The pandemic update from Britain (and elsewhere): arms, archeology, and apps

Rest easy, people. Someone is addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The Academie Francaise has announced that we’re dealing with la Covid, not le Covid. In other words, the virus is grammatically female.

The French language divides its nouns into male and female, and which gender a noun belongs to has nothing to do with any intrinsic quality of the thing itself. Nobody knows whether a sandwich considers itself more female than male, and nobody except the sandwich cares. A linguist could explain it all to you (and I’m looking forward to whatever comments you leave, my friends), but in the meantime, as far as I can see, you deduce the word’s femininity or masculinity out of a sixty-forty mix of thin air and history, which you whip until the resulting froth looks inevitable. 

In this case, the Academie decided that the root of the word Covid is maladie–illness–which is already feminine, so Covid is also feminine. And since this is all about getting the language right, I apologize for missing the accent mark in Academie: I’m writing this first thing in the morning and my accent marks are asleep.  

Irrelevant photos: Hydrangeas.

In the absence of the Academie’s decision, though, people started calling it le Covid, making it masculine. Will they change? No idea. On the one hand, French speakers seem to take the Academie seriously. On the other hand, language is a slippery beast and it can slither out of even the most powerful hands. 

Spanish is (I think–let me know if I’m wrong) closer to English in not recognizing anyone’s final authority over the language, but the Real Academia de la Lengua Española has just decided that Covid is feminine. To date, it’s been predominantly masculine, or at least people have written and spoken it as if it is. What’ll happen next? You’re on the edge of your chair, aren’t you? We’ll just have to wait and see–if we can remember to check back.

*

So what’s the news on coronavirus immunity? Not much. No one knows yet if having had the virus gives you immunity. I mention that because so many people are sure they know what the scientists don’t.

Arne Akbar of the British Society of Immunology said that an antibody test “does not tell us if these antibodies will stop you getting sick from Covid-19 in the future or how long any protection generated might last.” And just to complicate the picture, he also said, “The immune system is extremely complex and there are lots of ways that it can generate immunity, antibodies being only one.”

So what good does antibody testing do? It can help experts figure out how many people have had Covid-19 and what its spread is. 

Some 10% of Londoners may (emphasis on may) have been infected with it, and maybe 4% of the rest of the country. At this stage, so much isn’t known (and so many people talk as if it was) that you’d be wise to stock up on wishy-washy words: suggests, probably, may, might, and could, possibly are all available from my Etsy shop. I’ll give you 20% off if you let me know that I referred you to me.

*

And while we’re talking about bargains, the British government spent almost £20 million buying up drugs that Donald Trump claimed would cure Covid-19. I can’t say for sure that the two things are linked, only that they both happened.

What did it get for its money? Chloroquinine phosphate, choloroquinine, hydroxycholoroquinine (those are normally used for malaria and other diseases), and lopinavir/ritonavir (normally used for HIV). 

What’s my problem with that? As yet, there’s no scientific evidence that they’re any use against Covid-19. They might be. They also might not be. The New England Journal of Medicine reported that one trial of lopinaetc. showed no “observable benefit.” 

But that’s a minor objection. The real one is that they’re horrible words to type. You have no idea why I have to go through here. On top of which, lupus patients use hydroxyetc. and are worried about a drug they depend on being snapped up on the theory that something just might pan out.

*

Want more bargains? Who wouldn’t. Britain’s given £1 billion worth of contracts to companies without any competitive bidding process. Because we’re in a crisis.  

*

Enough about Britain. Let’s talk about Texas, which has always been a little crazy. I’m originally from New York, but I can claim half a right to say that because my partner is a Texan born and raised. If I get in trouble on this, I’m calling her as my witness.

The state recently eased its coronavirus restrictions, allowing restaurants, malls, and some other businesses to open, but it didn’t include bars, tattoo parlors, and other essential services, outraging some half a dozen business owners, who called in heavily and visibly armed civilians to stand around looking heavily armed and threatening. Then they opened up for business. 

I don’t know where it’s all headed. Not anyplace good.

*

But I shouldn’t single out Texas. In Turkey, as elsewhere, teachers have encouraged kids to draw rainbows and put them in their windows during the lockdown. Then some of the local education boards told them to stop. Rainbows are part of a plot to turn the kids gay. 

Oh, sure, you can laugh if you want, but I’m gay–okay, lesbian; that’s close enough–and I saw rainbows as a kid. And not just one rainbow but lots of them, both the kind in the sky and the kind on paper. That happened repeatedly. And look where it led.

*

In Spain, informal groups of parents are stepping in to help families whose kids are going hungry during the lockdown. And neighborhood associations and other local groups are supplying food, medicine, cleaning products, and (in one case) a tablet so a teenager could keep up with her school work. Social services are overwhelmed and haven’t been able to keep up with the need.  

*

Back to Britain: With people in lockdown getting bored enough to name their socks and teach them to leap through dog collars, a landscape archeologist from Exeter University, Chris Smart, has harnessed their skills and their boredom. He has them looking at aerial surveys of the Devon-Cornwall border for signs of ancient settlements. 

So far, they’ve found thirty settlements that date back to sometime between 300 BCE and 300 CE, along with twenty miles of road that linked Roman forts. 

“It will be hundreds [of settlements] by the time the volunteers are finished,” Smart said. “We’re seeing a much greater density of population than we thought.”

They’ve also found twenty prehistoric burial mounds, plus hundreds of medieval farms, field systems, and quarries. And so far, they’ve only worked on a tenth of the area.

*

In the village where I live, all our socks are named and yesterday morning my neighbor and I got excited about the possibility that the dump had reopened. Or as everyone but me calls it, the tip. If it has, we could all load up our green waste and take it for a drive.

I don’t actually have any green waste to take up there, but I was excited about Jane going.

Admit it: You understand. You know you do.

*

Every Thursday, Britain goes through the ritual of clapping for NHS and other frontline workers. They’re risking their lives for us. We love them all indiscriminately. Cynics see the cynicism of it–the government encourages us to clap but can’t manage to get them the protective gear or the equipment they need–but we do it anyway. Because we mean it. Because it feels right. Because a moment of solidarity with your neighbors just feels good.

Now a leaked document tells us the government’s considering a three-year freeze on public sector workers’ pay, including the pay of those heroic folks they encourage us to go out and clap for. Because someone has to be sacrificed to make up for the deficit we’re running and if it’s not going to be the people who can afford it most easily (and it’s not), then it’ll have to be the people who aren’t in a position to fight it effectively.

And I think I’m cynical.

*

A professor of infectious diseases, Paul Garner, caught Covid-19 and has been blogging about its effects. More than seven weeks later, he’s still sick.

The disease stays with some people like that. They call it the long tail of the virus. Garner says it kept coming up with new, disturbing symptoms. He had a muggy head, tinnitus, an upset stomach, pins and needles, breathlessness, dizziness, arthritic symptoms–. The list goes on.

And it would seem to get better and then come back. 

*

To learn more about the disease outside of hospital settings, King’s College, London, has introduced a tracker app where people can log their symptoms. 

There’s good clinical data for people in the hospital but not in the community, Professor Tim Spector said, but “there is a whole other side of the virus which has not had attention because of the idea that ‘if you are not dead you are fine.’ “

Rather than the cough, fever, and loss of the sense of smell that we’re told to watch for, some people get muscle aches, a sore throat, a headache. And Professor Lynne Turner-Stokes, also of King’s College, said Covid is capable of attacking any organ, including the lungs, brain, skin, kidneys, and nervous system. It can cause blood clots or confusion, delirium, and coma. 

“I’ve studied 100 diseases,” Spector said. “Covid is the strangest one I have seen in my medical career.”

The pandemic update from Britain: golf balls, antibodies, and shreds of hope

As the English coronavirus policy wanders off in a different direction than the one Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are following, things are getting predictably strange around here. But first, some background. 

Anyone who isn’t from the U.K. could be forgiven for thinking that Britain’s all one country, with one government, one flag, and one national anthem, and one national policy. And it is. But it also isn’t.

Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England are all nations within that one country, with their own flags, and (except for England) their own national anthems, and (except for England) their own governments. So the British government governs Britain, but it also governs England. 

We won’t get into national anthems right now. The British–or maybe that’s the English; I’m American originally, so I get dizzy when we talk about this stuff–only sing when they’re drunk anyway.

Irrelevant photo: a rose

Are you making any sense of this at all? 

No, I didn’t think so. The problem is, it could easily take up the whole post, but we need to move on to the important stuff, which is golf, so let’s condense it and say that the British government devolved some powers to the national (which you could call regional if it makes you happier) governments, and because of that when the prime minister announced to a baffled public that instead of staying home to beat the virus everyone now had to stay alert to beat the virus, the regional governments said, effectively, “You’re out of your mind.” They’re keeping both the lockdown and the stay-home slogan.

As a result (and we’ve finally gotten to the point), a golf course that straddles the border between England and Wales can’t figure out whether it’s open or closed. The Llanymynech golf club has fifteen holes that are in Wales, two that are in England, and one that starts in Wales and ends in England. Its official policy at the moment is, “We don’t know what we can do.”

I suggest opening the English holes but warning players that if a ball crosses into Wales, pffft, it will disappear in midair. 

*

In case my explanation of British politics doesn’t leave you confused enough, allow me to add that Britain isn’t really a country. We just call it that to confuse outsiders. The country’s full name is the United Kingdom of a Bunch of Random Places.

*

J.K. Rowling loved England’s new “stay alert” slogan enough to tweet, “Is Coronavirus sneaking around in a fake moustache and glasses? If we drop our guard, will it slip us a Micky Finn? What the hell is ‘stay alert’ supposed to mean?”

Dave Ward, of the Communication Workers Union, loved it too. He said, “Stay alert? It’s a deadly virus not a zebra crossing.”

A zebra crossing? That’s not a place where zebras cross. Zebras aren’t native to the country allegedly known as Britain. It’s a place where pedestrians cross a street, and it’s marked with white stripes that make it look nothing like a zebra.

It’s pronounced ZEBBra, not ZEEbra.

And the British spell mustache with an O, moustache, as if a small rodent had crawled in.

*

A healthcare company, Randox, was awarded a £133 million contract to produce Covid-19 testing kits for the Department of Health and Social care, without any competitive bidding. And the company just happens to pay Owen Paterson, who’s a Conservative MP, a former cabinet minister, and a big-league Brexiteer, £500 an hour to consult about the consulty-type things that consultants consult about. That adds up, in his case, to about £100,000 a year, and if a person was careful about the small things she or he could probably live on that. Although mercifully he doesn’t have to, since he also has his MP’s salary and expenses, plus I have no idea what else.

It’s not illegal for MPs to consult with or lobby for companies that do business with the government as long as their lobbying doesn’t (and I’m going to quote from an article in the Guardian here, because, A, I trust them to get their facts straight, and, B, I don’t understand a word of it, so I can’t paraphrase) “help to give an exclusive financial benefit to the client and the client [didn’t initiate] the lobbying.” 

So who can initiate the lobbying? The planet Saturn when it’s in the house of cocaine, because that’s always conducive to profit. 

I kind of thought, silly me, that the whole point of lobbying was to gain an exclusive financial benefit. But it’s all okay, beause the Department of Health and Social Care says it’s increased its testing capacity at phenomenal speed. 

Clap your hands and say with me: “I do believe in fairies. I do believe in fairies.”

*

The coronavirus tests that the National Health Service currently uses look for the presence of the virus itself in a person’s system. But there’s a different kind of test, which can pick up the presence of antibodies, spotting people who have the virus now but also people who used to have it and are better. Using it would let you test a sample population and figure out how far the beast has spread, which would let policymakers figure out what they’re actually dealing with. And (forgive me, I know this is a huge leap) let them make  sensible decisions about how to handle it. 

It could also provide useful information to people working on vaccines, including whether immunity exists at all and if it does whether it will be lifelong or short lived. A study from Shanghai hints that people who had a lighter case of the bug may come away with a lighter immune response. Widespread testing should give a better picture of that as well.

Antibody tests are evaluated on the basis of two things: their specificity and their sensitivity. 

Specificity means the proportion of healthy people the test recognizes as healthy, and for the test to be useful this has to be close to 100%. I’m going to explain this without understanding it myself, so if you have a seat belt, this would be a good time to fasten it. You could also stick your fingers in your ears and hum. It just might help.

If a test is 90% accurate, instead of mislabeling 10% of the population, it would (if 5% of the population had been infected) mislabel 70%. I’ve gone over that several times and it almost makes sense to me, but then it slips away. 

I’ll tell you what, don’t worry about it. It won’t make you happy. Numbers so seldom do. Let’s talk about sensitivity instead. 

Sensitivity is how many people who’ve had the virus the test is able to spot and (if I understood this correctly, which I can’t guarantee) how strong an antibody response to the virus a person has to have to register on the test. 

Two U.S. companies now have Food and Drug Administration approval for antibody tests that have 99.8% specificity and 100% sensitivity. The problem with them both is that they can’t be done at home. Someone medical has to take a blood sample and a lab has to process it.

Britain (remember than imaginary country, Britain, the one that’s really called the United Kingdom of Several Other Places?)–

Let’s start over: Britain has been chasing after a test that can be done at home and sold by the million, cheaply. In April, the government of our imaginary country spent £16 million buying 4 million tests, which turned out to fail on both sensitivity and specificity but other than that were great. 

Something in the neighborhood of 17.5 million more tests have been ordered provisionally from other suppliers. If they work, and if they’re used in a competent, coordinated way, we might find a way out of this mess. 

I was feeling good until I typed competent and coordinated

Still, the possibility of widespread testing, especially if it can be combined with tracing and sanity, does bring us a quick glimpse of hope.

*

Poland had a presidential election on Sunday with a record turnout of 0%. Even someone as mathematically impaired as I am can take that in. 

The vote wasn’t canceled, but on the other hand the polling stations stayed closed. 

What’s that got to do with the coronavirus? Opposition politicians had been pushing to postpone the election because of the pandemic, asking the government to declare either a state of emergency or a national disaster. The government refused, saying the situation wasn’t serious enough.   

The electoral commission now says it has two weeks to set a new date. 

*

A Republican state representative from Ohio, Nino Vitale, is refusing to wear a face mask because it would hide the image of god.

If you want to decide for yourself whether he looks like god, you can find photos of him here. Including one where he’s pointing a handgun. As gods do.

The White House is now requiring staff to wear masks. The president? He doesn’t have to.

Meanwhile, Kam Buckner, a Democratic state representative from Illinois was stopped by police as he came out of a store wearing a mask and gloves. Do I need to tell you that Buckner’s black and Vitale’s white?

He asked why he was being stopped and the cop (allegedly) said, “People are using the coronavirus to do bad things. I couldn’t see your face, man. You looked like you were up to something.”

*

And finally, some those shreds of good news that I promised you.

In Germany, the R number–basically, the rate at which the virus spreads–has fallen below 1. I want to keep this brief, so just take my word that this is good.

Iceland plans to let people coming into the country avoid quarantine by taking a Covid-19 test.

In Athens, the pandemic has led to pedestrians and cyclists taking over the public spaces abandoned by cars, and it’s such a hit that the city plans to ban cars from the city center permanently.

The World Health Organization says four or five treatments offer a shred of a hint of a possibility of hope for the fight against the virus. They don’t stop the virus, but they do seem–in very early trials–to limit the disease’s severity or shorten the time a person stays ill. That’s progress, people, or at least a faint whiff of it.

I hope the link at the top of the paragraph works–it’s from the Guardian‘s news update, which will inevitably move on.