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.

The herd immunity debates

Professors at University College London grabbed some headlines with the news that Britain’s almost achieved herd immunity.

Should we celebrate? 

Nope. The small print said we can’t ease restrictions yet. “If we let up, that threshold will go up again and we will find ourselves below the threshold and it will explode again,” Karl Friston said.

This makes it sound like we’ve probably misunderstood what herd immunity means. Or else that the people who wrote the study have. I thought it marked the point where we could all wander back to whatever we can reconstruct of our normal lives, trusting that the virus will stay in retreat. Apparently not, though–at least not by this definition. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose. Indoors. It’s too early in the year for them outdoors yet.

In a rare moment when the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and I agree (I’m sure that upsets him as much as it does me; sorry Matt; it won’t happen often), he’s dismissed the suggestion of herd immunity, although his comments are oblique enough to be unquotable. They’re not incoherent but they’re not exactly to the point either. Never mind, though. I have agreed with him. It’s a rare moment. We need to mark the occasion.

Cup of tea, anyone?

Another estimate of herd immunity, this one from Airfinity (it “provides real time life science intelligence as a subscription service” and as part of that tracks vaccination programs around the world), sets it at the point where 75% of the population is vaccinated. The U.K.’s expected to reach that point in August, shortly after the U.S. and a few weeks before Europe.

Sorry about the rest of the world. It seems to have dropped off the map the article I found was using. 

There will, of course, still be a need to booster vaccines to keep up with the variants, at least until those countries that fell off the map get access to vaccines so are species can stop producing variants so prolifically. 

 

Creeping out of lockdown

As Covid deaths go down, Britain’s taken another step toward ending its lockdown, opening gyms, shops, pubs and cafes with outdoor seating, assorted other businesses. Internal tourism is causing traffic jams in all the usual places. 

About half the population has at least one dose of a vaccine. Will that be enough to keep the virus from rebounding? I wish I knew. Chile has an impressive vaccination program and unlocked too early, giving the virus the gift of a trampoline. Cases there have spiked. 

Optimist that I am, my mind snags on Britain’s remaining virus hotspots and on the two London boroughs where the government’s chasing cases of the South African variant. I expect they’ll do better with the variant than with the hotspots, because one of the things the government resolutely refuses to do is pay people a workable amount of money to self-isolate, and if you’re broke you’ll go to work, regardless of what the test says. Because you have to. 

On the other hand–and before I go on I should issue an Unimportant Personal Story Warning–I’m grateful to have stores open. I have a battery-operated watch whose battery stopped operating a while ago. (Whose idea was it to run watches on batteries, anyway? I seem to remember winding my watch every day without feeling unduly burdened. I didn’t even break a sweat.) 

How long ago did the battery run out? No idea. We were in lockdown. Who needs a watch? But eventually I did need a watch and I noticed that mine was no longer in touch with consensual reality. So I got a battery (thanks, Tony). I opened up the back (thanks, Ellen), took out the old battery, put in the new one, put the innards back together, and was just starting to congratulate myself when I found that I couldn’t fit the back on, making the whole project pointless. I put a rubber band around the thing and left it alone.

I still didn’t have a watch.

On Monday, the first day that unimportant stores were open, I took it to a jeweler. Jewelers have a little gizmo to hold the back in place while they thump it shut. I now have a working watch.

I don’t need it more than once a week. We’re still halfway locked down. 

So yes, it’s nice to be able to do that sort of small thing. It also makes me nervous–and it should.

 

Lockdown and the economy

Britain’s economy’s now in the worst recession it’s had in 300 years. Worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s? Apparently. To find one that was worse, you have to go back to the great frost of 1709, when Britain was an agricultural country.

On the other hand, having shrunk 9.9%, the economy then grew by 1% in the last quarter of (I believe) 2020. Household savings during the pandemic reached £140 billion–16.3% of people’s disposable income. That’s compared to 6.8% in 2019. Predictably, that’s unevenly distributed, with some people building up savings while others struggle to hold onto their homes and food banks struggle to keep up with need. 

It’s a lovely way to organize a world. 

 

The Covid risk indoors and out

Want to figure out the Covid risk people face indoors? Measure the carbon dioxide level

This works because–well, the thing about infectious people is that they exhale. Admittedly, uninfected people do too. You probably do it yourself. And all that exhaled carbon dioxide joins together and either stays in the room or doesn’t. The Covid virus does exactly the same thing: It either stays in the room or if the room has enough ventilation it wanders out into the world, where it poses next to no danger.

The thing is that carbon dioxide levels can be monitored cheaply. If you see them rise, you still won’t know if anyone infectious is breathing into the mix, but you will know that the ventilation isn’t what it needs to be and it’s a risky place to stand around inhaling. At that point you can (a) limit yourself to exhaling, (b) leave, or (c) improve the ventilation. Preferably (b), since that will help everyone.

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An Irish study reports that roughly one Covid case out of a thousand is caught out of doors. 

Professor Orla Hegarty said, “During Spanish flu people were advised to talk side by side, rather than face to face, and this is borne out by how viral particles have been measured moving in the air when people breath and speak.

“The risk of infection is low outdoors because unless you are up close to someone infected, most of the virus will likely be blown away and diluted in the breeze, like cigarette smoke.”

The Covid update for Britain

Between lockdown and vaccination, Britain has fewer people dying of Covid on any given day than in–well, let’s say anytime in the last three months because I found some very pretty graphs that use that as a reference point. We also have fewer Covid cases (as opposed to deaths) than we did three months ago, but the downward slanting line has flattened out. Maybe because the schools have reopened, but that’s guesswork. You’ll find other possible reasons below.

By mid-March, half of Britain’s population had antibodies, some from vaccination, others from having had Covid. 

Okay, not half: 54.7%. Most of us who’ve been vaccinated have only had one dose and are waiting nervously for the second. At least my partner and I are nervous. We’re coming up toward twelve weeks and haven’t heard a memory of an echo of a whisper of a date. 

The main thing, though, is that case numbers and deaths are both down and we’re breathing a bit easier. The country’s coming out of lockdown in stages, peeping its head over the parapet to see if the virus is still shooting at us.  

Irrelevant photo: Blackthorn

Should people be working from home?

So what would any sober, sensible prime minister do in that situation?

Damned if we know, because we don’t have one. We’ve got Boris Johnson, and he’s told us that people who’ve been working at home should go back to–

What do you call that place? The office. They should go back and start working from their offices. They’ve had enough days off, he told the Conservative Party spring conference.

The exact quote is, “The general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office.” Making it not exactly his idea, but one that originated elsewhere and meandered into his head because there isn’t much in there to stop it. 

That followed on the heels of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, saying that people are likely to quit their jobs if they’re not allowed to go back to the office and businesses had better open up if they want to keep them.

Are office workers really desperate to start working from work again? It seems to depend when you ask, and who, so we’ll skip the numbers and say that some want to keep working from home, at least until they can count on the workplace being Covid-free, and some would love to go back because they’ve been calling one square foot of kitchen table an office and they’ve had to share that with a cup of tea and the toast crumbs from breakfast. Not to mention until recently a small kid or three who they were supposed to be homeschooling. And the cat, whose spelling is terrible.

Recruitment agencies expect that a lot of people will want to work remotely after the pandemic ends. 

So working from home isn’t a simple yes/no question. It involves a lot of ifs and no answer will be unanimous. But offhand I’d say Johnson may have had his own work habits in mind when he assumed people were sitting around with their feet up, drinking wine and contemplating how to get someone who isn’t himself to pay for new wallpaper

Okay, it’s more than wallpaper. It’s also furniture. To the tune of £200,000. Which is, at least, more than the £2.6 million spent on a new briefing room.

But forget all that. How safe are workplaces?

A strike’s pending at the Swansea Department of Vehicle and Licensing Agency over workplace safety after 560 workers tested positive for Covid. That’s out of, as far as I can tell, something in the neighborhood of 2,000, so let’s say a quarter of the workforce. 

The union says the building’s too overcrowded for pandemic working. 

Britain’s had 4,500 workplace Covid outbreaks. 

What are businesses doing to make workplaces safe? Half of them have done Covid risk assessments. Others have done none or have outdated assessments. A quarter of them have been inspected during the pandemic. My world-beating mathematical skills tell me that means three-quarters of them haven’t been inspected. No employers have been prosecuted for violating Covid regulations.

That’s not to say that workplace outbreaks are due only to violations of the regulations, or that the regulations are up to the job of keeping people safe, only that they’re the measure we have at hand. 

If you want to read the guidelines, they’re here.  

At least part of what’s driving the push to get office workers back into the office–and this isn’t my speculation but that of genuine journalists (I only play one on the internet)–is that the businesses that feed on office workers need to be fed, and what they need to be fed is money. That can only happen when people work in central locations, then go out for lunch, stop in for coffee, and buy a pair of shoes on their way home. 

Office workers, put on your high heels and your ties (pick one, please; if you wear both you’ll draw too much attention to yourself) and get back into the office. Your nation needs you. 

Your nation needs your money.

 

So why isn’t the number of cases dropping?

I can’t give you a definitive answer on that, but I can toss a few possibilities at you. If we practice this long enough, you’ll know when to duck.

I mentioned that the schools have reopened. That’s one factor. Another is that fewer than one person in five requests a Covid test when they have symptoms and only half self-isolate when they have symptoms. That’s from a large study by the British Medical Journal

The people least likely to self-isolate are men, younger people, the parents of young kids, people from working-class backgrounds, people working in key sectors, and people with money problems.

One of the (many) glaring gaps in the government handling of the pandemic has been not giving low-income people who have to self-isolate enough money to live on while they’re off work. 

The reasons people don’t self-isolate range from the compelling, including the need to buy groceries and pay the rent, to the self-indulgent. The self-indulgent ones include exercising, meeting people, and having only mild symptoms so what the hell.

The study took place in waves, over a good stretch of time, and it did see some improvement as time went on, from 43% self-isolating to 52%. The study’s authors said greater practical and financial help would improve the numbers and messages addressed specifically to men, younger people, and key workers might also help.

In the meantime, the country’s budgeted £37 billion for a test and trace system that hasn’t shown any clear impact. The Public Accounts Committee said it was set up with the goal of preventing lockdowns, but the country’s had two since then. It also said the spending was “unimaginable” and that the taxpayer shouldn’t be treated like an ATM machine.

Some of the test and trace system’s consultants are paid more than £6,600 per day.

In a pinch, a person could live on that. 

 

The elusive Covid inquiry

Assorted troublemakers have called for an inquiry into the way Britain’s handled the pandemic. You know the sort of troublemaker we’re talking about. The doctors publication the BMJ wanted one as far back as last September. A group called Bereaved Families for Justice, whose name pretty much explains what they’re about. Health workers. Minority ethnic organizations, whose communities have been hit particularly hard by the virus. A small bouquet of academics. The children’s book writer Michael Rosen, who recovered from Covid after a long (long, long) hospitalization and has written movingly about the experience, so he’s able, for the moment, to grab some lines of newsprint. Your basic troublemaking pick-and-mix.

Some of them want a wide-ranging inquiry into what went wrong and others want a tightly focused inquiry into what should be done in the future, but that division’s in the background right now. They can argue over it later.

And then there’s Boris Johnson, who says he wishes he’d done some things differently but he’ll keep all that between himself and his pillow at 3 a.m. In the meantime, sorry, but no inquiry–not to not to figure out how to do better in the future and not to figure out what went wrong–and a horrifying amount has, both stuff you can chalk up to incompetence and stuff you can chalk up to corruption, not to mention stuff that embraces both with enthusiasm.

Other ways of holding public inquiries are possible, though, and they’re outside the prime minister’s grasp. Ian Boyd, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, better known as Sage (Boyd’s a sir, but I never can bring myself to attach that sort of nonsense to people’s names), suggested a royal commission–basically a committee of experts pulled together to investigate an issue. It wouldn’t have as much power to gather evidence as an inquiry form with the prime minister’s blessing and that of his pillow, but it could get some work done–probably with less political interference.

Royal-watchers know all–even before it happens

A pair of internet spoofsters, Josh Pieters and Archie Manners, conned four sober-sided royal-watchers into commenting on Megan and Harry’s Oprah interview two days before it was aired–which is to say, two days before any of them had seen more than the few snippets that were used as trailers.  Ingrid Seward, the editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine (no I didn’t know such a thing existed either but I think I’ll see if they’re hiring),said of Markle, “To my mind this was an actress giving one of her great performances–from start to finish, Meghan was acting.”

Richard Fitzeilliams (he’s a royal commentator, whatever that may be) said it was “not a balanced interview” and that Oprah had given them “an easy ride” and was “totally sympathetic.” Markle, he said, “used extremely strong language to describe her relations with members of the royal household.”

Don’t you wish you knew what was about to happen? 

Irrelevant photo: Lesser celandine, growing between rocks.

The spoofsters also drew the experts into discussing a couple of invented topics: Markle’s refusal to get vaccinated and her support for the Balham donkey sanctuary.

As far as Lord Google will tell me, the donkey sanctuary doesn’t exist. I like to support causes that don’t exist myself. It’s so much less disappointing when things go wrong.

Or maybe it does exist but Lord Google got stars in his eyes and let the headlines about Markle’s nonexistent comments eclipse anything real. 

Fitzwilliams (whatever he does with his time when he’s not commentating) said his comments were used out of context. 

Yes, dear. They always are. That’s why you have to be careful what you say. Because they might just cut the part where you say, “Well, I could be wrong about this since it’s irresponsible speculation, but . . . ”

Anyway, keep the tale all in mind next time you read someone’s comments about what’s really going on in the royal family. 

 

And elsewhere in the world

A fishing ship caught fire off the coast of Thailand, the crew was rescued, and the navy was sent to check for oil spills. They spotted cats huddled together on a sinking ship. One of the sailors swam over and swam back with four frantic cats clinging to his shoulders. And head. 

The sailors seem to have adopted them, or at least it looked that way in the photo taken after the rescue, when the sailors were gathered around a table and the four cats were shoving their faces into food bowls. I haven’t seen an update. 

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A delivery man in Vietnam heard a child crying and someone screaming for help as he was about to deliver a package, and when he looked up saw a toddler dangling from a high-rise apartment building’s balcony. He’s not sure how, but he “found ways to climb into the nearby building. I mounted on a 2-meter-high tile roof to seek a proper position to get the girl.”

He tried to catch her in his arms, but the baby fell into his lap.

The girl was bleeding from the mouth and he rushed her to a hospital, where they found she had a broken arm and leg. She was in stable condition. He ended up with a sprain and thousands of social media followers. 

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A burglary in France went wrong when a hotel fire alarm went off. The owner woke up and followed the thieves–who’d smashed into the wine cellar, grabbing 350,000 euros worth of burgundy–down the motorway and called the police, not necessarily in that order.

When the cops closed in, the thieves started throwing bottles of wine at their windshields. What the hell, they had hundreds of them. They missed, but they did get away after hitting a toll booth and taking off on foot–presumably without the wine. 

Many flat tires went unreported on that stretch of highway–they were too tipsy to care.

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If you were hoping for actual news today, my apologies. I needed a break and decided you probably did as well.

Does lockdown damage the economy? 

If British lockdown is a song, the chorus is a sour political sound that comes from throwback Members of Parliament calling for lockdown’s end. Let’s look at lockdown and the impact it has on an economy, since that’s one of the primary arguments against it. 

 

The costs of lockdown

Those wild-eyed radicals at the International Monetary Fund looked at the changes in travel, electricity use, and unemployment claims and say the economy deteriorated before government restrictions came into force and also began to recover before they were lifted. Voluntary social distancing and lockdowns, they say, had almost exactly the same impact. In other words, the problem is the pandemic, not the lockdowns.

A different study compared Demark and Sweden and reports almost the same drop in consumer spending during the first wave of the pandemic, although Denmark locked down and Sweden didn’t. Again, they’re saying the economic damage came from the pandemic, not the lockdown.

We could go on, getting into quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), which are a particularly grisly measurement the National Health Service uses (and for all I know, so do health insurance companies or other countries’ health services) to decide if a medicine or treatment is a good buy–or at least an affordable one. It weighs additional length of life against quality of life against money. Because money’s the ultimate measure of everything in our economy, folks. Even our lives.

Irrelevant photo: Crocuses coming up in spite of our recent cold snap.

But I’ll leave you at the door of QALYs while I go home and have a nice cup of tea all by myself. Or with you if you show up and the pandemic’s over. The calculations involved are enough to scare me off. What I can tell you is that the article I’m linking to claims that the lockdown opponents are using QALYs wrong when they cite them to prove their point. 

I’d probably use them wrong too, and prove no point at all. Hence the tea. 

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Speaking of money and Covid, landlords in England can’t evict tenants who fall behind in their rent because of the pandemic, but that only holds till the end of March. After that, anything could happen. The ban could be extended. The ban could be allowed to lapse. Spaceships could land and magically implant some good sense into all of us.

I like the third possibility myself, but I admit it’s not the most likely.

Some 450,000 families are behind on their rent because of the pandemic. If you want your hair to turn as gray as mine, you can add in the number of families who’ve fallen behind on their mortgage payments. They can’t be evicted yet either, but they’re facing the same three possibilities. 

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Reopening the schools or keeping them closed is an alternative chorus of the lockdown song.

A study looking at Sweden, with it no-lockdown approach to the pandemic, reports that keeping the schools open with only minimal precautions meant the teachers faced a doubled risk of catching Covid. And their partner had a 29% higher risk. 

The point of comparison was teachers who shifted to teaching online.

The kids’ parents had a 17% higher risk. Not enough kids were tested for them to register in the study.

 

Variant news

Scientists have found some new Covid variants. One popped up in southern California. It was found in October and it’s spread around the country and into other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, where we can assume it’s been stomped out thoroughly.

It’s not clear yet if it behaves any differently from the same-old, same-old variants, but it carries a change on the spike protein, which may or may not turn out to be important. 

The spike protein? It’s the key that lets the virus into human cells. The fear is that a change there may mean the virus gets better at breaking in or at evading our immune systems–or our vaccines. 

Another new Covid variant’s been found in Britain, in Denmark, in the U.S., in Australia, and in some other countries. So we don’t get to wave the flag over this one. It also has some changes to the spike protein, but it’s too early to know how significant the changes are. 

Some experts are recommending surge testing to try to stomp the beast out. Other experts are saying, “Yes, you idiots, but until you offer financial support to people who test positive, a lot of people will hide out instead of getting tested because they can’t afford to take two weeks off work. Or ten days. Or three minutes.”

That’s probably not an exact quote, but it is a good point.

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Recent newspaper articles gave people a good scare by saying that British variant–also called the Kent variant; one of our world-beating contributions to the pandemic–is linked to a higher death rate. But that’s the same as saying it causes more deaths. It’s one of those read-the-fine-print things. 

A variant being linked to a higher death rate means it may be the cause but it may just happen to be in the room when the higher death rate happens. It hangs out with a rough crowd and they’re happy to let it take the blame. The variant has spread through nursing homes, which are full of people who are particularly vulnerable. The virus wouldn’t have to be supercharged to do a lot of damage among them.

But it’s also possible–not proven, but possible–that people infected with it have higher viral loads, which could both make it more contagious and harder to treat. But even that last part, about a higher viral load making it more contagious and harder to treat, is speculation.

It’s not time to panic over this one–we’ll have all the time we need to do that later if we have to. 

The non-speculative good news is that the current vaccines do a good job of targeting the variant. 

 

A quarantine update

If England’s rules on quarantine hotels looked absurd over the weekend, with its insistence on mixing people from Group A with people from Group B and then treating only Group A as scary enough to quarantine–

We’ll start that over, okay? If they looked absurd over the weekend, Scotland’s looks almost as silly today. Scotland, we read at first, was going to have everyone do a hotel quarantine: Group A right along with Group B. Now it turns out there’s a loophole. A father and daughter who flew from the U.S. by way of Ireland can quarantine at home. Because they came through Ireland. 

I’m happy for them. The child’s eight and hasn’t seen her mother in sixteen months. But it makes no sense at all. 

 

A bit of good news

Okay, I admit that this isn’t going to give us anything immediate, but long term it could help. An antiviral called EIDD-2801 (they haven’t passed that one through a focus group yet) may fight Covid in several ways: In the lab, it keeps Covid from replicating and from infecting human cells. In a mouse trial, two days of treatment reduced virus replication 25,000-fold when they gave it two days after exposure and 100,000-fold when they gave it twelve hours before and after exposure. 

They’ll be going into phase 2 and 3 trials in humans to test its safety and effectiveness in Covid patients.

New vaccines, the vaccine wars, schadenfreude, and a feel-good story

Across the world, the pandemic has slowed for the past two weeks. If anyone has an explanation for that, I haven’t found it. It could just be a statistical glitch, but let’s take a deep breath and enjoy the moment.

 

The new vaccines

Two new vaccines have been announced. One, from Johnson & Johnson (and, just to confuse things, Janssen) needs only a single injection. It’s 66% effective against symptomatic disease and 85% effective against the severe forms. And 100% effective against the forms that are so bad that you end up hospitalized or dead.

Only 66%? you ask. That’s pretty damn good by vaccine standards. But the earliest Covid vaccines came back with such high levels of effectiveness that we’ve started to turn up our noses at a measly 66%. Back before the first vaccine trials uncorked their sparking test results, though, 50% was considered good. And 85% and 100% against the severe forms of the disease, when you think about it? Not bad.

The Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine is easy to transport and doesn’t have to be kept at a zillion degrees below freezing, making it a handy addition to the vaccine armory. And it only needs one dose. That’s a major advantage.

Irrelevant photo: The daffodils are just starting to blossom. Really. In January.

A new British vaccine, Novavax, is 89% effective but needs two doses. On the positive side, it can be stored in an ordinary refrigerator and has no objections to being wedged in at the back between the peanut butter and that can of cat food you thought you’d lost.

Both are effective against the South African variant, although the numbers aren’t as high. The new Brazilian variant, I believe, came along too late to be included in any of the trials. That’s the one to keep your eye on right now.

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A post or three back, I included a news snippet involving Germany, the AstraZeneca vaccine, and the elderly. I now officially wish I’d waited, because we were only halfway through the story. 

In our last episode, some anonymous source in Germany said (publicly, or we wouldn’t know about it) that the AZ vaccine wasn’t effective on the elderly, and some known source said, “Of course it is. You mixed up your numbers,” but refrained from adding, “You idiot.”

And now, in our next episode, a German official body of one sort or another said the vaccine hadn’t been shown to be effective on the elderly, and several other sources jumped into the discussion and I crawled under the bed and sulked for several days. 

Then Emmanuel Macron said something but I hadn’t included him in my post so I didn’t care.

I do take my responsibilities here seriously.

When I emerged, I was covered in dust but felt a little better because the floorboards under my bed were now spotless.

But you wanted to know about the vaccine, didn’t you? 

Is it effective on people over 65? AZ added older people to its vaccine trials later than younger people, so it has less data on them. And it turned out–predictably–that they were more likely to stay away from other people, so both the group that got the vaccine and the group that got the placebo were relatively well protected. That meant fewer deaths (good) and therefore less data (bad).

The trial did include some checks on people’s antibody levels, though, so they have every indication that the vaccine was working.

 

The vaccine wars replace the Brexit wars

Britain and the European Union agree on only one thing lately, and that’s that with a Brexit agreement in place they needed something new to fight about so it was time to toss vaccines into the mix.

AstraZeneca signed a contract to supply the EU with 80 million doses of its vaccine for the first quarter of 2021. Before that, it had signed a different contract to supply Britain with 2 million doses a week. Then it had production problems at its plants in Europe and said it could only supply the EU with 30 million doses. That would be for the first quarter of 2021. 

Pfizer is also producing less of its vaccine than it expected, and in a rare and impressive display of cooperation a second company, Sanofi, whose own vaccine development has been delayed, said it will use its plants to produce Pfizer’s. 

The EU wanted AZ’s plants in Britain to make up the shortfall its plants in Europe were leaving. AZ said that wasn’t not part of the contract. The EU has been slow in starting its vaccination program and is feeling ever so slightly frantic about this.

Britain said it wasn’t interested in getting less than its contracted share of the vaccine, and Boris Johnson tousled his hair and poured a lit match onto oily waters, saying, “I am very pleased at the moment that we have the fastest rollout of vaccines in Europe by some way.”

He refrained from blowing a raspberry until the press conference was over and the doors had closed behind him.

The EU said, fine, it would deal with the shortfall by refusing to allow vaccines to be exported. That would mean no Pfizer vaccine getting into Britain, although there’s a contract there too.

Then the EU said it would use a clause in the Brexit agreement and institute checks at the Irish/Northern Irish border to make double sure to keep vaccines in the EU. Then it said it wouldn’t.

Then everyone involved arched their backs, fluffed their fur, and made the kind of spitting sounds that eight-week-old kittens make when they want to look scary.

Then the EU published the text of its contract with AZ, minus a few clauses that may or may not be relevant.  

Legal experts working their way through the AZ/EU contract say it’s likely to end up either in arbitration or in court. One of them used a (translated) German phrase that means clear as mud, saying it’s clear as noodle soup. 

 

Department of schadenfreude

A multimillionaire couple flew into an isolated, largely indigenous community in the Yukon Territory and claimed to be local motel workers so they could get in on a vaccination program meant primarily for elders and the vulnerable. 

They also didn’t bother observing the fourteen days of quarantine that were required for incomers.

They’ve been fined C$2,300 , but given their economic status that’s not likely to hold their attention, so they also face six months in jail.

The C in C$2,300 stands for Canadian. And schadenfreude stands for a German word meaning enjoying other people’s bad fortune.

Admit it: You’ve done it at least once in your life.

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Speaking of schadenfreude, Oklahoma spent $2 million buying itself a stockpile of hydroxychloroquine when Donald Trump was touting it as a miracle cure for Covid. Now it’s trying to unload the stuff. Studies show it has no effect on Covid but it could cause heart problems. It’s an accepted treatment for malaria, but you’d be hard put to catch that in Oklahoma. 

The state’s been trying to sell it for months now. If you’re interested, contact the state’s attorney general. You could probably get a bargain.

 

And finally, a feel-good Covid story

A group of health workers in Oregon got stranded on a highway in a snowstorm with six doses of vaccine that would become unusable if they didn’t get into six people’s arms in one hell of a hurry. They’d just finished a clinic and the shots were all committed to specific people, but they weren’t going to reach them in time.

Rather than see them go to waste, they went from up and down the road offering them to people stranded in nearby cars. An ambulance was stuck in the snow with them, so if anyone had a bad reaction, they were covered.

The county health director said it was one of the coolest operations he’d ever been part of.

Brexiteria, grownup politics, and the Plymouth Hoe

A few years ago, when Britain voted to leave the European Union, Scotland voted heavily to stay but got dragged away like a teenager whose parents show up just when the party’s getting going. That strengthened what was already a fairly strong inclination in Scotland to leave not the EU but the UK, or to put that another way, to disunite the United Kingdom. 

Yeah, it’s been interesting around here lately.

So what does our prime minister do? The other day he took his tousled head of blond hair up to Scotland to see if he couldn’t charm them out of their sulk. Even though he’d just extended the British lockdown and shouldn’t have let himself be caught going anywhere he didn’t absolutely, seriously need to go. Even though only essential travel between England and Scotland is allowed these days.

“If I do it,” Johnson didn’t say but looked like he wanted to, “it’s essential.” 

That’s not a real  quote, you understand, but he really did remind reporters that he’s the prime minister of the entire UK. 

When a prime minister has to remind people of that, he could well be in trouble. 

The Scottish National Party holds a majority in Scotland’s parliament and is likely to still hold one after the next election, and it’s talking about holding a second independence referendum, regardless of whether the prime minister of Wherever-he’s-the-prime-minister gives his approval. The polls at the moment say independence would win.

Did I mention how interesting it’s been around here lately?

Irrelevant photo: A camellia bud.

More Brexiteria

These next snippets deserve more space, but they won’t get it just now. At least not here. 

When the Brexit campaigners sold the country on leaving the EU, it was going to save us money, rejuvenate British business, and make palm trees grow from London rooftops. Although somehow they forgot to mention the palm trees. 

So what’s happened? British businesses that export to Europe are getting hit by extra charges, paperwork, and taxes. And what does our Brexit-boosting government recommend? The Department of International Trade tells them to set up separate companies inside the EU. 

Won’t that mean layoffs in Britain? Well, yeah, but the vote’s over, so who cares?

Consumers who buy stuff from Europe are getting hit by charges they didn’t expect. Customs duties, a value added tax, and to add insult to injury, a fee from the shipping company for handling the paperwork. And EU trucking companies are refusing to haul goods to Britain because they’re asked to come up with thousands of pounds to cover taxes and potential tariffs. For small- and medium-size companies, it’s not worth it.

Welcome to the Brexiteria. When we were looking in through the window, the food was more appealing than it is now that we’re inside. 

 

The Plymouth Hoe

Facebook is taking its role as a publisher seriously. 

That’s publisher as opposed to platform. A publisher’s responsible for what it pours into the world. A platform? It shrugs its shoulders and says, “Not my responsibility,” when someone advocates blowing up the planet and then manages to do it. It may be the end of the world, but at least the platform can’t be sued.

Will you get to the point, Ellen?

Of course. Facebook gave a good scolding to people who mentioned a Plymouth landmark, the hoe, and it took their posts down. And banned at least one of them. The posts sounded suspiciously like sexist bullying, and they could well have been except that hoe is an Anglo-Saxon word for a sloping ridge shaped like an inverted foot and heel. Which is a lot of highly specific description to wedge into three letters. If it can do all that in three letters, why aren’t we still speaking Anglo-Saxon.

Never mind. That’s a different post.

I haven’t been able to confirm the specifics of that definition, mind you. Ask Lord Google about hoe and as soon as you get past the line that says it’s a garden tool, the definitions go off in all those directions Facebook was trying to ban. Even when you add “Anglo-Saxon.”

The Plymouth Hoe genuinely is a sloping area, a grassy  one where the Pilgrims–the ones who settled in Massachusetts, not pilgrims in general–embarked. I have no idea if it’s shaped like an inverted foot and heel, but you might want to ask yourself if it would be shaped like a foot if it didn’t have a heel.

So has Facebook gotten its publisher act completely together? I doubt it. If you look, you can still find people on Facebook saying Covid’s no more of a threat than the flu (I just tried) and I have no idea what else because that’s as far as I went, but at least they’re not calling a landmark by a word properly belonging to a garden tool. 

Facebook has apologized to the people whose hands it slapped. 

I can’t wait to hear what happens next Christmas when some bully quotes Santa’s laugh.

 

The pharaoh’s passport

Back in prehistory–or to be specific, in 1974–a French doctor was studying the mummified remains of Ramesses II, because what doctor doesn’t poke around under a mummy’s wrappings when the chance comes his or her way? That led him to realize they were being taken over by a fungus. That’s they, since remains are plural, but maybe it should be he, since Ramesses may have been the second but he was still singular. Anyway, he or they needed treatment, which seems to have been available only in France. 

The articles I’ve found don’t explain why France. They take it as a given. Maybe the work could’ve been done anywhere but Ramsesses spoke better French than, say, German or Tagalog. Maybe it could’ve been done in Egypt but after all those years he was dying to travel.

Whatever. To get into France, he needed a passport. Just because you’re dead, that doesn’t mean you can go where you like. Even the dead need documents. So Ramesses became the only pharaoh (to the best of my limited knowledge) ever to be issued a passport by the Egyptian government. 

 

Playing politics the grownup way

In a classic moment of grownup politics, Jacob Rees-Mogg called Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, Moanalot. 

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And speaking of grownup politics, now that the UK’s left the European Union, Britain’s refused to grant the EU’s representative in Britain the privileges and immunity that go with diplomatic status under the Vienna Convention. And ditto the twenty-five people who came with him. It claims the EU is an international body, not a nation state, and if it treated it like a nation state every other international body in the world would want the same privileges.

Throughout the Brexit negotiations, the British negotiator referred to the EU as “your organization,” irritating the hell out of the EU’s chief negotiator.

A hundred and forty-three other countries around the world give the EU full diplomatic status and don’t seem to be having a problem with international organizations trying to pile into that same space. But you never do know. They might, and a nation-state can’t be too careful.

 

Human originality

New Zealand’s tourism agency launched a campaign against tourists “travelling under the social influence.” It takes aim at people traveling halfway across the world to take the same pictures everyone else takes. You know, the ones they’ve seen on social media. Same poses, same spots, same illusion that they’ve found bliss and their lives will be perfect forever after. Or at least, same message that they have enough money to get their asses halfway around the world and are therefore happier than their friends.

Human beings really can be idiots. Sorry. I know how likely it is that you, dear reader, are human. And you may be aware that I’m human as well. Still, the fact remains–

New Zealand’s invited us all to send creative travel shots to #DoSomethingNewNZ. You could win a NZ$500 voucher–which you won’t be able to spend until this whole Covid mess ends and New Zealand opens its borders. In the meantime, you can sit back and think of a few hundred ways to spend that money without ever silhouetting yourself against the sky on a mountain peak or pretending to meditate on a rock by the ocean. Or indulging in what the tourism agency calls the run-me-over shot, where someone walks down the middle of an apparently deserted highway.

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The popularity of the TV series Bridgerton has had an unexpected side effect: viewers running to their computers looking for corsets. 

No, my computer doesn’t have a corset either. They’re using the computer to look on the internet. Searches went up 1,000%. 

Have we all lost our minds? Probably, but for whatever it’s worth, the Smithsonian Magazine says most of us misunderstand the Regency era corset. They were comfortable. Or at least comfortable in terms of what women learn to expect from their clothes, which take my word for it ain’t much. And a range of corsets would’ve infested–

Sorry. A range of corsets would’ve been available to the discerning buyer of the time, ranging from informal and comfortable to I’m-going-to-a-ball and I don’t care how uncomfortable it makes me. But in an era when women’s dresses were waistless, no one would’ve tightened her corset to the point of fainting. What would the point have been?

What people are buying, though, is anyone’s guess. 

 

Your Covid update for the day

Can I take time off from being snarky and welcome a moment of sanity? Any minute now, the British government’s expected to announce a hotel quarantine on returning travelers. 

Travel in the age of Covid

Up to now, we’ve had a do-it-yourself quarantine: You go home, you add water and shake vigorously, you take a Covid test or two, then you wait ten days or until the world’s ready for you to emerge blinking into the sunlight. 

Or you do none of that. Who’ll know?

And that’s the problem with the do-it-yourself system. Some unknown percent of arriving travelers go home, have a nice shower, and since they’ve added water consider the thing done, so they go out and buy groceries. And, of course, even the people who take the quarantine seriously have to get home, leaving a viral trail from the airport to wherever they live.

The noise accompanying the expected change is all about the newer, scarier Covid variants from Brazil and South Africa, so it’s not clear yet whether the quarantine will apply to everyone coming into the country or just to people coming from countries known to have the variant. 

If it’s limited to a few countries, it’ll be the policy equivalent of wearing your mask underneath your nose and pretending you’ve done your bit to battle Covid. Most countries don’t do enough virus sequencing to know which variants they’re dealing with. In other words, the variants are circulating in more countries than we know about.

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Irrelevant photo: I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think this is a viola. At any rate, it was a volunteer last summer.

In another moment of startling good sense, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said it was “far too early” to talk about people booking summer holidays. 

The travel industry is not happy about any of this.

 

Vaccine news

Moderna reports that its vaccine is effective against both the British and South African Covid variants, although it’s not as effective against the South African variant as they’d like. The company will test a second booster shot, making a total of three shots, with the third one designed specifically for the South African variant.

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If you’ve been reading stand-your-hair-on-end stories about people in Europe dying after getting a Covid vaccine, go find your comb and get your hairdo in place: There’s no evidence that their deaths had anything to do with the vaccine. 

In most countries, early vaccinations have focused on the elderly, and–well, the thing about old people is that we develop the habit of dying. In larger numbers than other age groups. So the vaccinated group included a lot of people who weren’t well to start with. And they died, but their deaths haven’t been linked to the vaccines. 

I subscribe to, among other things, a conspiracy-inflected newsletter, and it’s been counting the dead gleefully, without hinting that there might be extenuating circumstances. 

It helps me remember how crazy the world’s gotten lately.

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The fear that Covid will mutate until it’s beyond the reach of vaccines has kept the news–and I assume sensible scientists as well–focused on Covid’s new variants. So let’s talk about variants:

They happen by accident. Mutations are random–they have no plan and no goal. If you’re not a fan of evolution, this is the time to change the channel, because what I’m talking about is evolution at work, but speeded up enough that we can see it happening. Some of the variations are disasters for the virus and they fall off social media. Some don’t matter–they don’t have good publicity agents, they post on Twitter but no one likes or retweets them, and we never hear about them. 

Some, though, work well. I’m taking that from the virus’s point of view, remember, so that means they’re more infectious or they change clothes so the vaccine-primed immune system stops recognizing them. They’re the Kim Kardashians of the virus world. 

The reason I’m dragging you through all this is that the more times the virus mutates, the more chances it has to hit on a winning formula. So the more people become infected, the greater the chance the virus has of becoming even scarier. 

In people with suppressed immune systems, it may get to mutate even more freely.

Could it mutate enough times to become less scary? Of course. The process can go in any direction. But we can’t know which one it’ll take. It’s not a bet I’d like to make. If you hear someone saying that no one is safe until we’re all safe, this is what they’re talking about. 

Bjorn Meyer of the Pasteur Institute said that with vaccination and the distancing and cleaning measures that are in place around the world, the virus’s successful mutations are more likely to affect how easily it’s transmitted rather than how lethal it becomes. I have no idea why that should be true, so I’ll just have to take his word for it and skip merrily on to the next item.

 

Antibody therapy

A joint Swiss, Czech, and Italian effort has developed a second-generation double antibody that protects against Covid.

A what?

I know. Me too. Think of it as an arranged marriage. The researchers introduced two natural Covid antibodies that target separate sites on the virus and fused them into a single artificial molecule. As long as they both may live or until one of them has an affair with some other antibody, whichever comes first.

In pre-clinical trials, the artificial antibody neutralized Covid and its variants and kept the virus from changing its structure. If it changes its structure, remember, the antibody has to close its eyes and count to seven while the virus hides.

The antibody stands a good chance of both preventing and treating Covid but it still needs to go through human trials before. If it does go into use, it looks like a single injection will reduce the viral load in the lungs and minimize inflammation. 

Politics, economics, and interviews

I don’t know about you, but I was impressed that England had instituted a £500 grant for low-income people who test positive for Covid and have to self-isolate. It didn’t sound like enough, but it was better than nothing. Until I found out that three-quarters of the people who apply for it are turned down.

Local governments say they’re having to turn people down because the criteria are too narrow.

Thanks, guys, you’ve renewed my faith in the incompetence of the current government.

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Speaking of which: Britain’s work and pensions secretary walked out on a TV interview when she didn’t like the interviewer’s paraphrase of what she said.

Okay, it was a Zoom interview. It’s hard to walk out them with any flair, but she did turn off her camera. 

It started when Therese Coffey said Britain’s death rate was so high because it had an obesity problem and an older population. To translate that, it means, None of this is the government’s fault. 

The interviewer, Piers Morgan, turned it so the seams showed. So the public was too old and too fat, then?

“I think that’s a very insulting thing that you’ve just said,” Coffey answered. “I also have to point out that you started this interview late. Unfortunately I have to go to other broadcasters as well, and I wish we had more time.”

“It was you that boycotted the programme,” Morgan said. “Please don’t play the ‘we haven’t given you enough time’ card, because we gave you eight months and you didn’t turn up.”

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A recent report tells us that the wealth of the world’s ten richest people has increased enough during the pandemic to pay for the planet’s entire population to be vaccinated. And enough pocket money will be left over to make up for the income the poorest of them have lost. 

So how much is that in numbers? It’s £400 billion. Of course, if you have to split that with nine other people, all you get to take home is £40 billion.

 

The almost obligatory snippet of good news

I’m not doing well on the good news front, but research from the University of Illinois reports that the psychological problems of lockdown tend to fade with time as people adjust to the new normal. 

Sorry–best I could do today. 

How much should we worry about the British Covid variant?

Whoopee! It’s another moment when Britain gets to claim world-beating status. Its new Covid variant may be more deadly than the old ones. In addition to maybe being more transmissible.

Maybe. (Also may be, if you want to split hairs and words.) Nothing’s certain yet, although we’d be smart to act as if the possible bad news is rock-solid certain bad news. Otherwise even more people might die. That has a way of focusing a person’s attention. Or at least it should. 

But that doesn’t mean that the evidence on it is clear.

Nervtag–the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group–says there’s a “realistic possibility” that it’s more deadly, but it’s by no means a sure thing, and the government’s chief science advisor, Patrick Vallance (known as Sir to his friends and family), said the data on this is “not yet strong.” 

The Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are both expected to work against the new variant, but they may be less effective against the variants from South Africa and Brazil. Not completely ineffective, just less effective. 

So it is time to be careful but it’s not time to panic. We can always do that later.

Irrelevant photo: A winter tree.

 

If we don’t panic, what should we do?

Susan Michie, an adviser on the government’s Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours says Britain’s lockdown rules aren’t strong enough, so she’d recommend strengthening them. 

There’s been a lot of focus on people who break the rules, and government ads urge people to stay home, “But actually,” she said, “all the data show that the overwhelming number of people are sticking to the rules with one exception which is self-isolation.

“In fact I would say that it’s not so much people not sticking to the rules, but it’s the rules themselves that are the problem.”

Compared to the first lockdown, twice as many people are going to work and using public transportation, and more kids are in school because the definition of key worker has been broadened.

“The better the lockdown is now the shorter it will be,” she said.

And the problem with self-isolation doesn’t seem to be that people don’t care but that so many of them can’t afford to miss work.

 

Your feel-bad stories for the day

Just when you think the government might be taking the pandemic seriously and understanding how important the people who work in the National Health Service are–

Nah, I won’t go on. It’s too silly. Foreign and minority group NHS workers in England might be disproportionately ineligible for Covid vaccines because guidelines on who hospitals should vaccinate rule out anyone without an NHS number.

Who’s that going to affect? Disproportionately, foreign-born workers and people from Black, Asian, and other minority ethnic backgrounds. They’re all less likely to have registered with a doctor’s practice, which means they haven’t gotten a number.

Some hospitals are working around the guidelines and vaccinating them anyway. 

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In case you’ve wondered how Britain’s £22 billion test and trace system manages to spend so much money while barely functioning–and I have–its bottom line gets a boost from a consulting company, Deloitte, which has 900 consultants on the test-and-trace books, each earning £1,000 a day.

Maybe that’s an average. Do we care? Nah, not really.

That’s a savings from last year, when the number of contractors was over 1,000. I can’t find the hourly wage for people working the test and trace phone system, but memory insists it’s minimum wage.

 

Your feel-good story for the day

On January 14, Dzhemal Senturk was hospitalized with Covid in Trabazon, Turkey, and his dog, Boncuk, ran after the ambulance all the way to the hospital and waited for him.

Senturk’s family took her home.

The next day, she came back, and she came back every day, waiting from 9 a.m. until dark. 

On January 20th, the man was released and she went home with him. And they lived happily ever after. Except that some papers spell the man’s name Cemal. It’s okay, though. Boncuk can’t spell.

 

And your information-packed snippet for the day

And now down to serious business: A British survey reports a lot of uncertainty about what key pandemic words and phrases mean, and as ever I’m here to help. 

Epidemiologist: These are doctors who treat the epidermis–your skin. Why is the news making such a fuss over them when the skin is one of the few things Covid isn’t interested in? Because so many people observing the current lockdown have gained weight and are desperate to get skinnier.

Flattening the curve: See above. 

Antibody: This is how people feel after failing to flatten the curve.

R number: This is the plural of the Is number, but abbreviated.

Is number: This is a secret metric kept by the deep state. You won’t hear about it anywhere but here. Doesn’t metric sound more worrying than measurement

Support bubble: This is the collection of imaginary friends you’ve gathered around you during the pandemic. They offer emotional support from within the confines of  your four walls.

Stay alert: This is a government slogan–or at least it was. It may have been retired by now and it’s okay not to know what it means because it never did mean anything, it just filled space while the government dithered.

The interesting thing about the survey–at least as far as I could tell from the article about it (my research didn’t take me as far as reading the survey itself)–is that it seems to have asked people if they could confidently explain the terms. It doesn’t seem to have cross-referenced their explanations with reality. In other words, were they even remotely right or only confident? It’s the perfect survey for our fact-free world.