The pandemic news from Britain: A few success stories and some screwups

Europe doesn’t have many Covid success stories, but Finland’s isn’t bad. Its infection rate is the lowest in the European Union (that’s based on a spot check of two weeks that started at the end of October and sloshed over into early November, leaving only a few hard-to-remove stains). It’s infection rate is also five times below the EU average. It was the only EU country whose rate went down in that period.

It responded to the pandemic with an early lockdown, an app, and testing and tracing–things many countries have done but I’m going out on a limb and assuming that they did all of the above competently. It’s odd, but that does make a difference. 

That’s not a comment on how countries like, say, Germany and Wherever Else handled it, because I haven’t been following them. It’s a comment on Britain.

Finland is the only country I know of where 23% of people in a survey said the lockdown had actually improved their lives. Maybe it’s the only country where anybody thought that was a reasonable question.

Nelli Hankonen, an associate professor of social psychology at Helsinki University, said, “In Finnish culture we are not that highly sociable.” So maybe the lockdown took some pressure off people. They could stop trying.

The economy also took less of a hit than most EU economies, with a 6.4% drop compared with 14%. To quote the good prof again, “The economy is structured so that it’s not necessary for a large proportion of the Finnish workforce to be in the workplace.”

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Screamingly irrelevant photo: Strawberry leaves after a frost. We haven’t had a serious frost yet. This is from last year.

Japan also contained the virus effectively, and a study looked at phone data to see how much people in Tokyo moved around. “We found that 1 week into the state of emergency, human mobility reduced by 50%, which led to a 70% drop in social contacts.”

The government declared a state of emergency in April and asked businesses to close and people to work from home. It also restricted travel, but Japanese law doesn’t allow for a mandatory lockdown.

One of the study’s co-authors said, “With a noncompulsory and nonpharmaceutical intervention, Tokyo had to rely on citizens’ cooperation. Our study shows they cooperated by limiting their movement and contact, subsequently limiting infections,” 

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What’s happening with the mass testing that England’s banking on? In a real-world trial in early October, the quick-turnaround test at the heart of the strategy, the Opti-Gene test, missed more than 50% of positive cases. That was, I think, compared to the test that’s been in use for some time now.

Local leaders in cities where the test’s scheduled to be used asked for clinical validity data and didn’t get it, but the Department of Health and Social Care said the test was validated in three other trials. 

Somehow, though, it didn’t make the data public.

The tests have cost £323 million.

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Denmark has discovered that Covid jumped to farmed mink (the country raises a lot of mink for fur; who knew mink was still a thing?), and from them back to some 200 humans. 

That may or may not pose a danger. Viruses do mutate, but so far Covid’s mutations haven’t been significant. The fear is that in jumping to a different species, it may have been forced to pick up more significant mutations, which could, in turn, affect how well vaccines work. Or make it more–

Nah, let’s not even think about that.

So far, there’s no evidence that any of that has happened, and vaccines are fairly easy to tweak–once, of course, we have one or more. The flu vaccine’s tweaked every year in response to educated guesses about the strain of flu that will be circulating. 

People in one affected area of Denmark, northern Jutland, are being urged to stay home to control the spread of the virus variant. And if you think that’s tough, it’s been harder on the mink: 17 million of them are being killed.

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A few comments I’ve gotten convince me that I should say this: I pour a lot of words onto the virtual page about the many things wrong in Britain’s handling of the virus, and even so I barely touch the surface. But for everything that’s been screwed up, at least Britain hasn’t thrown up its hands and let the virus run wild and there’ve been some efforts to support people who’ve lost their incomes. It’s not enough, it’s not being handled well, people are facing eviction, and food banks are swamped while massive amounts of money are poured into outsourcing companies that make a hash of whatever job they’re given, but in contrast to the way the U.S. has handled the pandemic–

Okay, that’s not a demanding point of comparison, but Britain is at least acknowledging the danger and doing something. I do want to acknowledge that.

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A year or two  back, an artist created a spoof of some painfully cheery, squeakily white, fifties-era (I think) British kids’ books, the Ladybird series, and she’s just published one about lockdown. By way of a review, I’ll quote one page: 

“We are shopping for emergency supplies.

“‘There is no Lemongrass!’ says Mummy.

“‘Oh dear!’ says John.

“‘I’m starting to understand what life was like in World War II,’ says Mummy.”

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After the business secretary, Alok Sharma, was exposed to Covid he soldiered on and held meetings with foreign dignitaries anyway, creating a (very minor) scandal. Now it turns out that when he got home he met with (gasp, wheeze) Prince Charles. 

As far as I can tell from the papers, everyone involved seems to have dodged the bullet, but exposing Prince Charles did create a bigger scandal in the press than exposing foreign dignitaries. Because the thing about foreign dignitaries is that they’re foreign. And none of them were (slight pause while I try to assemble some small pretense of respect) royal. 

The funny thing about viruses, though, is that they don’t give a rip who people’s ancestors were. If it’s true, as the proverb says, that a cat may look at a king, it’s also true that a virus will be as happy infecting a prince’s cells as yours or mine.

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A woman with the main Covid systems was trying to get Covid tests sent for herself and her partner but was told they’d have to go to a test site because their identities couldn’t be verified. They have no car and were responsible enough not to take public transportation when they might be infectious, so they ended up going to a walk-in site 90 minutes away.

The reason she couldn’t get the tests sent, it turns out, is that she didn’t have much of a credit history, and the assumption is that people will order multiple home kits. And do what with them? No idea. You can’t process them without a lab, so I doubt they’re worth much on the street.

The woman was on the electoral roll and had a bank account and utility bills in her name, so she could prove her existence in the world, but not in the specified way.

Anna Miller, from Doctors of the World, questioned whether setting this limitation solved a problem that didn’t exist, and in the process locked out people with minimal credit history, “people whose financial situations tend to be organised by other people in a family”–young adults, the elderly, and women, not to mention people with low incomes.

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The government has backed down in the face of Marcus Rashford, a twenty-something football player, over a million signatures on a petition, and many individuals and businesses: It has agreed to provide low-income kids in England–the ones who’d normally get free school lunches–with lunches over the Christmas holiday

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have already committed to do this. Only England was digging its heels in, and over the last holiday, called half term (don’t ask),it left them lunchless. At a time when so many people’s incomes have disappeared and people are turning to food shelves in large numbers, small businesses filled the gap in endless, often touching, ways, some out of their own pockets and some with the help of customer contributions. 

They’ve shamed the government into doing the right thing. 

The Ministry of Impulsive Decisions reports the news from Britain

You’ve probably heard this by now, but good news is hard to come by so let’s not waste it: A cheap, easily available steroid, dexamethasone, can cut the risk of death in seriously ill Covid-19 patients. The bad news? It doesn’t help in milder cases. Still, this is a bit of genuine good news. Gift horse; mouth.

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Faced with the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping through Britain, our rumpled and (lately) not entirely present prime minister Boris Johnson announced a commission to study inequality.

That’ll slow down those pesky protesters, right? By the time it reports back, everyone will have forgotten how to even spell inequality.

So what was his first move? He appointed Munira Mirza to set it up. And she’s on record as having said that institutional racism is “a perception more than a reality,” not to mention as having complained that earlier inquiries (there’ve been six in four years) fostered a culture of grievance.

If all goes according to plan, the commission’s report will be referred to the Department of Cynicism and Bitter Irony. They do a lot of filing there.

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Irrelevant photo: Hydrangea–our neighbors’. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Astronomers report that our galaxy may be home to as many as thirty advanced civilizations.

Sorry, but the link won’t lead you to any information about them. All it does is confirm that I don’t make this shit up.

How can we tell that they’re advanced?

Well, they’ve been smart enough to stay away from us.

Okay, that isn’t necessarily by choice. They’d be, on an average, 17,000 light years away. Too far for them to drop by casually for a cup of tea. Too far, most likely, to even know about tea. Quite possibly too far for us to pick up any signs of their existence. And vice versa, although if they get close enough to pick up a hint of what’s going on here, they’ll decide no cup of tea is worth it. 

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And since we’re talking about the whole galaxy, let’s forget Britain for another minute and talk about Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ.

The autonomous zone was set up after clashes in which the police used pepper spray, teargas, and flash bangs while Black Lives Matter protesters threw rocks, bottles, and fireworks.

Then someone drove a car into a crowd of protesters and shot one of them. I’m not sure what impact this had on events, but I’d bet a bowl of popcorn that it didn’t lower the tension level.

Eventually, the police withdrew from the neighborhood, boarding up the police station and leaving protesters to set up the CHAZ, which covers a few blocks. CNN describes it as more like a festival than a protest. It’s stocked with all the essentials: granola bars, water, toilet paper, and toothpaste.

The mayor, Jenny Durkan said, ”It’s not an armed takeover. It’s not a military junta. We will make sure that we will restore this but we have block parties and the like in this part of Seattle all the time. . . . There is no threat right now to the public.”

Reporting on the situation, Fox News mistook a joke on Reddit for a split in the organization running the CHAZ.

Okay, I have no idea if any organization really is running things or if it’s all evolving on the fly–or if an organization thinks it’s running it and things are also (or instead) evolving on the fly. I also don’t know if I’m supposed to call it just CHAZ or the CHAZ , but never mind the many things I don’t know. (Why do you listen to me anyway?) What matters is that Fox News thought a group was in charge and reported on the split, reading the Reddit post on the air: “I thought we had an autonomous collective, an anarcho-syndicalist commune at the least, we should take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.”

What the post’s doing there isn’t commenting on a split but playing off Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where King Arthur introduces himself to a peasant, saying he’s the king, and the peasant announces that they already have their own government.

“We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week, but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority in the case of purely external affairs.”

I’d have missed the Python reference myself. Unlike a few people I’ve known and worked with, I don’t have the dialogue memorized. But I like to think that a line Fox News left out would have made me think that something other than a mail-order organizational squabble might be going on: that the king couldn’t “simply expect to wield supreme executive power just because someone threw a sword at him,”

I’ve been in more than one strange political conflict, but none of them have involved swords. Everyone has their limits, and I’m pretty firm about that one, although I did, for a long time, have a friend’s (American) Civil War-era sword hanging on my wall. It was blunt and wouldn’t have been any use in political disputes, but no, I would not have been tempted.

I did once sit in a meeting and consider whether a crochet hook would be any use as a murder weapon, but that’s a different story.

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Back to Britain: There’s lots of flap here about when, how, and where the kids are going back to school.

In the first plan, two age groups were going back, then the rest of at least the primary school kids would follow before the school year ended. The British school year runs later into the summer than the American one does, but even so it wasn’t clear that they’d be in school long enough to do more than exchange germs.

This was all handled by the Ministry of Impulsive Decisions, which didn’t do any serious consulting with the schools or the teachers’ unions, so a lot of the schools said they couldn’t open safely even for the first group, and some parents, in the interest of safety, kept their kids home from the schools that did open.

But some kids from two age groups went back, and the rest of the plan was sent to the Ministry of Lost Ideals.

Cue calls–including some from within the Conservative Party, which is all that matters since it has a huge majority and doesn’t really have to listen to anyone else–for emergency measures: a summer tutoring program, possibly, or what are being called Nightingale schools, mirroring the Nightingale hospitals, which were basically field hospitals set up at the beginning of the pandemic and barely used, partly because they turned out not to be needed and partly because no one had figured out how to magic up the staff a hospital relies on.

Who knew that hospitals aren’t just buildings–that if you don’t have staff you don’t have a hospital?

Yes, planning is this government’s strength.

So long ago that I’ve lost track of the date, the Department of Good Intentions promised both internet access and computers to any kids in year 10 who didn’t have them.

Why year 10? Why not year 10? It’s random enough to sound like it has some research behind it.

Many headteachers report not having seen so much as a computer cable.

And none of that solves the problem of what the kids in other age groups are supposed to do.

A recent study reports that a third of students have done no lessons at all while the schools are closed and that less than half have sent work to their teachers. Students in what they call the most disadvantaged schools are the least likely to be doing any schoolwork.

The Department of Relentless Optimism is surprised by this.

Let’s move on before I get started on the mind that classifies schools as disadvantaged, as if somehow their problems came from a combination of bad luck and birth trauma.

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After having said that the free school meals for the most vulnerable kids would stop at the end of the school year, the Department of We Never Said That and if We Did We Didn’t Mean It That Way has announced that free school meals will continue.

How come? A footballer, Marcus Rashford, campaigned for them.

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Dozens of hospitals are still reporting a shortage of scrubs. This much, you’d think, the Department of We’ve Been Here Before could get right by now. They’re not high-tech equipment. Volunteers have been supplying some. Any place with a sewing machine could turn them out.

Some doctors report that they’re taking their home to wash, which is what they’ve been advised to do even though it risks spreading infection.

The NHS says there’s no shortage of scrubs and asks everyone to go have a cup of tea and think about all those intelligent civilizations somewhere in the galaxy, who see us on Instagram and wish they had such a nice cup of tea.

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Speaking of Instagram, it’s time for everyone who’s feeling bad because they’re not in a relationship to stop fretting. In Britain, married people and people in civil partnerships reported the highest rise in anxiety levels during lockdown.

That’s not the same as saying they have the highest level of anxiety, only the highest increase. But still.

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In the Caribbean and South and Central America, the pandemic is kicking off an epidemic of hunger, the U.N. warns.

And in France, a demonstration by healthcare workers demanding more funding for the health system ended with some people in black setting fire to a car (actually, a vehicle–it could be a tank for all the word gives away) and throwing things at the police, at which point the police fired tear gas at the demonstrators, although as far as I can tell from a short mention they didn’t start the violence.

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Britain’s health secretary was on Sky News talking about how quarantine would protect us from countries where the coronavirus rate of infection is higher than ours.

Which ones, the interviewer asked.

Brazil, he said.

Could he name any others? the interviewer asked.

Um, well [insert vague blither here, along with the word science].

Yes, she asked, but what others?

[….science….]

[….science…]

It’s all about the science, folks. That’s why we’ve imposed a quarantine at a time when we’re the folks other countries want to quarantine.

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A professor of cardio-vascular science, Mauro Giacca, says, “What you find in the lungs of people who have [died of Covid-19 after 30 to 40 days in intensive care] . . . is something completely different from normal pneumonia, influenza or the Sars virus. You see . . . a complete disruption of the lung architecture.”

Their lungs, he says, can be completely unrecognizable.

And a professor of medicine, John Bell, says that a second wave of the virus, which he considers likely now that Britain’s lockdown is being released, should at least allow scientists to measure whether people who survived one bout of the virus become immune to it.

The Department of Silver Linings has taken note.

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I can’t let you go until you’ve read this: In Vienna, a man has been fined 500 euros for farting loudly at the police–or, to be formal about this, for offending public decency. He got up from a park bench, looked at the cops, and “let go a massive intestinal wind apparently with full intent.”

He also behaved “provocatively and uncooperatively” beforehand, but that doesn’t seem to be why they arrested him.