about it. Maybe it’s just that my caution annoys her. I have that effect on some people.

So allow me to smugly report on a new study that measured the leakage from the sides of everyday masks. These weren’t the surgical masks that are made to have a tight fit but the ones civilians buy and, with luck, wear. They reduced the escape of particles–and that would include the Covid virus if it’s present–by an average of 93% They reduce escape from the bottom by 91%, from the sides by 85%, and from the top by 47%.

The moral of this story is that if you’re worried about masks funneling the virus toward you, do not lie on top of a mask-wearer’s head. 

You’re welcome.

The protection’s best when both people are wearing masks.

Covid and kids

During the first half of 2020, no one had reliable information about Covid’s effect on kids. Early reports on the hospitalization rate among kids spanned a jaw-dropping range from 5.7% to 63%. Estimates of its impact ranged from “it’s no worse than the flu” to fears that kids’ immature immune systems would be overwhelmed.

What can I tell you? It was new on the scene and they were working with limited information. 

So now there’s a study of 242,000 kids and adolescents from five countries who’ve been diagnosed with Covid. It compares them with 2 million who’ve been diagnosed with the flu.

What do we now know?

Epidemiologist Talita Duarte-Salles said, “It was a relief to see that fatality was rare, but clearly both complications and symptoms showed the COVID-19 was no flu in children and adolescents.” To translate that (forgive me: I just have to), kids aren’t likely to die of it, but the symptoms and complications can be serious.

We’re switching sources here, so bear with me. I had a very useful article on this that I accidentally deleted and now can’t find, so I’ll slip backwards to a somewhat less useful one that came out in April. It has estimates for the number of kids who had Covid symptoms five weeks after they were diagnosed. 

The percentages clearly aren’t of all kids, and I’m reasonably sure it’s not of all kids diagnosed with Covid. Let’s put our chips on the number of kids who got symptomatic Covid. Five weeks after they were diagnosed, 12.9% of kids between 2 and 11 still had symptoms, as did 14.5% of kids between 12 and 15 and 17.!% of teenagers and young adults. That’s a bizarre set of age categories, since the last one includes one of the earlier ones plus a few other random folks. 

Don’t worry about it. Any statisticians who accidentally read Notes have long since fled.

Another study followed 129 children who’d had Covid and found that 52.7% had at least one symptom four months later.

Some of the individual stories are frightening. They’re typical–they’re rare–but they do happen and it’s important to know that. One nine-year-old developed long Covid that included severe fatigue, sensitive skin, painful rashes, headaches, and indigestion. She lost her senses of taste and smell. Another–also a nine-year-old–had slurred speech, tremors, and brain fog. He became so weak that he had to use first a walker and then a wheelchair.

Again, none of that is typical, but as the epidemiologist said, this is not the flu.

How long does Covid immunity last?

This is still up for grabs, but the Covid vaccines–or some of them anyway–may not need yearly booster shots. Or may only need them every few years. 

To understand this, you have to know that the body’s immune system is a hierarchy.

Well, no, it isn’t really, but it’s a workable way to think of it. At the bottom are the antibodies, which swarm in and kill things, and they get most of the press because they fly flags and have marching bands and we notice that. But they don’t have long memories, so we have to worry: If the same enemy–in this case, Covid–comes back, will they recognize it?

Above the antibodies, though, are other bits of the immune system–plasma cells, memory B cells, memory T cells–and they have longer memories and they’re the bits of the system that crank up the antibodies, show them pictures, say, “That’s what the enemy looks like,” and send them out to kill and die.

It’s not a nice world out there. Or in here, on the inside of our bodies. 

Irrelevant photo: a poppy

Immunologists also have long memories, and they’ve been busy working out how long Covid immunity lasts, both after an infection and after vaccination. The answer depends on understanding the actions and interactions of all those different ranks. 

They’d also, I’m sure, hate my explanation of how this works.

The unpredictable element in all this is the rise of Covid variants. So far, they haven’t outrun our immune systems or the vaccines, but some variants do slow them down. 

The primary sign that a variant’s gotten faster than the vaccines will be if a whole lot of vaccinated people suddenly come down with Covid. 

I know, that’s not the way we’d like to get the news–a telegram would be better–but like I said, it’s not a nice world out there.

Assorted trials are underway, testing booster shots and testing the effect of mixing vaccines. It will be up to individual countries to decide if boosters are needed, but work’s underway in case they do.

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In the meantime, studies from northern Italy, which was the first part of Europe to be hit hard by Covid, say that immunity lasts at least a year and may last longer, only there hasn’t been time yet to find out. Reinfection is rare. But the experts are still urging people who had the disease to get vaccinated. It will boost their protection and make them more likely to resist variants. 

As for the vaccines, they’re protective for at least a year and possibly for a lifetime. 

Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at Rockefeller University, said, “People who were infected and get vaccinated really have a terrific response, a terrific set of antibodies, because they continue to evolve their antibodies,” Nussenzweig told The Times. “I expect that they will last for a long time.”

 

So that’s the good news out of the way. Let’s have some bad news for dessert.

The Delta variant (no I don’t know why we capitalize Delta; I do it because the papers do) is now the dominant U.K. variant. As many as 75% of the new U.K. cases may be Deltas. That’s the variant formerly known at the Indian variant, or B.1.617.2, but India changed its name to Delta and the variant’s followed along behind.

No, you really shouldn’t believe everything I say.

Annoying as the name changes are, it’s a good thing, given the human propensity for stupidity in the form of blaming other countries and peoples whatever goes wrong, that they’ve stopped naming variants after countries. Unfortunately, it’ll take some of us a while to catch up. 

So. Delta variant. Dominant strain in U.K. It seems to carry a higher risk of hospitalization (2.61 times higher) than the Alpha variant, formerly known as the Kent or British (or U.K, or English) variant. 

Sorting out the U.K.’s name is a constant problem, so I look forward to the time when the country changes its name to Alpha. It’ll be much simpler to write about. And since Alpha’s the first letter of the Greek alphabet, it should keep the nationalists happy.

Yay, Covid! We got there first!

Where were we?

The number of hospitalized Covid patients in Britain is small right now, as are the number of cases, but the number of cases is growing slowly. The worry is that this is the start of a trend.

Working against that is vaccination: 73% of the Delta cases are in people who haven’t been vaccinated. Two doses are a good protection, although not as good as against the Alpha variant. One does, though, is 17% less effective against the Delta variant. 

In the meantime, schools and colleges (if you’re American, British colleges stand somewhere between American high schools and American colleges) in England are responsible for a good deal of the spread

Why them? Partly because they collect a whole bunch of people who aren’t priorities for the vaccination programs–or even eligible for vaccines–and jam them together. Preferably in badly ventilated rooms where they nod off gently while trying to absorb important information. And also because the government lifted its mask mandate for secondary schools. That did affect primary school students because they were always considered too young to locate their noses and mouths. Adults are, demonstrably, still having trouble with that. 

Why did it lift the mandate? I’m still struggling with that one. The best I can do by way of an explanation is to suggest that they thought it would make people happy. Also possibly because they’re idiots. 

No, I don’t know. But they did, ignoring the complaints of teachers and school staff–or at least of the unions that represent them. 

That leaves repeated testing as the only way to control school outbreaks, and the number of tests (at least in secondary schools) seems to be decreasing. The government’s approved one of the vaccines for teenagers, but as far as I know that’s as far as things have gone.  

Again the number of cases isn’t huge. The fear, though, is that this is the beginning of a wave, not a few little splashes of water against the sand. It’s too early to tell.

 

So what’s the government doing? 

Well, it’s taken Portugal off its list of green countries and added it to the list of amber ones, meaning people coming into Britain from Portugal will now have to self-isolate when they get home. 

Self-Isolation? That’s quarantine on the honor system. Green and amber? They’re traffic lights. You know: Stop, go, look at the yellow light and get confused. 

All this matters because (a) the government made a lot of noise at one point about opening up foreign travel this summer and (b) some of the trashier newspapers made even more noise about it. We all want to be happy, happy, happy, so let’s declare the pandemic over.

In addition to moving Portugal off the green list, the government also moved seven countries from the amber list to the red one, so people coming from them will have to go into serious–and expensive–quarantine. 

But the story the country’s focused on isn’t the seven moves from amber to red but Portugal’s lone move from green to amber. The official explanation for it is that returning travelers risk bringing more variants home. 

So what variants is this preventing? The Delta variant–remember the Delta variant? The one that’s become dominant in Britain? Well, it’s picked up a mutation, one that’s happened before. It was seen in the South African variant (which came along too early to get itself a Greek letter). And that new mutation’s been seen in 12 cases in Portugal. 

It’s also been seen in 36 cases in Britain, so it might make more sense to quarantine travelers from Britain when they arrive in Britain but where’s the fun in that?

The last I heard, the mutation hadn’t been flagged as dangerous, although I wouldn’t say that’s definitive. Public Health England hasn’t tagged it a variant of concern, only a spike mutation of interest.

Actually, I’m in favor of being cautious about everything connected to Covid. The idea of promoting tourism right now is somewhere between stupid and criminally irresponsible. It’s the murky thinking that gets to me. First they crank people up about travel, then they try to keep out a mutation that’s already here. 

 

And what do we call the new mutation?

The new mutation is now being called–at least in Britain–the Nepal variant because the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, called it that in a press conference. Thanks, Grant. The don’t-blame-this-on-other-countries campaign appreciates your support. 

There is some marginal logic to linking it to Nepal, although it’s marginal enough that after I’d spent half an hour trying to explain it I looked at the hole I’d dug and gave up. It was pretty deep by then and I was worried about getting back out if I kept on. I’ve written to Nepal, suggesting that it change its name to Epsilon.

There’s no clear line between a mutation and a variant, so we don’t have to worry much about that.

 

Yeah, but what about the green list?

The countries left on the green list (last I checked) are Australia; Brunei; Falkland Islands; Faroe Islands; Gibraltar; Iceland; Israel; New Zealand; St Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha; Singapore; and South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands.

But any number of those countries aren’t accepting random British tourists, including Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, and the Falkland Islands. And Israel and Singapore sound less than thrilled about them, although I’m not sure that’s an outright ban. I should’ve done better research but I had to close the computer and feed the cat. As far as I can figure out, though, an awful lot of those green list countries are closed to British tourists.

It doesn’t sound like the list means much, does it? British tourists are welcome to come home from countries they can’t get into. Yes, friend, we’re on the other side of the looking glass here, and if you’ll pass around the slices of cake Alice will be happy to cut it as soon as you’re done. 

Think of the money those non-tourists will save by not going anywhere.