How dangerous is Covid to kids?

With Britain’s schools having only recently reopened, this is a disturbing time for me to mention a British Office for National Statistics report that says kids are getting long Covid. So I offer all the usual apologies for bringing it up, but ignorance of the real world is no protection against snake bites or traffic accidents. That means we might as well open the report and see what sort of snakes or car wrecks it mentions. 

It’s well established that kids are less likely than adults to get sick if they catch Covid, and that if they do catch it their symptoms are likely to be mild. Beyond that, an uneasy-making number of unknowns are running loose. If you follow the literature, you’ll find all sorts of contradictory studies on how likely kids are or aren’t to pass Covid on, either to each other or to adults. If you’re sitting on a couch in Britain and ask Lord Google “Are children at risk of getting sick with coronavirus?” he’ll take you to some withdrawn but still available government advice to schools: “Children are likely to become infected with coronavirus (COVID-19) at roughly the same rate as adults, but the infection is usually mild.” So, basically, it’s all fine, go back to sleep.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses. The yellow ones are wild and the pink are what happens when domesticated ones go out on their own and cross-pollinate. And many thanks to Cat9984 for finding me a way to size photos in spite of the WordPress’s dreaded new editing program.

The government may have posted updated advice, but Lord G. isn’t aware of it. They haven’t taken the old advice down.

The mantra that kids who show symptoms are likely to have mild ones has left a lot of us meditating serenely on the safety of children in these dangerous times. So England, at least, has reopened the schools without any real discussion of what it’ll take to make them safe, because, hey, kids are resilient little bugs, they need to get back to school, and they’ll be fine. 

Teachers? Toss a coin. Some have been vaccinated. The ones who haven’t are statistically likely to be fine. 

Probably.

But evidence is starting to form a more worrying picture. The Centers for Disease Control in the US estimate that in 13% to 15% of kids who do show Covid symptoms, at least one symptom hangs on for more than 5 weeks. That’s more or less the definition of long Covid. (The more or less is there because no fixed definition of long Covid exists yet. A quick check with Lord G. also brought me 12 weeks.)

An Italian study shows that more than half the kids who get symptomatic Covid still have at least one symptom 17 weeks after they were diagnosed. In 43% of them, the symptoms are enough to cause them problems in their daily lives. 

A separate study found long Covid symptoms that included tiredness; weakness; headaches; abdominal, muscle, and joint pain; gastrointestinal symptoms; and skin complaints such as rashes. 

If you’re not worried yet, they also list trouble concentrating, trouble remembering and processing information, and trouble finding the right word. Also unexplained irritability, although those symptoms would be enough to explain anyone’s irritability. 

The first two studies are preprints, meaning they haven’t been peer reviewed yet. A lot of papers have been released that way this past year. I’m reasonably sure preprint is one of the words tha pandemic’s given us. Thank you, Covid. The language was poorer before we had that.

 

Would you get vaccinated if someone offered you for free donuts?

How do you convince reluctant people to get vaccinated? You offer them donuts. Also beer and popcorn. Preferably not all in one meal. The British have an odd–at least to an American–habit of mixing alcohol and sweet stuff, but I’ve never seen anyone take it as far as mixing beer and donuts. And the offers were made in the US anyway.

To be fair, I think those offers were made less by way of inducement and more by way of thanks, or possibly marketing, but I’m not inside the minds that made those decisions, so I can’t know. 

For whatever reasons, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts is offering one free donut a day to anyone who brings  proof that they’ve been vaccinated. Chagrin Cinemas (that’s not a typo; they’re in the oddly named Chagrin Falls, Ohio) are offering free popcorn, but only through April. Market Garden Brewery (no note on where that is) is offering ten-cent beers, but there’s fine print: You have to be an adult.  

I know. Someone always wants to spoil the fun.

In Walled Lake, Michigan, the Greenhouse is offering one pre-rolled joint. That’s called Pot for Shots. 

Employers are itchy to get their businesses back to what we so casually call normal, and in the U.S. a number of companies are offering workers cash, gift cards, store credit, and time off. 

Will any of that work? You’re damn right it will–not necessarily the donuts, but the money. According to one survey, almost a quarter of employed Americans who either probably or definitely wouldn’t get vaccinated would reconsider if they were offered money.

In Britain, Boris Johnson took another approach, floating the idea of allowing only people with vaccine certificates into the pub. 

Which pub is that? All pubs are the pub to someone. If they’re not, they go broke quickly. 

The pub and restaurant industry shot back that it would be unworkable, unnecessary, inappropriate, and a very bad idea. Johnson promptly backtracked. Which doesn’t mean the idea’s dead. Johnson does U-turns for a living.

 

Do women leaders kill Covid?

Any number of people argue that since countries led by women have done well during the pandemic, women’s leadership is responsible for those outcomes. But a worldwide survey argues that a nation’s culture matters more than its leader’s gender.

The study looked at 175 countries (hands up everyone who knew the planet had so many), 16 of which were led by women. They didn’t find a statistical difference in death rates based on the leaders’ gender. 

What they did find was that success in dealing with Covid depends on how egalitarian the country is and on how much it prioritizes the wellbeing of society in general. Or to put that another way, it depends on two cultural factors, individualism and power distance, which is a measure of the power differences among the country’s citizens. 

More egalitarian and less individualistic countries have done better in the pandemic.

I’m reading between the lines, but part of the study looks like it’s based on actual data and part of it looks like they’ve used that data for statistical modeling. I’ve been hesitant about statistical modeling, but its prediction that the British Covid variant spread more easily than earlier variants has been borne out by lab work, so maybe I should shut up and accept that statistical modeling might just be useful.

Anyway, it’s up to you. Take the study for whatever you think it’s worth: It says that when both individualism and power distance are high (as they are in, for example, the U.S.), the average death rate is predicted to be 28.79 per 100,000 people. 

Where both are extremely low (as they are, for example, in Trinidad and Tobago and in New Zealand), the predicted average is 1.89 per 100,000.

Countries that value collective action have been more open to wearing masks and enforcing lockdowns. And egalitarian societies tend to have universal healthcare systems in place, along with paid sick leave and policies that make it possible for people to stay at home. 

So why are women leading so many of the countries that have done well? Because egalitarian countries are more likely to elect women as leaders. That gives us a correlation between women in leadership and success in handling  the pandemic, but with only 16 women leaders there’s not enough evidence to say that women leaders are better at it.

Sorry.

If you want a triumphant feminist note, though, the study does note that the pandemic’s messed with the world’s usual way of dismissing women leaders. In normal times, they’re criticized either for being too masculine and aggressive or for being too feminine and weak, which doesn’t leave much of a zone where they’re not shredded. During the pandemic, though, they’ve been praised for their decisiveness.

The world will never stop surprising us.

 

Vaccine news

Brazil has developed a vaccine, ButanVac, that’s expected to be approved in April and to start trials in July. Plans are to produce it in both Brazil and Thailand and distribute it to poorer countries.

Brazil’s short on vaccines and has a record number of cases, not to mention a president, Jair Bolsonaro, who opposes masks and lockdowns, downplays the virus’s danger, and has been publicly skeptical about ButanVac’s effectiveness.

Sao Paulo state’s governor, Joao Doria, said the vaccine, “is the response to those that deny the science and life.” It may be entirely coincidental that Doria’s expected to run against Bolsonaro next year.

*

A group in Germany are working on a Covid vaccine that would come in the form of a pill, making it easy to transport and store and relatively cheap to produce. This isn’t a new technology. Typhoid vaccine is already delivered that way.

The plan is for it to produce two antigens rather than one, giving it a bit of a jump on the virus’s mutations. But it’s still in the early stages, so don’t get excited about it yet.

*

Cuba’s also working on its own vaccine–multiple versions, and one of them, Soberana 2, looks promising and is in stage 3 trials. If it makes it through the trials and is authorized, they expect to have enough doses for all Cubans by the end of summer. Plans are to export them initially to Mexico, Iran, and Venezuela, and after that to the world–and to offer them to tourists.

The island’s kept the number of Covid cases low for much of 2020–some days just one or two cases a day–but in November, needing the cash, it reopened to tourists, which sent numbers up. 

Is a universal coronavirus vaccine a pipe dream?

Scientists are in the (very) early stages of working out a universal vaccine against coronaviruses–one that would block not only Covid’s existing and future variants but any new coronaviruses that emerge.

Okay, let’s call that a possible vaccine. It could easily not work out, but on the other hand no law of nature says that it can’t. Scientists have been doing the next-to-impossible a lot lately. I’ve started to take it for granted. 

IMG_0082 (1)

Irrelevant photo: A camellia bud, stolen from an old post because I’m trapped in WordPress’s horrible new editing program and haven’t found a way to drop in new photos at full size. I had a way to avoid the new system, but they’ve blocked it.  

They can approach the task in two ways. One is to make a mosaic vaccine. That has nothing to do with Moses–you know, the guy with the stone tablets. It’s from the word for those tiny pieces of colored tile that make up a picture. The vaccine takes particles from several Covid variants or other coronaviruses and sticks them onto a nanoparticle–a very tiny biological structure made up of proteins. Think of it as sticking some olives on a toothpick.

Or don’t. It’s your mind. I’ll never know. But if you do want to go out on that imaginary limb with me, watch while I saw it off behind us: We’re going to take that toothpick with its olives and drop it into the martini of your immune system.

Thwack. That was the sound of us hitting the ground, olives and all.

It would make a nice lullabye, don’t you think?

Now that we’ve dusted ourselves off, we can let our immune systems figure out what those bits of virus have in common and arm itself–and us–against that.

When this was tried in mice, their immune systems created a broad range of neutralizing antibodies. And creating neutralizing antibodies is the main goal of any vaccine.

Mice–as no doubt you already know–are not humans. They’re also not martinis, so this may not transfer seamlessly from them to us. But it holds some promise.

If you’ll let me brush those twigs out of your hair, we can go on.

The second approach has the scientists looking for features that are common to all coronaviruses. That could mean analyzing their genetic sequences to see where they overlap. It could also mean looking for immune cells that react to either all coronaviruses or to a number of variants, and then mapping the parts of the virus that they target. After that, all that’s left is to create a vaccine aimed at that spot.

Nothing to it.

Those of you who don’t drink will be relieved to know that no martinis are involved in this approach.

Now I’ll throw cold water on the whole project and tell you that scientists have been trying to come up with a universal flu vaccine and a universal HIV vaccine for years. The candidates have been safe but not impressively effective. Still, Covid doesn’t mutate as quickly as either HIV or the flu.

Yes, really. In spite of everything we’ve been reading about variants. This is what’s called slow mutation. 

So no one’s offering guarantees that this will work, but it’s a bright spot on the horizon. 

The horizon, unfortunately, is a good long way away.

Policy-type stuff

An international survey of how countries handled the pandemic shows that autocracies and democracies did equally well and equally badly, as did rich countries and poor countries and countries governed by populists and countries governed by technocrats. In other words, none of those were decisive factors.

Lockdowns of one sort or another do break the chain of infection, but they’re not universally successful. If the population doesn’t trust the government, they don’t seem to work. (I’m stretching the study’s conclusion a bit there. It sounds more tentative about it.) Economic support may make lockdowns more effective. (“May”? I can’t imagine the part of the world where making sure people who can’t work can still eat and pay their rent wouldn’t help. Never mind. It’s not my study. They’re not my conclusions.)

Some countries with strong scientific capacity and healthcare systems have responded badly, and some countries with far less (Mongolia, Thailand, Senegal) have both kept their people healthy and the economy running. 

Some countries (Taiwan, Vietnam, and New Zealand get a mention) did well in controlling the first wave and kept control from there on. Others did well in the first wave but the waves that followed swept over them. 

I’ll get out of the way now and let the people involved in the study have the last word:

“While our work has tracked individual governments’ responses, it is clear that exiting the pandemic will require global cooperation. Until transmission is curtailed throughout the world with restrictions and vaccinations, the risk of new variants sending us back to square one cannot be ignored.”

In other words, we’re all in this together. Even when we don’t act as if we are.

*

So let’s check in on a country that’s managed well and hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity. 

Before it had its first Covid case, Iceland had a testing system and a contact-tracing team, ready to go to work as soon as they found their first case. They put everyone who tested positive into isolation and traced their contacts. The word one of the people involved uses, with no apology, is aggressively.

Isolation–as least in Reykjavik–is in a hotel that was converted for the purpose. In response to which the staff walked out. The man in charge (I have no idea what his title is–sorry; let’s call him Gylfi Thor Thorsteinsson, since that’s his name) coaxed them back. They work in full protective gear. Thorsteinsson at least goes into people’s rooms to keep them company.  I assume many of the others go in as well, but the article I read didn’t say. In the past year, the hotel’s taken care of more patients than all the hospitals in Iceland rolled into one.

After Iceland got its first wave under control, they closed the hotel. Then they immediately had to reopen it when two tourists who’d tested positive went a-wandering. And by immediately, I do mean immediately. They just had a goodbye party for the staff when they had to say hello again. 

Now anyone who lands at the airport is tested and put into quarantine. As a result, Iceland is a country where people can go to bars, eat out, and generally wander the world without masks, as if life was normal. Not because they’re risking their lives and other people’s but because it’s safe.

At one point, someone carrying the UK Covid variant slipped through the net and spread it to a second person, who went to work in a hospital and in case that wasn’t bad enough went to a concert with 800 other people, who all crammed into the bar during the intermission. 

Whee. Viral playtime.

Within hours, the tracing system had contacted every one of them. Within days, they’d tested 1,000 people, finding two cases, and they were taken to the isolation hotel. 

And that was it. The virus was contained. 

Why has Iceland been so successful? Thorsteinsson said it’s because “it has been the scientists making up the rules, not the politicians. That matters. They know what they are talking about, the politicians do not.”

The prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, seconded that. 

I think it’s important for a politician to realize what is politics and what needs to be solved by scientific means. It’s my firm belief that we need to listen more to the experts.”

 

A short technical rant

WordPress in its wisdom has blocked the back road that once allowed me to use its manageable Classic Editor, so I’m now trapped in the new one. If anyone knows how to size photos (or knows a back road), pleasepleaseplease let me know. Thanks.

The AstraZeneca vaccine update

AstraZeneca’s vaccine is back in the news, and not happily. The company handed a group of US medical experts data on its effectiveness, but when the experts looked at it, they said, “Guys, this isn’t new data. This is the old stuff.”

Except that if they’d really used those words, they’d have said “aren’t new data,” because experts use the word enough to remember that data are plural. All experts. Even experts in knitting and basketball manufacturing. The word data is in a category that includes nonbinary people who prefer to be called they instead of he or she. Those of us who are over the age of a thousand struggle to get the pronouns and the verbs right. 

In case you’re interested, data is made up of lots of itty-bitty little datums.

No, sorry, that’s wrong too. A single datum has to have at least one friend before it become data.

Where were we?

Irrelevant photo: Blackthorn.

Basically, the experts were saying that AZ had cherry-picked its data to make the vaccine look like it was 79% effective. What the experts saw was between 69% and 74% effectiveness.

The craziness of all this is that a vaccine with 69% effectiveness is still damn good, and the advantage of AZ’s vaccine is that it’s easy to transport and store, so it doesn’t have to match the effectiveness of the fussier ones to be useful.

AZ said it had released interim data and that its later data (which rhymes if you pronounce your Rs the English-English way, like silent Hs) was consistent with it. Sorry: with them. It then released the lata data to the experts.

None of this is about the vaccine’s safety, but Dr. H. Cody Meissner, an infectious-disease expert at Tufts University School of Medicine who serves on a board that advises the US Food and Drug Administration on vaccine approvals, said, “You know the anti-vaccine community is going to use this as fodder to argue that pharmaceutical companies are always deceptive.” 

He said board members would be even more careful than usual to scrutinize AZ’s  data from here on, and “I will make sure I don’t skip a word.”

Which is probably not the response AZ was hoping for.

 

Yeah, but what about the AZ vaccine’s safety? 

A number of countries put the AstraZeneca vaccine on hold for fear that it was linked to a very rare blood clotting problem, cerebral venous sinus thrombosis. AZ’s recent US trial involved 21,000 people and turned up no safety concerns, although when a problem’s extremely rare it could easily not show up in a sample of that size. Or of ten times that size.

But even if the vaccine does, very rarely, cause cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, the risk of not using the vaccine is much greater than the risk of using it. Either all or most (or, hell, I’ve lost count; let’s just say many) countries that put it on hold have by now started to use it again. 

 

Magical Covid solutions that may turn out to be real

I try not to write about Covid solutions that are still in the trial stage, because we may never hear of them again, but every so often I can’t stop myself, so let’s talk about protease inhibitors. They’re antiviral treatments in pill form that can be used in the early stages of an infection to keep the virus from multiplying.

What’s a protease inhibitor? It’s a–

Would you mind if I duck that question? We can all live perfectly full lives (and pretend we understand this) without understanding this fully. So a protease inhibitor is a thing–probably one that inhibits proteases–and it’s already been used to treat other viruses, including HIV and hepatitis C. It’s also been used to treat Covid, but up to now it has to be delivered into the blood stream slowly, so its use has been fairly limited.

As someone or other said, “This is really a potential game changer.”

One of the unexpected side effects of the pandemic has been that experts and politicians are required to use the phrase game changer at least once a week. By now, we’ve changed games so often that we don’t know if we’re playing cards or jump rope, or possibly that game involving horses, mallets, and a the head of a dead goat. But as long as we’re changing games, I should mention that they’re exploring the possibility that the treatment could also be used in people who’ve been exposed to Covid but who haven’t yet developed it.

Folks, this really does sound–ack–game changing. Have you got your goat’s head? The price is only going to go up, so if there’s room in your freezer you might want to buy now.

Because Covid’s protease doesn’t mutate much (at the moment, anyway), this would work against all the current variants.

All this made me so happy that I made myself an extra cup of tea this morning. 

Yes, I live close to the edge.

 

The lockdown report

England’s current lockdown rules are scheduled to ease up on March 29. People will be able to get together outdoors in limited but larger groups. People will be allowed to leave home for non-essential reasons. (Hands up: How many of you remembered that we haven’t been allowed to do that? I just thought there wasn’t much non-essential to do.) 

But non-essential shops and services (barbers, hairdressers, that kind of thing) won’t reopen until April 12, along with bars and cafes that have outdoor seating. (No eating or drinking indoors yet.)

Why is April 12 safer than March 29? The virus is afraid of even numbers. It’s all been worked out by people who know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, they had to run their recommendations past Boris Johnson’s government, which threw all the cards in the air and picked them up in random order. Still, some semblance of sanity may still be in there.

Okay, I’ll admit: That was unfair. The idea is to take this thing in stages and only go to the next, more open, stage if Covid stays below some unspecified level. 

The travel industry had been hoping that foreign travel would get the green light, but it hasn’t–or at least overseas vacations haven’t. Or holidays, as you’d say if you’re British. You can’t “leave England to travel to a destination outside the United Kingdom, or travel to, or be present at, an embarkation point for the purpose of travelling from there to a destination outside the United Kingdom” without a reasonable excuse.

Is that clear enough? It means you can’t leave, travel to, be present at, or consider the possibility of thinking about getting ready to go somewhere else. And if that didn’t cover all the possibilities, it’s because I nodded off after one of the ors.

But in spite of all the repetition, there are exceptions, and they’re hidden in that bit about reasonable excuses, which in spite of being outside the quotation marks is a quotation, but one that went wandering and doesn’t belong in that particular spot. 

If you need to travel for work or study, to vote, or for legal obligations, you’re okay. If you need to be present at a birth. If you’re visiting a dying relative or close friend. If you’re getting married. If you have a medical appointment. If you–well, a few other things. 

The reasonable excuse that’s raising eyebrows is that you can travel to get a second home ready to sell or rent. Or you can travel if you just have to buy or rent one. Or to do a few other things with one. Because if you have the money to buy, sell, rent, or hand Christmas lights on a second home, you’re more important than someone who’s hoping to stay in a youth hostel in Spain for a week or two. And if you’re more important, you’ll have the sense not to import some new Covid variant.

That’s being called the Stanley Johnson clause, after the prime minister’s father, who traveled to his villa in Greece to make it, he said, Covid proof. I don’t think he’s told the rest of us how that’s possible. But no, it wasn’t so he could sit in the sun and drink himself senseless. 

Sorry–I suckered myself into a stereotype there. I have no knowledge of what Johnson Sr’s drinking or sunbathing habits are. 

What’s a villa? “1. A country estate. 2. The rural or suburban residence of a wealthy person.” Or in British real estate-speak, “3. A detached or semidetached urban residence with yard and garden space.”

For Stanley Johnson, we can, I think, rule out the real estate-speak definition.

I’m happy to report that protests will be exempt from the rules banning large gatherings, but the organizers will have to work out (or encourage, or some other vaguely related verb) social distancing and mask wearing. That sounds surprisingly reasonable, although it leaves a worrying gap that allows for breaking up spontaneous demonstrations, even if people wear masks and keep their distance. 

Some good news about Covid–and some bad

In some patients, vaccination can ease long Covid symptoms. A small study–44 patients–saw 23% of the participants showing some improvement compared to the unvaccinated group. But just so we don’t get too excited about this, 5.6% found that their symptoms got worse. It didn’t seem to matter whether they’d gotten the Pfizer or the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

Long Covid? It’s a weird range of symptoms that some percentage of people are left with after they get rid of the infection itself. In some people, the symptoms clear up in weeks and in others–well, it’s not clear how long they’ll last because they’re still hanging around. The symptoms can range from mild to pretty damn awful and they can follow either a severe infection or a mild one. 

An infectious disease specialist at Columbia University said that about a fifth of the patients he’s treated get long Covid. So anything that helps a quarter of them? We like that. 

Irrelevant photo: hyacinth

 

The bad news

With a bit of good news out of the way, let’s drop in on its old friend Bad News: In Brazil, Covid’s sending younger people to intensive care units–people who aren’t just youngish but who have no pre-existing medical problems. Younger in this case means between 30 and 60, so they’re not young-young, but that’s still an important shift in a disease that’s been known for targeting people over 60. 

This doesn’t seem to be because of a change in the disease itself, though. (Put that on the good news side of the scales.) Part of the shift may be coming from younger people’s belief that they can shrug the disease off. They’re making themselves available to get infected. Or the Brazilian government’s Covid denialism is putting them in harm’s way. Public transportation is packed. On crowded sidewalks, it’s not unusual to see people going maskless. And older people are getting vaccinated while younger people aren’t. 

Even though younger people are more likely to shrug the disease off, enough of them need hospitalization that hospitals are overwhelmed. It’s a reminder that none of us can count on being immune to this thing. 

 

The news you can interpret as good if you want to

Researchers estimate that the Covid virus was probably circulating undetected for a couple of months before it popped its nasty little head up in Wuhan at the end of 2019. This is based on modeling and I’m not going to take you through it because, let’s face it, I don’t understand it, but the researchers played out a series of scenarios and concluded that new viruses jump from animals to humans regularly but that most of them die out before they get a chance to create pandemics. Or even epidemics. 

Remember when epidemic sounded extreme? Yeah, me too. Now it’s just some kindergarten-style disaster–the kind where someone called you a bad name and you went home in tears. 

They figure that some 70% of the infections that jump from animals die out within 8 days of finding their way into the human race. If they get into an urban area, though, the odds tip further in their favor. 

So is that good news or bad? Both, I guess. It reminds us that a whole line of viruses is out there, just waiting to set up housekeeping in our bodies’ cells. On the other hand, it means that most of them, even when they find an entry point, won’t spread around the planet.

 

And a bit more good news

The unalloyed good news is that while Covid’s evolving, so are our antibodies

Let’s say you get Covid and count your antibodies just after you recover. You’ll have lots of them. (I’m writing the script, so of course you recover. I apologize for giving you the disease to begin with, but the plot demanded it. The sad truth about fiction writing is that if you don’t let anything bad happen, you don’t have a story.)

Then you count those antibodies again in six months and you don’t have as many. 

Why’s that good news? 

Because they won’t be the same naive little antibodies you had when you first got sick: 83% of them will now recognize Covid variants and be ready to kill them on sight. (It’s a nasty old world at the cellular level. Sorry.) They’ll even be learning to recognize related viruses, such as SARS. They’re sadder but wiser antibodies. If they go into a bar wanting nothing more than a drink and some virus sits down beside them and tries to chat, they won’t be flattered that it’s paying attention to them. They’ll kill it. 

I haven’t done that in bars, but believe me, I understand its appeal. 

How did they get to the point where they understood the game before the first moves were even played out? 

Let’s go back to that case of Covid I assigned you. After you got rid of the infection, you were left with some non-infectious bits of the virus scampering around your body, and they worked as reminders to your immune system: This is what the virus looks like. If this sounds like an ex who won’t stop calling–

Well, yeah, it is, but this isn’t a relationship or a breakup and the virus isn’t your ex. It’s a virus. And you aren’t you anymore, you’re an immune system, because I moved us into a different story without thinking to warn you. So it’s good that bits of the virus still have your phone number, and use it. It’s not universally true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but in this case they really are making you stronger.

The immune system has an evolutionary advantage over viruses. They mutate randomly and the ones that work well survive, which is a way of saying that the ones that survive, survive. But antibodies don’t mutate randomly. I’d love to explain that to you, but the best I can do is tell you that it has to do with B cells and activation-induced deaminase and somatic hypermutation. Or to put that more simply, I don’t understand a word of it but if I could pronounce it I’d have one hell of a snappy comeback next time some virus tries to chat me up.

What I did follow is that the lymph nodes notice which B cells make better antibodies and which ones don’t. They give the best B cells good grades and send the worst ones back to repeat the year with the same teacher who couldn’t get the lessons across the first time. 

The ones who got the top grades get to mass produce their new, improved antibodies. Which recognize variants of the virus they fought off, bringing us back to our starting point, sadder but wiser and ready to fight. 

 

Finally, a bit of Zoom news

Humans aren’t the only ones using Zoom during the pandemic. Two zoos in the Czech Republic set up a Zoom connection to let their chimpanzees watch each other’s lives on big screens while the zoos are closed. The chimps get bored without humans to watch. 

There’s no sound in their meetings (that would improve some I’ve been in), but after initially approaching the screens defensively or aggressively, they settled in to watch the show and it seems to be a great success.

Policing, politics, and women’s safety in Britain

Our tale starts in London on March 3, when Sarah Everard was abducted and killed–apparently (the official word here is allegedly) by a cop, who has since been arrested. He–the cop–served in the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Command and had at some point in the past been reported for indecent exposure. Twice. In a fast-food joint. 

The reports don’t seem to have interfered with either his career or his freedom.

It’s worse that the events took place in a fast-food place, isn’t it? Hamburgers can be sensitive. The man clearly had no respect.

This history raises questions about whether the police force–as they say in the blandest of bureaceaucro-speak–responded appropriately. 

 

Irrelevant photo: a daffodil

Policing protests during a pandemic

Now we come to the part where I remind you that all this happened in the midst of a pandemic. Remember Covid? That pandemic. Because of it, a formal vigil was denied a permit, but people–especially women–poured out anyway, both to memorialize Everard and to highlight the everyday dangers women live with and the need for change. They left flowers. They brought candles. They came together spontaneously because to have organized the vigil would’ve meant organizers facing £10,000 fines, even though the pandemic rules allow (but don’t define) “reasonable excuses” to be outside. 

Screw the permit, though. People felt the need to be out there. No one had to organize it.

For a while, the cops didn’t interfere, but toward evening speeches began and the police moved in to break it up. The police said that people had packed in to hear the speakers, “posing a very real risk of easily transmitting Covid-19.”

The crowd–I’m basing this on photos–was almost entirely masked, a crowd in Scotland that had turned out to celebrate a football win wasn’t bothered, and last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations have not been linked to any Covid spikes, so if you’re going to taste the official explanation I’d suggest more than a grain of salt. Especially given various demonstrators’ descriptions of police getting right in their faces and yelling at them as well as forcing the crowd closer together than it had been. 

If you’re worried about a crowd spreading Covid, those aren’t the recommended crowd-control approaches.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, said the vigil had been hijacked by protestors.

I’m shocked,” she said, “that what started as a peaceful and important vigil turned into a protest with photographs showing ‘ACAB’ signs, which stands for ‘all cops are bastards.’ ”

Yeah, I’m shocked too. The virus is spread by bad language, signs that insult the police, and protest in general. It’s not spread by apolitical mourning. So leave a flower, girls, then go home and behave.

A photo from the demonstration has gone viral. It shows a young woman thrown to the ground and handcuffed by two cops, who are kneeling on her back. She describes herself as five-foot two and weighing nothing. Not irrelevantly in a protest about women’s safety on the streets, both were male. She had been simply standing there, she said, and that seems to be borne out by video footage.

 

The background 

Britain has a dismal track record on prosecuting rape and sexual assault. I’ve seen two figures and I don’t know which one’s correct, but honestly it doesn’t matter. According to one, only 1.4% of the rapes that are reported end up being prosecuted. According to another it’s 1 in 70. Take your choice. Both present a good argument for mourning and protest getting to know each other on a speed date and deciding that they have a lot in common.

Patel mentioned that the event involved some assaults on police and a broken mirror on a police car. Or van. Vehicle, if that’s not too bloodless a word. All of those, according to someone who trawled through videos of the event, were carried out by men. As far as I’ve been able to sort out, the four people who were arrested are of the female persuasion. 

The government has responded to Everard’s death by publicizing every quick and pointless solution that anyone thought of at a ten-minute brainstorming session involving donuts. (No, I don’t actually know where the ideas came from. They only read like they were thought up that way.) They propose more street lighting, more CCTV, more cops on the streets, undercover cops in pubs, and more other things that no one involved has called for. They haven’t called for any consideration of what’s going wrong with the way rape complaints are handled. They haven’t called for a national discussion of the pervasive, everyday harassment that women and girls face.

They haven’t even acknowledged it. 

 

The policing bill

In the midst of all this, the government is pushing through–and with an 80-seat majority, will pass–a policing bill that changes the balance between police and protesters, tipping it further in favor of the police. Protesters will face a fine of up to £2,500 for violating police directions that they should have known about, regardless of whether the police informed them. Creating a public nuisance will be an offense. Being noisy will be a reason to break up a demonstration. 

They’re setting the bar very close to the ground here. An eighty-year-old with two bad hips and a cane could get over it. And I’m close enough to eighty that I get to say that. They’re not talking about demonstrations that attack or threaten people. They’re not talking about threats to public health or safety. They’re talking about being a pain in the ass.

The police right to stop and search will also be expanded, although that’s used far more against young Black men than against white. The maximum penalty for damaging a memorial will be increased from three months to then years–longer, as may people have pointed out, than for attacking a woman. Rapists could (it’s complicated) get longer sentences under the bill, but given how few cases are even prosecuted that’s kind of beside the point.  

The parts of the bill that relate to demonstrations are a response to Extinction Rebellion, which was quite deliberate about creating a public nuisance. But then, the US civil rights movement also created a public nuisance, and by now it’s entered into public mythology in a defanged and respectable–almost sanctified–form. Sometimes being a damned nuisance is the only thing that works. When people try to make change and they run into a brick wall, they’ll stop business from being carried on as usual. It’s a law of physics. 

Is the bill a total crackdown on dissent? Probably not, although you shouldn’t take my word on that. I’m not a lawyer and my understanding of British law is spotty at best. A lot of organizations are seriously worried about it, and it does give the police a lot of leeway to crack down on dissent. And when they’re given that leeway, sooner or later they’ll take it.

I don’t suppose I should be surprised when governments do what they can to keep people from opposing them. Not all of them do that, but the temptation’s got to lie just under the surface. And when they give in to it, the cost is high. Not just to protesters but to any semblance of democracy, to the possibility of peaceful progress, and sooner or later to the government itself. Because you can shut up some of the people all of the time and you can–

Hell, you know how that goes. Sooner or later, you’ll hear from them and it won’t be a pleasant discussion. 

Will the bill make women safer in the streets and their homes? 

Are you kidding me? That’s not the priority.

More on why countries are pausing the AstraZeneca vaccine

The European Medicines Agency has reviewed its data on the AstraZeneca vaccine and reports that it finds no higher risk of blood clots but also says it will keep on studying the possibility that the vaccine has caused them. Thirteen countries in the European Union have suspended their use of the vaccine at a time when vaccine supplies are already short. Or maybe that’s twenty countries. I’ve seen both numbers and don’t much care. Take your choice.

The however-many countries haven’t gone off the deep end, even if at some point it becomes clear that they’ve made the wrong decision. At least thirteen people have developed a rare set of symptoms involving widespread blood clots, low platelet counts, and internal bleeding. These aren’t typical strokes or blood clots, and the people are between twenty and fifty years old and previously healthy. 

Seven of them have died. 

Steinar Madsen, the medical director of the Norwegian Medicines Agency, said, “Our leading hematologist said he had never seen anything quite like it.” 

On the other hand, Britain has had no clusters of unusual bleeding or clotting problems, in spite of having used 10 million doses of the vaccine by now–more than any other country. 

The question of how to read the evidence and what to do in response seems to have divided the public health experts from the medical people. On one side is the argument that Covid is the statistically greater risk, so keep vaccinating. On the other side is the argument that we don’t know what’s going on here and until we do we need to stop. Neither side is either crazy or irresponsible. It’s a question of emphasis and professional orientation. 

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Update: Four countries have announced that they’ll be resuming AstraZeneca’s use.

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My thanks to Sabine for sending me a link explaining the reasoning behind halting the use of AstraZeneca. 

Why countries are suspending use of the AstraZeneca vaccine 

An assortment of countries have suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine out of fear that it might cause blood clots. That includes Norway, Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Latvia, France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Austria stopped using one particular batch. 

Sorry, I may have lost Bulgaria in there somewhere, and quite possibly a few other countries. I may also have added some, but every last one of the countries I listed exists. I’m almost certain of that. And unless you’re in one of them, you don’t need to worry about whether I have the full list. On the other hand, if you are in one, you’ll have already heard about it from a more reliable source.

C’mon, I’m not a newspaper. I do my best. 

Whatever the full list is, the European medicines regulator says it sees no evidence that the vaccine caused the blood clots. Suspending its use is worrying, it says, because the risk of getting Covid is greater than any risk posed by the vaccine.

It’s worth noting that a fair number of countries haven’t suspended its use and don’t think there’s a danger. And all of them also exist and are completely real. 

Irrelevant photo: alexander

The European Medical Authority’s executive director Emer Cooke said about the blood clots, “At present there is no indication that vaccination has caused these conditions, they have not come up in the clinical trials and they are not listed as known or expected side events with this vaccine.”  

The EMA is looking into the issue more closely and is due to report on Thursday, but it considers a link very unlikely. The World Health Organization also sees no link.

So what’s the story on blood clots? A woman in Denmark died after getting vaccinated. She had a low number of platelets, blood clots in small and large vessels, and bleeding. Another death was reported in Norway, along with a handful of non-fatal cases with similar “unusual” reactions, the Norwegian Medicines Agency said. 

The question in all of this is whether the blood clots are caused by the vaccine or whether they’re unrelated events that happened to happen to people who’d been vaccinated recently, sort of like people deciding to buy jelly beans after they got vaccinated. If you start counting the people who do that, you might find a surprising number, but that wouldn’t be proof that the vaccine caused them to buy jelly beans. The best way to show a link is to compare the number who bought jelly beans to the number of unvaccinated people who did. 

You’ll want to run that experiment in the US, though, where it’s easier to find jelly beans.

Britain hasn’t seen a spike in blood clots despite having pumped more than 11 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine into people’s arms.

AstraZeneca–and here I mean the company, not the vaccine–counted 15 incidents of post-vaccination deep-vein thrombosis (a blood clot in a vein) and 22 of pulmonary embolism (a blood clot that’s entered the lungs) in Britain. That is, they said, “much lower than would be expected to occur naturally in a general population of this size and is similar across other licensed Covid-19 vaccines.”

You’re welcome to untangle that sentence if you want. I’m going to quote and run.

No I’m not. It’s the lower and similar that throws me. I think I know what they’re saying but they’d have done better to make two sentences out of that so their points of comparison were clear. 

I know. Everyone’s a critic.

The cheesier end of the British press–which is cheesy indeed–is treating this as an opportunity to wave the flag. We knew those Europeans had it in for us. See what they’re like? So far, though, none of them have proposed sending gunboats to support our flagship vaccine. If they do, I’ll let you know.

 

Variants news

One the other hand, a new double-blind study of 750 people exposed to the South African Covid variant found that the AZ vaccine is only 10.4% effective against mild to moderate cases. On the bright side, though, nobody was hospitalized and a second-generation AZ vaccine is in development that will close that gap in its protective fencing.

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Two cases of a Covid strain first identified in the Philippines have been found in Britain. It too may be more resistant to vaccines. 

 

And finally, an irrelevant feelgood story

After getting his second vaccination in Massachusetts, cellist Yo-Yo Ma sat down and gave a fifteen-minute concert for health workers and the people waiting in line behind him. 

Ma is internationally known and famous enough that even I know who he is. When he went for his first shot, he scoped out the surroundings, then brought his cello with him for the second shot. 

He wanted to give something back, he said.

How countries respond to a pandemic: from the competent to the stupid

What’s the best way to respond to a pandemic? I’m asking out of purely academic interest, you understand, but a study of how twenty-seven countries responded to the pandemic–

Oh, hell, let’s drop twenty-two of those. Life’s complicated enough, and the article I’m relying on already dropped them for us, but let’s pretend we had a choice. We’ll look at two that handled it well and three that blew it. It’s not in depth, but it’s interesting all the same. 

The two? South Korea and Ghana–which is to say, one that I knew about and one that I didn’t. Ghana hasn’t been in any of the news that I’ve seen until now.

South Korea acknowledged the threat in January 2020, encouraged people to wear masks, and introduced a contact-tracing app. They avoided a lockdown. 

Let me quote the article here: “Each change in official alert level, accompanied by new advice regarding social contact, was carefully communicated by Jung Eun-Kyung, the head of the country’s Centre for Disease Control, who used changes in her own life to demonstrate how new guidance should work in practice.”

In other words, they had a human being leading them through it and acting like a human being. Yes, the advice changed over time, but it wasn’t rocket science.

Then Ghana comes in and ruins my theory that politicians should get out of the way and let the public health people handle public health communications. The president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, “took responsibility for coronavirus policy and explained carefully each measure required, being honest about the challenges the nation faced. Simple demonstrations of empathy earned him acclaim within his nation and also around the world.”

One of the things he said resonates strongly with me, because it’s the opposite of the approach Britain took: “We know how to bring the economy back to life. What we don’t know is how to bring people back to life.”

On the other hand, we have Brazil, India, and the UK, which gave out inconsistent messages about the threat, downplayed the dangers, made impulsive decisions, and ended up with high on the list of deaths per capita. 

In Britain, Boris Johnson prioritized the economy over controlling the virus, and before he came down with Covid himself he was tap dancing through hospitals and shaking hands with infected people. Against all public health advice.

If I were giving out public health advice, I’d advise him not to tap dance. Certainly not in public.

For clarity: I made up the tap dancing in an effort to be funny. It’s been a long week here. Sometimes the jokes work and sometimes they don’t.

A rare relevant photo: Fast Eddie, following the sleep experts’ advice. I know, you haven’t gotten to that part yet, but it’s in here somewhere.

Britain has one of the highest per capita death rates.

Yay us! We’re the envy of the world.

A year into the pandemic, Jair Bolsonaro (who also managed to catch Covid) is still criticizing attempts to control the disease and at the beginning of March told Brazilians to stop whining about it. Well let that stand in from his approach from the beginning.

Brazil’s death rate is behind Britain’s and the US’s, but it’s high.

And in India, Narendra Modi at least took the virus seriously, but he called a lockdown with four hours notice, doing nothing to support people who would be out of work and desperate. That set off a mass migration of the poorest laborers, who left the cities for their home villages. The choice was to was walk home or starve. Those who were carrying the virus spread it. 

India has an impressive death rate too.

The article’s summary is that countries that politicized the virus, made last-minute decisions, or were stupidly optimistic had the most cases and the most deaths. 

They don’t say “stupidly.” They’re professionals. They can’t. 

 

News from assorted scientists

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention, but with some U.S. states dropping their mask mandates, it might be worth mentioning a study that shows a correlation between wearing masks and a lower number of Covid cases and deaths.

I know. I’m shocked too. Who’d have imagined wearing masks would cut transmission of an air-borne virus? 

The same study also shows that opening restaurants correlates with a rise in the number of cases and deaths. Probably because it’s hard to eat without taking your mask off. 

The study has its limits. It’s hard to isolate a single cause when a lot of factors are bouncing around in the dark and smashing into each other. But we got where we are by not listening to health information that didn’t make us happy. We might outta listen to this.

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A different study–a small one–suggests that it’s safe for healthy people to wear face masks when they exercise indoors–even when they do vigorous workouts. Which is good to know, although I’m still trying to figure out why anyone thought it wouldn’t be. If we were being asked to stuff masks down our throats and up our noses, I’d expect problems, but unless I’m seriously misunderstanding the situation, no one’s asking that.

Masks did have a small effect on the workouts–they reduced people’s peak oxygen uptake by 10%.

“This reduction is modest,” one of the researchers said, “and, crucially, it does not suggest a risk to healthy people doing exercise in a face mask, even when they are working to their highest capacity. While we wait for more people to be vaccinated against COIVD-19, this finding could have practical implications in daily life, for example potentially making it safer to open indoor gyms.

“However, we should not assume that the same is true for people with a heart or lung condition. We need to do more research to investigate this question.”

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Yet another study reports that spacing out the first and second doses of a vaccine does reduce the number of Covid cases in the short term but that in the long term–well, basically no one knows what impact it’ll have. It’s not clear how long immunity from a single dose will last or how (as they put it) robust it’ll be. If the immune response after one dose isn’t as robust as it would be after two, it could increase the size of a later outbreak. 

And then there’s the possibility that people with partial immunity could increase the odds that the virus will mutate in ways that allow it to escape the vaccine.

Isn’t this fun?

Don’t loose sleep over this yet. They’re only raising possibilities.

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Still, though, if you’re feeling paranoid about Covid, sleep experts in Australia have reminded us all that sleep is essential to our immune systems.

Yeah, thanks, folks. We kind of knew that.

Just before I got vaccinated (or half vaccinated, since that’s the way Britain’s handling it) I read that to maximize the vaccine’s impact I should get a good night’s sleep beforehand. That was enough to guarantee that I didn’t. 

One of the many oddities of getting older has been that I–lifelong insomniac that I was–now sleep well. Except when someone tells me that I really need a good night’s sleep before some particularly important event. 

But never mind me. Sleep well. Your health depends on it. 

 

An update on Huge Ma

Remember Huge Ma, a New York programer who spent two weeks and $50 creating a free website, TurboVax, that would simplify the tangle of websites New Yorkers needed to negotiate to get a vaccination appointment? Well, he’s been overwhelmed with gratitude, with requests to set up similar sites in other places, and with so much traffic that the site’s buckling. 

I’m not sure what it means, specifically, when they say the site’s buckling, but when he created it he took shortcuts so he could get it working quickly.

I think that’s a trade-off that I would still make,” he said. “The response has been incredibly overwhelming. There’s been so much gratitude. Hundreds, thousands of emails from people who have gotten appointments through TurboVax, which is honestly kind of just mind-blowing, and humbling as well. . . .

“I would never have thought that I could have built something that has such tangible impact on other people’s lives.”

Other citizen-led sites have appeared around the U.S., but it’s very much hit and miss. “There is a huge need for tools like this,” Ma said. “But I’m just one developer who did a side project that went viral.”

Ma did suspend the site for a weekend to protest hate crimes against Asian Americans, which have increased recently. 

“While I have this platform,” he said, “as an Asian American myself I can do more than what is expected and highlight a group and an environment that needs changing.”

How the Magna Carta works in modern Britain

Britain lags behind the U.S. in the creation of fringe political groups. No one’s tried to take over Parliament lately, probably because they’re afraid they’d succeed and have to run the country, which won’t be easy after the mess this lot have made. All this must disappoint the prime minister, who’s desperate to come up with a world-beating something–anything, please–so he can demonstrate his competence.

Competence, in case this isn’t already clear, is established by having the most something, the best something, the biggest something. It doesn’t matter what. We were going to have a world-beating Covid tracing app. We may have the most embarrassing one. That would explain why it’s not mentioned anymore.

Well, take heart: We may not be leading the world, but we do have a fair crop of nutburgers. In fact, a hairdresser in Bradford cited the Magna Carta as a justification for opening her shop (repeatedly) during lockdown.

So let’s talk about the Magna Carta. 

 

Irrelevant photo: A neighbor’s camellia. They’re in bloom at this time of year.

Britain’s unwritten constitution

The Magna C. was signed in 1215, which makes it old even by British standards, and it’s part of the country’s unwritten constitution. Or it may be. The damn thing’s unwritten, so who’d know? If I slipped Green Eggs and Ham in, could anyone tell? Maybe I already have and no one knows it. Except me.

Or maybe I haven’t and only thought I did. I can’t tell either. It’s unwritten. 

But the Magna Carta was written down–more than once, in fact–so we can consult a document and figure out if it gives us the right to reopen a hair salon in the midst of a lockdown.

Did I just use the word salon?

Should we be worried about me?

You can find the argument the hairdresser’s drawing from in multiple spots on the internet if you’re not too picky about the company you keep. The idea is that article 61 of the Magna C. leaves anyone free to ignore any invalid law, a category defined (and I’m guessing here) largely by whether they piss off the person in question. 

The hairdresser isn’t alone in this. A few other small businesses have made the same claim but she’s the one I happened to find out about. I’d quote a longer segment of their argument but the people who write about it go on for so long and so murkily that they try my patience. 

So let’s skip them and go to the fact-checking site Full Fact, which summarizes their argument before it offers a reality check. The argument is that the Magna Carta not only says you aren’t bound by invalid laws, it says you’re free to rebel against them. 

Does that hold up? 

Well, no, but other than that it’s a great argument. 

 

The history

The Magna Carta was signed reluctantly by King John. He had a rebellion on his hands. He had no intention of keeping his word but that was okay because neither did the rebel barons. The agreement was that he’d sign the Magna C. and his barons would hand back London, which they held.

They didn’t.

On John’s side, the pope promptly invalidated the Magna Carta, as he’d expected. In spite of that, it  resurfaced over a period of years. Since it gave the aristocracy considerable power, they liked it, and it ended up being reissued several times after its first appearance (and invalidation). But here we come to the important point: Only the first version included Article 61. As a rule, kings and governments aren’t enthusiastic about giving their subjects (or citizens, if you tune in late enough) permission to rebel. They may rebel anyway–the governed can be a rowdy bunch–but if you’re running a country, or even if you’re only making vague gestures in that direction, you don’t want to encourage the governed by telling them rebellion’s not such a bad idea after all. 

This matters because it was one of the later, 61-less versions that went into the statute books and became law. The earlier version ended up in an era-appropriate version of the recycling bin and instead of becoming law became a historical curiosity. 

I have no idea whether they renumbered the following clauses. I’d assume they did but I haven’t checked. For all I know, the newly renumbered article 61 gives us the right to clip poodles so they look like ambulatory hedges.

Over the years, one bit after another of the version that did become law was repealed and dropped out of use. Of the original 63 clauses, only 4 are still in force

 

The legal stuff

All of that makes it less than wise to base your argument on article 61 if you go to court. But let’s look at what it says, even if it never became law and wouldn’t be in force anymore even if it had. 

“If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us – or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice – to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon. Having secured the redress, they may then resume their normal obedience to us.

“Any man who so desires may take an oath to obey the commands of the twenty-five barons for the achievement of these ends, and to join with them in assailing us to the utmost of his power.” 

To (over)simplify that, it says that if we or our agents piss you off, four out of twenty-five barons can talk to us (or maybe that’s at least four but possibly all twenty-five speaking in unison; the wording strikes me as ambiguous, but I’m not a lawyer). And by us, of course, I mean me, since I’m the king and use the plural. If I don’t return them to a state of utter bliss, they can do highly unpleasant things to me until I do make them happy, after which they have to behave nicely again and go back to saying “Please” and “Thank you, Mr. King.” 

You can see why King J. wasn’t happy about signing that and why he crossed his fingers behind his back when he did. But even so, nothing in there grants the common people the right to assail him and seize his castles and generally be unpleasant. That’s granted only to 25 barons. The common people only get the right to follow the 25 barons–or presumably to talk to them about how pissed off their common selves are, although I wouldn’t want to bet a lot of money on the barons taking up their cause. 

By extension (and I’m extending the clause so far that it’s about to snap), the common people do not gain the right to cut hair during a lockdown unless the barons are cutting hair during a lockdown. And barons, I think we can pretty safely assume, do not cut hair. 

Is there a moral to this tale? Why yes, there is.

The moral is that depending on time, place, and circumstance rebellion may (or–please pay attention here, because it’s important–may not) be right and necessary, but if you do rebel you’d be wise not to count on getting permission from the government. You have to do it the old-fashioned way, which involves risking your liberty, your hair salon, and quite possibly your life. After the fact, your courage may become the stuff of legend, but it’s not likely to be fun in the moment. 

The hairdresser’s been fined close to £20,000 for repeatedly opening her shop, and she’s (reportedly–the paper doesn’t seem to have been able to confirm it) raised a lot of money to pay the fines through a crowdfunding campaign. She hasn’t seized any castles or assailed the queen, so she’s not following the exact wording of article 61.

Cutting nurses’ pay during a pandemic

The government announced a new budget last week and it gives National Health Service workers a raise of 1%. If the government’s inflation forecasts for the coming year are right, that’s a real-world cut in income. 

By pretty much any measure, the government’s in their debt: Their pay’s dropped below inflation over the past ten years (by quite a bit, thanks). During the pandemic, they’ve been working themselves to pieces without proper protective gear and they weren’t even in the top categories of people who were eligible for the vaccines. Some have died. Others have caught Covid and recovered. I doubt anyone has numbers on how many are struggling with long Covid or on how many are terrified at work.

What they’ve gotten from the government is praise and (for a while) clapping on a Thursday night, none of which goes far at the grocery store. But the government swears that 1% is all it can afford.

On the other hand, the government saw its way clear to spend £6.2 million on a new center for press conferences. Because it’s in the public interest. Take away it’s and because and that’s a direct quote.

Nurses are threatening to strike. 

We should all be on strike, although since I’m retired I’m not sure what to stop doing. 

Irrelevant photo: violas

 

The medical stuff

Contrary to what we all thought at the beginning of the pandemic, people with asthma are no more likely than non-asthmatics to get Covid, to be hospitalized for Covid, or to die of Covid. No one’s sure why, but a few possibilities pop up.

  • Asthmatics may have been more cautious about exposing themselves to the virus, lowering their chances of catching it.
  • Inhalers may limit the virus’s chance to attach to the cells in asthmatics’ lungs.
  • The chemical receptors that the virus binds to in the lungs are less active in people with a particular type of asthma, and that may work against the virus and in the humans’ favor.

It’s not all good news, though. Covid can make the asthma symptoms worse. 

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You know all that stuff you heard about Prozac? Well, forget about it as a way of fighting depression, at least for the moment. It may be a good thing to have in your system if you’re fighting Covid. It counters inflammation and calms cytokine storms–the body’s wild overreaction to Covid that causes so many of the bizarre problems Covid leaves in its wake. 

A study has already established that patients who were taking fluoxetine (the generic name for Prozac) were less likely to be intubated or die of Covid. Now a second study is looking at whether it can keep infected people from developing long Covid.

If hearing that doesn’t cure depression–at least for a few minutes–I don’t know what it’s going to take. Let’s throw caution to the winds and have a nice cup of tea.

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Researchers are tinkering with a treatment that looks like it could stop both Covid and flu viruses from replicating. And it could be inhaled using a nebulizer, meaning people could take it at home.

What is it? Um, yeah. It all has to do with mRNA and changing a protein and hamsters. The hamsters are the only part of it I understand. Small furry creatures with big cheeks. Sorry. They’re not the ones who change the protein. They were part of the experiment. 

Sorry, hamsters. On the part of the human race, I apologize. For all the good that does you.

If this whatever-it-is works, it could see off the new Covid variants and 99% of the flu strains that’ve been making us sick for the last century. 

No, I know: We haven’t all of us been around for all of the past century–that’s just me. We’re talking about the flu strains that’ve been around for the past century. 

So there’s another reason to abandon our collective depression and maybe have a biscuit with that cup of tea.

Do I know how to throw a party of what?

Admittedly, this is all early-stage stuff, but still. Enjoy the biscuit. Enjoy every moment you can manage.

 

Reopening the schools

English schools restart up on the day I’m posting this (Monday, March 8; happy International Women’s Day to those of you who celebrate it) to the tune of–

How about the tune of six brass bands who haven’t agreed on what to play and haven’t practiced since the pandemic started? And they all swapped instruments when they got off the bus, so the oboe player has a trumpet and the trumpet player got stuck with a banjo.

One band’s playing the masks-recommended tune, but only in secondary schools. Another band’s playing the masks-aren’t-required tune. A violin player’s off by herself playing the this-is-madness theme song.

I know I said brass bands. That’s what we get for electing a bunch of incompetents. 

Can schools require masks?

Nope. 

A headteacher (if you’re American, that means a principal) tweeted, “Everyone, inc the govt, knows that the issue will cause conflict due to the polarised views held and they are throwing me under the bus. Already had ‘human rights’ quoted, threats of litigation. . . ”

So far, there’s no advice on improving ventilation, which would make a serious difference in the virus’s ability to move from person to person. Even though science’s understanding of the virus has moved on since the beginning of the pandemic, the government’s repeating the advice it started out with: keep some distance, wash your hands, keep surfaces clean. 

It’s offered no advice on making class sizes smaller so that it’s possible to create distance. 

Secondary school kids will be tested regularly using a quick but inaccurate test that the government spent a lot of money on. It kicks out a lot of false positives, so if a kid tests positive they’re supposed to confirm that by taking a slower but more accurate test. 

So far, so sensible. 

What happens if the more accurate test tells the kid he or she isn’t infected? That’s where it all goes wavery. If the more accurate test says the kid (or the kid’s family) is negative, they still have to self-isolate. 

Why? 

Because that’s how we’re going to do it.

And no, we’re still not going to pay people who test positive enough money that they can afford to take time off work.