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. 

*

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. 

*

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.

*

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.

All the lovely people in the news

After the good Lord Sumption hit the news for telling a woman with stage 4 cancer that her life is less valuable than other people’s, reporters started digging into his past writings and some clever devil found that when he was a Supreme Court justice he was involved in a case weighing whether doctors should be able to help patients end their lives.

The sanctity of life, he wrote, is a “fundamental moral value.” 

Unless it involves the country going into lockdown, which he’s against. If it ends lockdown, we get to ask which life is less sanctified. 

In fairness, he’s trying to dig his way out of that hole by insisting that it was all a misunderstanding: He didn’t say the woman’s life wasn’t at all valuable, only that it was less valuable. 

And besides, he didn’t mean her specifically. Just, you know, people like her.

I’m glad we’ve cleared that up.

Irrelevant photo: Moose. Because we need something cheerful here.

 

Switching countries

These next stories come from the wrong country–I’m supposed to be writing about Britain here–but I can’t pass them one up: 

A Texas real estate agent and radio host flew to Washington DC  in a private plane (a cute guy invited her, she said; who could turn that down?) and she social-media’d the whole experience, from getting on the plane to invading the Capitol.

“We’re gonna go and storm the Capitol,” she said in a Facebook video. “We are going to fucking go in here. Life or death. It doesn’t matter. Here we go.”

As she climbed the steps, she said to the camera, “Y’all know who to hire. Jenna Ryan for your realtor.”

Having since been arrested, she’s outraged:

“I’m facing a prison sentence,” she told a news program. “I think I do not deserve that. I would ask the president of the US to give me a pardon.” (For clarity, that was still Trump when she said that.) She’d been “displaying her patriotism,” she said. “I listen to my president who told me to go to the Capitol.”

If you ever need to define entitlement, think of Jenna Ryan. If you need a realtor–well, you’ll make your own decisions, of course, but I’d think of someone else.

Now that the dust has settled, a lot of it has settled on her and in the cold light of morning, when you’re running around with a feather duster trying to clean up you image for the courts, she’s said, “What I believed to be a peaceful political march turned into a violent protest.” 

She added that she doesn’t condone violence and that we should all come together, Republican and Democrat and independent and resolve our issues in peace. 

Then we’ll sing “Kumbaya,” have a group hug, and accept a presidential pardon.

One of the things she posted, peacefully, from the attack was a picture of a broken window. It said,  “Window at The capital. And if the news doesn’t stop lying about us we’re going to come after their studios next.”

Oh, lo-ord, kumbaya.

*

With the Trumps leaving the building, the news is leaking out that Ivanka and her husband wouldn’t allow the Secret Service officers assigned to protect them to use the toilet in their house. 

I’m sure you understand. They only had six.

Sorry, six and a half.

Or to put that in American, they wouldn’t let them use the bathroom. In American, it’s not polite to mention that porcelain thing you sit on. It reminds us of what you do on it. In British, toilet’s a fairly normal word, although you get into all sorts of weirdly British class issues about who will use the word and who’ll avoid it. But never mind the complications: Some people will use it and no one will call a toilet a bathroom.

A hundred years ago, when I was new to Britain, I asked someone who worked in a fast foodery where the bathroom was. She did a visible double take, thinking I wanted to wash up.

Which in British is what you do with dishes, not (as it is in American) what you do with your own grubby body. So she thought I was looking for a tub of water to jump into.

But back to our point: First the Secret Service set up a porta-potty outside, but the neighbors objected. Then they used the houses of the Obamas and of the Pences, plus the occasional local restaurant. Since 2017, they’ve been paying rent on a studio apartment just so they can use the toilet/bathroom/loo/can/etc. That cost $3,000 a month. 

A White House spokesperson denied the story, saying it was the Secret Service’s decision. The Washington Post, which broke the story, stands by it. It’s being called WaterClosetgate.

Can you catch Covid outdoors? 

If you work at it, yes, you can catch Covid out of door, but fresh air dilutes the virus, moves it off in directions that aren’t toward you, and it dries up the little liquid space suits it travels in. And sunlight kills it. 

Zap. Take that, virus.

So far, somewhere between one case and very few cases of outdoor transmission have been documented. But not documented isn’t the same as impossible, so let’s look at the risks.

At the riskier end of outdoor contact are extended face-to-face conversations where people get too close to each other. We still need to keep our distance, especially during the colder weather, because the virus likes the cold. 

Also risky are what in Britain are called market stalls–outdoor markets that are often under three-sided tents–don’t have the advantage of being fully ventilated. They’re safer than the indoors, but the air doesn’t circulate freely through them. Ditto bus shelters. 

And crowds. 

In those situations, the experts recommend masks, even outdoors.

Irrelevant photo: A wallflower. Yes, it’s a plant, not just someone who clings to the wall at a dance.

But Professor Cath Noakes said she doesn’t “want people to be terrified of passing each other in the street.” To transmit the virus that way, someone would have to cough right at you and you’d have to inhale at just the wrong moment. On the other hand, running with someone so that you’re following in their slipstream for an extended period of time might be a problem.

“The sad fact is that your greatest risk is from the people you know.”

It’s not impossible to pick the virus up from a contaminated surface, but it’s a lot less likely than breathing it in. 

 

Lockdown: the effect and the politics

On Saturday, Covid cases in parts of England were starting to level off. Or by a different set of calculations, the number of infections  is declining in the country as a whole, although it’s still going up in a few regions (including mine, thanks). Either way, the lockdown seems to be having an impact. But I’m going to have to leave you linkless on that, because every link I can find is behind a paywall. I got it from an actual piece of newspaper that I spilled tea on yesterday.

Quite a lot of tea. 

You can’t do that to your computer and expect it to survive.

*

A former Supreme Court judge, Jonathan Sumption–known to his friends and family and all the kids who were in kindergarten with him as Lord Sumption–has made a name for himself as an anti-lockdown advocate. Let the old and vulnerable isolate themselves, he argues, while the rest of the world carries on as usual. 

And so it came to be, children, that he was on a TV show telling a woman with stage four bowel cancer that he hadn’t said her life wasn’t valuable, he’d only said it was less valuable than other lives.

Not just telling her, interrupting her to tell her. Because what some people have to say is more important than what other people have to say.

Don’t feel bad for her. She held her own.

“Who are you to put a value on life?” she said. “In my view, and I think in many others, life is sacred and I don’t think we should make those judgment calls. All life is worth saving regardless of what life it is people are living.”

Lord S. has since said that his comments were taken out of context.

*

A group of Conservative Members of Parliament, though, is getting twitchy about lockdown. Some 70 of them have formed the Covid Recovery Group, which worries about “draconian restrictions” and wants to know when “our full freedoms will be restored.” They can be assumed to be after Boris Johnson’s job–but that’s an assumption. And they can’t all have it.

 

Covid testing and the schools

Somewhere back there, Boris Johnson presented us with a plan to reopen the schools safely by testing the kids every week. Or every day. Or every minute of every day. It was going to be miraculous and world beating and headline grabbing. What’s more, it was going to work, which would make a nice change. 

Or maybe it wasn’t going to work, because the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (known to its friends as MHRA) wouldn’t authorize the tests. It’ll give people a false sense of safety if they test negative, it said. 

This is a £78 million plan and part of the government’s £100 billion Operation Moonshot, which involves not putting a shot glass on the moon but mass Covid testing of various and miraculous sorts. 

The testing started in secondary schools and was scheduled to expand into primary schools (vulnerable kids and the kids of key workers are still in school), and move from there to universities and workplaces. 

The government’s already spent £1.5 billion on lateral flow tests made by Innova, which are fast and, unfortunately, not accurate. They miss a lot of people who are carrying the disease, and miss even more when nonprofessionals use them. 

In response to the MHRA not approving the plan, the government said, “So what? We don’t need regulatory approval because this is assisted testing.” (You understand that I made up that quote, right? But it’s true to the spirit of what they said.) 

Assisted testing is when someone sticks the swab down their own throat and up their own nose. Under supervision–that’s the assisted part, I believe. So it’ll be a seven-year-old supervised by a teacher with no medical background. Using a test that works its imperfect best when done by a professional.

I don’t have a problem with that. Do you?

The plan is that the close contacts of confirmed cases will be tested every day for seven days. If they’re negative, they can stay in school.

The MHRA, on the other hand, said it “continues to advise that close contacts of positive cases identified using the self test device continue to self-isolate in line with current guidelines.”

 

Tipping right over the edge

A super-Orthodox rabbi in Israel has warned people not to get vaccinated because the vaccine can turn people gay

He should be so lucky.

The logic is as follows: “Any vaccine made using an embryonic substrate, and we have evidence of this, causes opposite tendencies. Vaccines are taken from an embryonic substrate, and they did that here, too, so … it can cause opposite tendencies.” 

Are you following this? 

I’m not doing so well with it either. I did ask Lord Google about embryonic substrates and he was resolutely unhelpful, so I’ll nod vaguely, say, “Uh huh,” and sidle quietly out of the room while the good rebbe’s attention is distracted. Being ultra-Orthodox, he (and I admit I’m guessing here, and probably being influenced by stereotypes as well) probably doesn’t have a lot of time to talk with women anyway. 

In response, an Israeli GLBT etc. organization (that stands for gay, lesbian, bacon, and tomato, with whatever else you can fit between two slices of bread without disaster ensuing)–

I’ve lost the thread there, haven’t I? An Israeli GLBT etc, organization has announced that it’s gearing up for a massive influx of new members. 

Israel has managed to vaccinate a large swath of its population–2 million people in a population of 9 million have had at least the first shot. So far, no noticeable change in their sexuality has registered on the Richter Scale. 

What Israel isn’t doing is vaccinating the Palestinians who live in territories under its control. 

A public service announcement

For the record: I am not related to Senator Josh Hawley–much to his relief. 

How long Covid immunity lasts, and other pandemic news from Britain

Since the start of the pandemic, 63 million of our battered planet’s inhabitants have been infected with Covid. So are they immune and can they run around bareback?

No one knows, although the occasional data-free politician says (loudly and proudly) that they are. Only a couple of reinfections have been documented, and signs of an immune response can be spotted for months after an infection, but that doesn’t exactly answer the question. We still don’t know if they could catch it a second time once their immune responses die back. We don’t know how long the immune response lasts. And we don’t know whether in spite of being able to fight off the virus they could go on to be a-symptomatic carriers, infecting other people.

Covid’s a coronavirus. So’s the common cold, and immunity to a cold doesn’t last long. On the other hand, SARS is also a coronavirus, and seventeen years after a person caught it their immune system will be ready to fight it off all over again. Covid could be in either camp or somewhere in between. Or it may have set up its camp in a whole different country than either of its relatives. No one knows what to expect from this particular coronavirus, and people who’ve had the disease are being advised to get vaccinated.

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

And people who get vaccinated are advised to wear a mask and keep their distance, because even with a vaccine-induced immunity, they could be carriers. No one knows yet.

We’re not likely to see what we so quaintly call normal for a while yet.

*

I saw a summary recently of what the Great British Public asked Lord Google during the lockdown. It’s–

Excuse me while I look under the furniture and inside the microwave for a neutral word.

–it’s informative.

People asked how to cut their own hair, how to bake bread, how to make face masks and hand sanitizer, and how to cook Swedish meatballs, katsu curry, KFC-style chicken, and eels. 

Now, I’ll be the first vegetarian to admit that eating eels is no creepier than eating meatballs, but that doesn’t keep it from sounding creepier. People got interested in them, apparently, because I’m a Celebrity contestants were fed eels, presumably to gross out the participants, the viewers, and the crew. That doesn’t explain why it set off a rush on the poor damn creatures, but it seems to have.

People watch too much TV. And take it too seriously.

People also wanted to find someone who’d deliver afternoon tea. Or wine. Or compost. Or possibly all three together. 

They wanted song lyrics. 

Somewhere in all that you’ll find an insight into the soul of lockdown Britain. It was drunk, it had a bad haircut, it was on a do-it-yourself kick, and it watched too much TV, but it didn’t forget the beauty of afternoon tea. If only someone could bring it to the door, because after all that wine the eels got mixed up with the meatballs and the hand sanitizer got into the flour and no, we’re in no shape to make our own. 

And that reminds me of a song. The first word was I. Want to bet Lord Google can find it for us? 

*

From the Joseph Rowntree Foundation comes news that the pandemic’s likely to push two million families into destitution. The foundation defines destitution as not being able to afford two or more of the following over the past month: shelter, food, heat, light, clothing that matches the season, or basic toiletries.

I’d have thought that not having one of those would be plenty, thanks, but I guess they’re making a distinction between garden variety poverty and complete destitution. Either way, we’re looking at a problem. 

This isn’t entirely the pandemic’s doing. It follows years of cuts to government benefits, and I bet we all know the justification for that without googling it: People who rely on government handouts are shiftless and lazy and cheats and worse than that they’re somebody other than us and they should all be out there working. If we just make living on benefits uncomfortable enough, they’ll get off their backsides, put their kids or their dying parents in the deep freeze and their disabilities in their back pockets and accept whatever underpaid job comes along, assuming one is out there to be found–or two or three three of them if need be. Then they can make ends meet as best they can. Or wrestle the ends until they’re as close as possible, anyway. Just like our grandparents so mythically did.

Truth in advertising: On one side of the family, my grandparents did do something along those lines. It’s one of the reasons they were socialists, since you ask. It doesn’t make an argument for someone else having to live that way.

I don’t want to rant about this–or I do, but not here. I also don’t want to ignore it. I’ts part of what’s happening in the country, so let’s acknowledge it. Some of us get to google Swedish meatballs and eels–and neither of them are luxuries–while other people line up at the food bank and if that sort of solves one problem for the moment they still don’t know what they’ll do about the rent and the electricity. 

Meanwhile, some of the people who financed the Brexit campaign are making money because the pound fell in response to the threat of a no-deal Brexit.

*

Depressed? Oh, good. Then this is the time to look at a study from the University of Montreal on how the pandemic’s affected ordinary life. 

Do I know how to throw a party or what?

The study found that if people thought governmental messages about how to respond to the crisis were clear and coherent, then they assumed other people were following them. And the more they assumed other people were following them, the more likely they were to follow them. 

That led the researchers to recommend that government messages be clear and coherent. That may seem obvious, but it’ll surprise the inhabitants of 10 Downing Street and all the people who work there. Except possibly Larry the Cat, who is clear, coherent, and almost universally popular. He also kills mice.

The researchers also recommended that governments target their communications at the majority of people–the ones who follow the recommendations, not at the ones who don’t.

They didn’t say that government ministers and advisors should follow their own recommendations–silly people, they probably take that as a given–but it’s not something you can take for granted, can you, Mr. Cummings?

*

A Geneva study of 700 Covid patients who weren’t hospitalized found that a third of them went on to develop long Covid–which they defined as still having symptoms (fatigue, loss of smell or taste, shortness of breath, coughs . . .) six weeks after they were diagnosed.

The group’s mean age was 43. That’s mean as in one form of an average, not mean as in 43 being inherently any nastier than any other age.

The researchers plan a follow-up at 7 and 12 months to see how the study participants are doing. At this point, no one seems to know how long long Covid is. 

*

A study that followed over 100,000 British people reported that healthcare workers were seven times as likely to get a severe COVID-19 infection as people in other types of work. People working in social care and transportation were twice as likely. 

Black and Asian workers in what are being called non-essential jobs were more than 3 times as likely to develop a severe COVID infection as white non-essential workers, and Black and Asian essential workers were more than eight times as likely.

*

Could we find some good news, please? 

You only had to ask. Researchers from the Open Bioeconomy Lab at the University of Cambridge, the Lab de Tecnología Libre at iBio/PUC Chile, the FreeGenes Project at Stanford University, and the synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks collaborated on a free online toolkit that will let labs in developing countries create their own Covid diagnostic and research tools.

According to John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, “The collapse of global cooperation [has] shoved Africa out of the diagnostics market. . . . African countries have funds to pay for reagents but cannot buy them.”

Or, as the article I lifted this information from put it, the supply chain is broken.

The open-source toolkit will allow scientists to develop tests that are fast, cheap, adapted to needs of local health systems, and easy to manufacture.

*

A 91-year-old who got one of the earliest vaccine doses was interviewed by CNN and, inevitably, the reporter asked how he felt about it. 

Reporters always ask members of the public how they feel about something or other. Your entire block was destroyed by flying saucers? Well, how do you feel about that? We the Public are, apparently, no more than ambulatory masses of feelings, so what else can they ask?

May all the gods I don’t believe in help any reporter who asks me that.

“I don’t think I feel much at all,” Martin Kenyon said, “except that I hope that I’m not going to have the bloody bug now.”

It went viral. 

And how does he feel about that?

“Have people not got better things to talk about?” he wants to know.

Lockdown part two: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

England’s about to enter a month-long lockdown that includes pubs, restaurants (except takeaway), nonessential stores, and going in to work if you can work from home. The biggest exception involves schools and universities, and that loophole is big enough that we can move in the construction equipment and build a world-class germ exchange.

Five and a half weeks ago, the government’s own science advisory group suggested a two-week lockdown, but the government, in its wisdom, decided it would be too damaging to the economy. So now we have a longer lockdown in response to a higher number of infections and it will inevitably create a longer economic interruption. And of course it has that big honkin’ loophole I mentioned, so it may not work all that well, but we’re going to pretend that kids don’t spread the virus (which is possible but far from established) and that students, teachers, and staff don’t interact with anyone except each other. 

The emotional pitch for the new lockdown is that if we do this now, we can save Christmas. 

Someone’s been reading too much Dr. Seuss. 

Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower.

The press conference where Boris Johnson announced the new lockdown started three hours behind schedule, and I would love to have eavesdropped on whatever was going on behind the scenes. So far, no one’s talking but I’m hoping for leaks. 

The delay left fans of a dance competition show, Strictly Come Dancing, frantic, and the BBC cut away a little early so they could start the show only a few minutes late, thus saving not Christmas but Strictly, which is important enough that the nation’s on first-name terms with it.

Only slightly less important than Strictly is a newly announced extension of the job furlough scheme–the one that pays people whose jobs haven’t gone up in smoke but instead have been shelved and may yet be unshelved. The furlough scheme is full of holes, but it’s better than nothing. 

But. When areas in the north of England were in local lockdowns, people who were eligible for the scheme got a smaller percentage of their usual pay. Now that the whole of England’s going into lockdown, people who are eligible will get a larger percentage. Because, um, yeah, basically the areas up north are up north somewhere, and they have these accents that don’t sound right in the hallowed halls of Parliament and–

Oh, hell, they’re a long way away. Who cares, right? 

That can’t be going down well up north. 

As recently as last week, a local government in West Yorkshire, which was moving into a local lockdown, was told there were no plans to make the lockdown national. I hate to sound naive, but I actually believe this. That’s the way Johnson’s government works: There were no plans. At a certain point, they just jumped. 

*

England–or Britain, if you prefer, because elements of this will overlap–isn’t alone in facing a second spike, but it does have its own particular causes, and an economist from the University of Warwick has traced one of them back to the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which offered half-price meals (up to a certain limit) to people who ate out at participating restaurants. 

Thiemo Fetzer traced three sets of data: the number of restaurants participating in the scheme in a given area, the days of the week the scheme ran, and the amount of rain that fell during lunch and dinner on those days. (Not as many people eat out when it’s raining hard.) Then he compared those to the number of known new infections in an area and concluded that the scheme “may be responsible for around 8% to 17% of all new detected Covid-19 clusters emerging in August and into early September.”

To which the Treasury Department said, “Bullshit.”

Okay. They said, “We do not recognize those figures.”

In early October, though, Boris Johnson said in an interview, “It was very important to keep [those two million hospitality] jobs going. Now, if it, insofar as that scheme may have helped to spread the virus, then obviously we need to counteract that […] I hope you understand the balance we’re trying to strike.”

If you’ll allow me to translate that, since it’s mildly incoherent, it means we knew it would spread the virus, but we had to balance that against getting people to spend their money.

Another swathe of infections can be traced back to a government effort to save the travel industry by opening “travel corridors”–arrangements that would let people travel to other countries withour having to go into quarantine when they came home. A Covid variant that originated in Spain is now widespread in the U.K.–and a lot of Europe, while we’re at it.

Spain was on Britain’s list of safe places to visit. Just bring your sunscreen and a bathing suit. Come home with some chorizo and a nice tan. The government cares about you and wants to make sure you can have your holiday–or vacation, if you’re speaking American, which no one was. It’ll all be fine.

The Covid variant, by the way, isn’t a particularly significant variation from the original. For a virus, Covid is surprisingly stable, but like all viruses it evolves and that means sometimes the origin of a cluster can be traced. In this case to Spain, and to a government policy that tried to save the travel industry. 

So here we are again, entering our second lockdown. Forgive me if I haven’t managed to be funny this time out. I support the lockdown, late and flawed as it is. Covid’s a dangerous disease, not only because of the deaths it causes and the way it overwhelms our hospitals but also because of the people it leaves disabled for no one knows how long, maybe for months, maybe for a lifetime. If you’re dealt a card out of the Covid deck, you can’t know in advance which one it will be. Will you be asymptomatic, have a bad week or two, become disabled, or die? 

And you don’t know who you’ll pass it on to, because people are infectious not just when they’re sick but before they have symptoms, or if they have no symptoms. So we gamble not just with our own lives but with the lives of people we love and of people we don’t know at all but share breathing space with. 

Stay safe, my friends. Be cautious. 

Wear a damn mask. They do make a difference.

 

The pandemic news: Science, social media, and the rule of six

England’s in three separate stages of Covid restrictions right now, with the stage depending on where you live and how high the local infection rate is, but weeks ago the government’s official scientific advisory group urged it to impose a short, tight lockdown to stop the rise in infections. To which the government said, “What do you know? We’re following the science.”

“Wait a minute,” the scientists said. “We’re the scientists.”

“Not the scientists,” the government said. “The science.”

It’s not clear at the moment exactly what science they’re following. I’ve been wondering if they got hold of one of those “The Science of. . . ” books. You know: The Science of Getting Rich, The Science of Storytelling. Or if they have science confused with Scientology.

Entirely relevant photo (if you read to the end), which won’t play well on social media: This is Fast Eddie thinking deeply.

In the meantime, though, everyone’s mad at everyone. Local governments in the areas with tighter restrictions are furious that they’ve been allowed no power (never mind funding or serious consultation) to deal with their local situations. People whose workplaces will be shuttered are mad that they’ll be paid a smaller percentage of what they’d have earned than they were paid during the national lockdown. Disregarded parts of the country are feeling more disregarded than usual. They tend to be the places where the infection rate’s high, because transmission’s highest among low-income groups and minority ethnic groups, which aren’t groups that get a lot of help from governments in general but that get even less when the Conservative are in power. So they’re mad. Parts of the Conservative Party are mad because they don’t want the government closing things. The Labour Party’s mad because it’s sure it could handle the pandemic better than the Conservatives–and to be fair, it would be hard work not to. And I’m not particularly happy because I’m buried in newspaper clippings. 

Yes, I work from actual paper, at least to start with. Some days, all you can see of me is a tuft of white hair and a pile of newspaper. 

Send tea. The dogs will know how to find me. 

*

It’s not just local governments who are feeling slighted. MPs from hard-hit areas are finding out about government plans for their areas via What’sApp or being given twenty minutes notice of briefings. One, from Wigan, claimed she was left out of a briefing because the ministers in charge didn’t know where Wigan is. To make up for that, another was invited to a briefing for an area her constituency isn’t part of. 

A third heard about a twenty-minute briefing eight minutes after it had started.

*

You know those face shields that are (presumably) more comfortable than masks? It turns out that they’re the next best thing to useless. Almost all those lovely, airborne droplets and aerosols that the wearers breathe out escape through the gaps. But you’ve got to admit they make a person look like they’re serious about not spreading the disease.

*

In September, while England was learning to count all the way to six in order to figure out who it was safe to get together with outside of a work or educational setting, a stag hunt not only got 130 people together, almost all without masks, the outfit putting it on also got a £10,000 government grant and a £50,000 loan from pandemic-related programs.

Grouse hunts are also exempt from the six-person get-together limit. But if you want to get together and grouse about how inconsistent the rules are, the limit’s still six.

*

People (predictable creatures that we are) increased their use of social media during lockdown, and it turns out that people who send more pictures on social media are at greater risk of depression. Or so says an admittedly small study involving 170 participants, an online questionnaire, and absolutely no photos of anyone standing on a beach looking 30 pounds thinner and 10 years younger than their actual weight and age. 

Does that mean photo-sharers are depressed (or at risk of . . . ) because they send photos or do they send photos because they’re depressed or at risk of? We don’t know. Or I don’t, and the report I saw doesn’t say. All I know for sure is that one fact one lines up with the other one. So can we be safe, please, just in case sharing photos does cause depression. Tell the cat he can stop doing that thing with the lettuce and the chisel because you’ve put the camera down and you’re going to face an entire day without clicking the imitation shutter even once. Even if he starts playing the banjo, you’re not picking it up. Not today.

Yes, bare-assed reality’s tough, but it’s out there anyway. Might as well see what it looks like.

*

In an earlier post (and if you think I know how much earlier, you don’t understand how things work around here), I mentioned a Covid bailout program for small businesses that the British government set up so loosely that it screamed “Scam me!” and people obligingly did. Well, for the sake of balance, it set up another one to be so complex that only one company got all the way through the process. 

The idea behind Project Birch was that big companies would get emergency finance and in exchange give the government a stake in the company. Ten companies were interested but found the process so complicated that they walked away.

*

The U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, said that the pandemic has shown us that the world needs universal health care if it’s going to deal with the next pandemic. 

By not responding adequately to this one, we’ve let the pandemic cause more than a million deaths, infect more than 30 million people in 190 countries, wipe out 500 million jobs, and cost the global economy $375 billion a month. 

The standard indicators of human advancement and well-being are going in reverse for the first time since the U.N. started measuring them in 1990.

*

It’s not news that the pandemic’s put a strain on health systems everywhere and that both non-urgent and damn urgent treatments have been postponed. But how is NHS England (NHS being the National Health Service) planning to respond? It plans to fine NHS trusts (that means hospitals, or at least the organizations that run them) that haven’t gotten back to near-normal schedules by the end of the month. Because what could possibly make more sense than taking money away from an overstretched system when it shows signs of being overstretched?

You bet. That’ll learn ‘em.

*

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine trial has gone on hold while they frantically try to figure out why one of the participants got ill. That’s roughly all the information that’s available, although any decent reporter can fill several paragraphs with it. I’m not a reporter, so all you get is two sentences.

*

The following is a note from that deepest of thinkers, Fast Eddie the cat. He doesn’t usually communicate with strangers, and since he’s broken his silence I believe we should pay attention: 

sddddddddd bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbm,

Please, people, give it some thought.

 

Fairy dust and pushups: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Let’s say you’re a prime minister who got this pesky pandemic thing wrong, hesitating to lock the country down, shaking hands with hospital patients, refraining from kissing babies only because parents clutched their kids and turned away when they saw you coming. A prime minister who told the country that washing hands and singing Happy Birthday would keep everyone safe, and who then, embarrassingly, got sick yourself, either because you didn’t wash your hands or went off key on one of those tricky passages in “Happy Birthday.” A prime minister who locked the country down late but made an exception for your special advisor so he could run around the country scattering virii because he’d mistaken them for fairy dust.

So you’re that prime minister, and after you’d been sick you came back to work to hear lots of speculation whether you were really up to running the country.

Irrelevant photo: a thistle

What would you do?

Pushups, that’s what you’d do. Publicly.

Or maybe you wouldn’t, but that’s what Boris Johnson did, except the British seem to call them press-ups. Never mind. Same thing. Floor, hands, arms, body weight. Straight back if you’re doing them right.

There were two problems with the strategy: Your ability to do pushups has no bearing on your ability to run a country, and Johnson isn’t what you’d call a natural athlete. The photos show a kind of lumpy, overage guy in a dress shirt and slacks looking baffled by a floor. Has this thing always been here? he seems to be asking himself. Can I outsource it?

*

He can’t, but let’s go back to that special advisor, the one with the fairy dust. A law graduate is trying to crowdfund £300,000 for to pay for a private prosecution of Dominic Cummings’ two breaches of lockdown.

“I am trying to encourage the re-establishment of the concept of the rule of law – one law for all,” Mahsa Taliefar said. “What Cummings did demonstrated that at the moment in the UK if you are rich and have powerful friends the law doesn’t apply to you.”

I just checked the website and she’s raised £31,000 so far.

*

You know the theory that we all have to choose between the economy and our health? The theory that says lockdown destroys the economy and we have to open back up to get things going? Well Sweden–the one Scandinavian country that never did lock down, relying on some vague instructions, hand washing, and good sense–not only has a five times Denmark’s death rate but roughly the same economic performance.

Whether there’s a lockdown or not, it turns out that in a pandemic most people avoid public transportation, stay out of shops, and keep their kids home from school. In other words, they exercise the good sense they were advised to. The problem is that a minority will do none of that. Ten percent of the people create ninety percent of the infections.

*

A while back I posted the news that Britain’s free school lunch program for the most economically vulnerable kids will be continued into the summer. It’s good news, but it’s looking a little tarnished lately. It turns out that the £234 million program was outsourced to a private company whose helpline charges £21 an hour.

It used to charge £60 an hour, but–you know what people are like–they had complaints and switched over to the cheaper one in April.

Hey, people, you’re saving–um, hang on–£39 an hour. Focus on that.

Parents and schools also complain about the vouchers being hard to use. Not all stores will take them, and at stores that do, they often don’t scan correctly so they’re unusable.

Oh, and the website leaves people waiting long stretches of time to get their coupons.

And that, my friends, is how to fuck up a free lunch.

*

Scotland has had no coronavirus deaths for four days and has only ten cases in intensive care. The first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is talking about the possibility of eliminating the disease, and at a press conference she dropped hints that they might have to test or quarantine visitors from England. She has no plans at the moment, she said, but she’s not ruling it out.

On the other hand, she didn’t do a single pushup, so what’s she worth?

Meanwhile, a spike in virus cases in Leicester has sent the city going back into lockdown, with non-essential shops shutting their doors, schools closing to most students, and people advised to stay home except for essential trips.

It’s the first of local lockdown since Britain opened back up.

*

A jazz club in Paris has opened up for private concerts. They let people in either singly or in pairs if they live together. Three musicians take turns giving five-minute concerts to each individual or couple.

The concerts are free but guests are welcome to pay what they can or want.

The club’s director said the concerts “generate a kind of magic. People become very emotional. Some come out in tears.”

 

 

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.

*

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.

*

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. 

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

The pandemic update from Britain: lockdown, lunacy, and a mention of Minneapolis

A pilot flew a private plane from Surrey to an airfield belonging to the Royal Air Force. That set off an emergency response involving the Ministry of Defence and fire crews, who (I’m reading between the lines here) wanted to know what the hell he thought he was doing.

He wanted to go to the beach, he said. 

Since the airfield is in Wales, that was a breach of the lockdown rules, which are different in Wales than in England. Or it’s believed to be a breach, since the rules don’t specifically mention landing your private plane on an airforce base so you can go to the beach. 

I think I can safely say that he’ll be in trouble with multiple agencies. I’m reasonably sure that lockdown will be the least of his troubles.

To put the situation into bureaucro-speak, the police are ‘considering’ whether there were ‘potential breaches’ of coronavirus legislation. And the Civil Aviation Authority has been alerted. It will be demanding a note from his parents.

So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that Dominic Cummings was on board. And if you haven’t followed who Dominic Cummings is, just follow the handy link, which will take you to a post by that noted expert, me, which will explain all. Or enough, anyway.

*

England’s contact tracing campaign continues to be a mess, with many tracers not able to log on. Some recruits have set up support groups on Facebook and WhatsApp, pooling their knowledge about what the hell they’re supposed to do, and how. One contact tracer reported (anonymously) that the app wouldn’t work with his or her microphone. Another had been working for three weeks and been asked to do nothing more than join an online training session. A third says he or she has learned to juggle with three balls. 

*

Some of England and Scotland’s coronavirus testing centers aren’t matching test results to either people’s National Health Service numbers or their addresses, which means their doctors aren’t told about coronavirus patients on their caseloads and local authorities can’t track outbreaks in their areas.

Back in March, the devolved governments–that translates to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland–told Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, that the system he was setting up had problems, and Northern Irland and Wales insisted on changes. Scotland and England went ahead. 

Wales and Northern Ireland get to play a satisfying round of I-told-you-so. 

*

An NHS trial is giving Covid-19 patients blood plasma transfusions from patients who’ve recovered, and the trial’s set to expand. The hope is that the antibodies will help them fight off the disease. 

To date, it’s only been tried on patients in intensive care, but it may be more effective if it’s used earlier. Stay tuned.

*

Back in April, the British government’s science advisory group noted that only half the people who came down with Covid-19 symptoms followed the government’s advice to self-isolate for fourteen days. It recommended doing some quick research to figure out what it would take to get people to follow the guidelines. 

As the lockdown eases and the government’s betting its rapidly diminishing stack of chips on testing people, tracing the contacts of anyone who tests positive, and isolating the cases they find, people actually isolating themselves becomes crucial.

Not going into isolation when you should is apparently now known as doing a Cummings. 

Some members of the science advisory group are now warning that easing the lockdown now will lead to a second wave of cases. In England, 8,000 people a day are still becoming infected, and that doesn’t count people in care homes or hospitals. That data’s collected separately and the two data sets aren’t speaking. You know how it is in some families. 

It also doesn’t count cases in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.

One advisor, John Edmunds, said, “If you look at it internationally, it’s a very high level of incidence.”

The current R rate–the rate at which the virus spreads–is between 0.7 and 0.9. At anything above 1, the pandemic grows. At 1, it stays the same, which at a rough guess means 80 deaths a day.

John Edmunds’ colleague Jeremy Farrar tweeted, “Covid-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England. Agree with John & clear science advice. TTI [test, trace and isolate] has to be in place, fully working, capable [of dealing with] any surge immediately.”

 

*

England’s chief medical officer said, in a carefully worded statement, that the country’s at a very dangerous moment. It wasn’t a clear criticism of the government, but a listener could be forgiven for thinking it was.

He also said, mentioning no names, that England’s lockdown rules applied to all.

*

MPs’ inboxes have been swamped by messages about Dominic Cummings, most of them critical. So what does an overwhelmed MP do? Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall gave his responses the personal touch by hitting Send before he remembered to delete the part that said, “insert if there has been a bereavement.” 

He is, he said, incredibly sorry. He remembered to delete the part of the script that said, “Don’t get caught again.”

*

I don’t write much about American politics. Even though I’m American, I live in Britain. It’s not the best seat to watch the show from. But I have to go off topic and say something about what’s happening there, even though it’s happening in the wrong country and it’s not pandemic related.

I lived in Minneapolis for years, and a lot of you will know what’s happening: A few days ago, a white police officer killed an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by kneeling on his neck for seven minutes. On camera. While Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.”

What had Floyd done? Tried to buy something at a local food store. The clerk thought he’d paid with a counterfeit bill and called the police, because that was store policy. No one claims that Floyd knew it was counterfeit. At this point I don’t know if anyone cares whether it actually was.

First there were protests. Then there were riots. A CNN reporter was arrested while covering them, even after he showed  his i.d. He’s black. Yes, that’s relevant. 

Rumors are flying every which way. I can’t confirm them, so I’ll stick to what’s in the papers.

My old neighborhood’s been on fire. The post office, the library, and a whole lot stores have burned down, along with the police station where the officers involved in the killing were based.  

At a gym in another part of the city, a white man threatened to call the police on some black men because the gym was restricted to the tenants of the building and they couldn’t possibly have a right to use the same gym as he did. That was after demanding that they prove they had a right to be there. 

In Kentucky, police targeted a news crew covering a protest about a black woman who was killed by police in her own home. “Targeted” means they shot the reporter with pepper bullets. 

In Detroit, someone shot into a group of protestors from a car, killing a 19-year-old. 

In several cities, cars have driven into crowds of protestors.

I’m not using the word protestor to mean rioter.

Sorry–I’m supposed to be funny here, or to at least try. That’s the agreement we sort of made.  So to those of you who are in the U.S.: Guys, I know racism runs deep in our national DNA. If there’s such a thing as national original sin, that’s ours. But I also know that racism’s not the whole story, that there’s more to us than that. So I’m looking for you to sort this out, okay?

Don’t make me come over there. 

The pandemic update from Britain: swans, spike, and Scunthorpe

The BBC has commissioned TV shows (or maybe that’s one show–we’ll find out eventually) that will, they say, be “a powerful snapshot” of lockdown Britain. One of them is a version of Swan Lake performed in the dancers’ bathtubs and showers.

The director? He directed it from his toilet seat. Sitting there, he said, kept him conscious of the limits the dancers were working with. 

“It’s been like hanging a picture blindfolded,” he said, “a mile away.”

Stay tuned, kids. It should be a one-of-a-kind moment in British culture.

*

Irrelevant photo: a stone age monument.

With all the flap around Dominic Cummings, why hadn’t he trended on Twitter? Because his name causes anti-porn filters to wake from their slumber and block–well, something. Possibly the tweets themselves, more likely the mass of them trending. How would I know? I’m 107 years old and even typing this much woke my anti-tech filters from their slumbers so they could block me from understanding the story. 

I do understand this much: The spam filters have driven people to all sorts of creative mis-spellings of his last name.

The problem of accidental, automated censorship is called the Scunthorpe problem. Scunthorpe is a real place, and that’s its real name. If you’re not a spam filter or a ten-year-old, it’s an inoffensive one, pronounced SCUNNthorp. 

The challenge of figuring out what to block and what not to block is also real. It’s right up there with trying to find pictures of seventeen animals hidden in the picture of a tree. Find the naughty words; don’t find the not-naughty words.

Oops. You got it wrong. Return to Scunthorpe and start over. 

*

In the period that starts on the week that ended on March 20 (that’s a convoluted way to tell time, but I didn’t invent it), the U.K. has the highest excess death rate of any country with reliable statistics: 891 per million.

The highest what? 

Excess deaths: the ones that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. They matter because not all coronavirus deaths are counted as coronavirus deaths. In many countries–possibly in all; how would I know?–how they’re counted depends on what goes on the person’s death certificate, which is decided by a scattering of doctors who may make very different decisions for all sorts of reasons. 

And in the absence of testing, who’s to say who died of the virus and who didn’t?

Excess deaths also matter because people die in a pandemic of things that wouldn’t have killed them if life had been what we so airily think of as normal. So the person who has a heart attack and decides they’d be better off at home than in an overloaded hospital with a high infection rate? Or who calls an ambulance that doesn’t get there for hours? The person whose cancer surgery was postponed because the surgeons didn’t have surgical gowns and couldn’t operate safely?

They all end up as excess deaths, indirectly attributable to the virus.

The data comes from nineteen countries.

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A study in France finds that even mild Covid-19 cases leave 98% of people with protective antibodies. That’s the good news. The bad news is that 2% of the population is left out and that no one knows how long it will last. At this point, they’ve seen it lasting a month.

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South Korea’s second pandemic spike is inching upward, and Jeong Eu-kyeong, the director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they may have to re-impose social distancing. 

“We will do our best to trace contacts and implement preventive measures,” she said, “but there’s a limit to such efforts.” 

A lockdown has been reimposed in Seoul.

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England’s test and trace system launched on Thursday, to the blatt of off-key trumpets and the curses of employees who couldn’t log on. It was supposed to be fully operational by this coming Monday, but Monday has been postponed till late June. Don’t fret. Every month has a solid handful of Mondays.

One contact tracer said they’d been told on Wednesday that the system would start on June 1, not Thursday, and added that there was no vetting or quality control over who was being hired. The tracers are a mix of medical professionals, people who’ve worked in call centers, students working a summer job, and I have no idea who else. They work from a script.

A doctor working as a team leader isn’t optimistic. 

“It’s difficult when you see people breaking rules,” he said. “Everyone is confused what the message is.”

The app that’s supposed to make all this work seamlessly is, um, being tweaked. I don’t think that’s classic British understatement. It’s classic governmental mumblespeak. They did a limited trial on it, discovered problems, and took it into the back of the workshop, where they’re pounding on it with sledgehammers.

Local governments, apparently, feel just as well prepared as the contact tracers, with an unnamed someone accusing the NHS and Department of Health of “control freakery.”

A lot of people are speaking out on this as unnamed someones or by first name only. 

Public health experts say they were sidelined during March and April, as the tracing campaign was being put together, and only involved in May after a behind-the-scenes campaign. 

England–not Britain this time; the overlap and divisions can make a person dizzy–has a network of contact tracers who work with TB and sexually transmitted diseases and could have shifted to the pandemic months ago. Contact tracing interviews, they say, take tact and experience, and they sound skeptical about the effectiveness of people who were hired by the truckload, trained briefly and online, and turned loose to work with a system that–. Well, one person who was supposed to use it said, “I have not been given any details of who to call if I have problems, only an email address…which largely goes unanswered.”

But this will make it safe for us all to emerge from lockdown and we’ll all be just fine, folks. And we don’t have to wait until the tracing system works. We can just go ahead on the promise.

The plan is that when testing identifies local hotspots, local governments, health people, and all the area’s chickens will work together and do something.

What will they do? It’s hard to say, because local authorities don’t have power to close down schools or workplaces, and chickens don’t even have the power to decide when to brood their eggs and when to let the humans do whatever it is they do with them.

Is anyone else feeling a bit chickenish?

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On Friday morning I promise you something unrelated to the virus.