Reform UK, Covid, and the definition of freedom: It’s the news from Britain

Nigel Farage, who was pivotal in convincing Britain that Brexit would be as much fun as a pint in a pub on a Tuesday afternoon, has rebranded the Brexit Party now that Brexit’s about to happen and there’s no more fun to be had from it. 

It might be relevant that Farage was in the US for a while, pumping up Donald Trump’s balloon, and a lot of the fun’s gone out of that as well. He had a £10,000 bet riding on Trump winning. A rebranded party might be just the thing to cheer him up.

The party is now called Reform UK, and it advocates letting Covid circulate freely among young people while the old and the vulnerable dig holes in the ground and hide.

Okay, what they actually said was that in response to the pandemic, “The Government has dug itself into a hole and rather than admit its mistakes, it keeps on digging.” But hey, I’m certifiably old. I’ve been around long enough to know that if you identify a hole and the digger won’t jump in, someone else is likely to be pushed. For all the rhetoric about protecting the vulnerable, someone’s going to end up in there. 

The party’s argument is a simple one: Not that many people die from Covid and “the new national lockdown will result in more life-years lost than it hopes to save, as non-Covid patients with cancer, cardiac, lung and other illnesses have treatments delayed or cancelled again.”

Wait, though. Are those cancellations really a result of the lockdown or are they a result of Covid itself? 

Oh, stop fussing. If we move fast enough, no one will ask. Let’s move on:

Irrelevant photo: Orange berries. What would you do without me to explain these thing to you?

“Focused protection is its key, targeting resources at those most at risk, whether it is the elderly, vulnerable or those with other medical conditions. The rest of the population should, with simple hygiene measures and a dose of common sense, get on with life—this way we build immunity in the population. We must learn to live with the virus not hide in fear of it.”

You know to saying that for every complicated question, there is an answer that is simple, appealing, and wrong? 

Farage’s argument against lockdowns–or his party’s; it’s hard to know where the line between them is, since his ventures are strongly personality driven–is based on the Great Barrington Declaration. So, sigh, let’s talk about the GBD. (Great Barrington, by the way, is a town in Massachusetts where the declaration, for some reason, started.)

The GBD was written by three public health experts and signed by 15,000 public health experts and medical practitioners, some of whose expertise is questionable, especially that of Johnny Bananas and Professor Cominic Dummings. Another signer’s name is the entire first verse of “La Macarena.” About a hundred were therapists whose fields of expertise included massage, hypnotherapy, and Mongolian khoomii singing. Nothing against Mongolian khoomii singing, but it doesn’t make you an expert in public health. So I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t a highly selective group. 

The last time I checked, 160,000 members of the public had also signed. And some uncounted number of scientists have jumped in to criticize the declaration, which argues that lockdowns cause all sorts of harm, both physical and mental. 

The statement was sponsored by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian, free-market think tank that’s part of a network of organizations funded by Charles Koch, a right-wing American billionaire who promotes climate change denial and opposes regulations on business. He’s one of two brothers who have something in the neighborhood of $40 billion to play with, who donate lots of money to the Republican Party, and who funded the Tea Party. To quote Rolling Stone, they’re using their money “to buy up our political system.”

Why one of them went out to play without the other I don’t know.

But let’s not throw out the declaration because of the company it keeps, however much we might not want to have Thanksgiving dinner with them. The question is, does it make sense?

Mmmm, no. First, let’s think about the difficulty of separating out the elders from the youngers. About the mulit-generational families who live together; the isolated elderly whose lives are held together by the visits of younger carers, either paid or unpaid; the institutionalized elders cared for by younger people; and any other intergenerational border that functions without a checkpoint and barbed wire.

Think about the vulnerable people who aren’t elderly. The ones with asthma, the ones with medical conditions of various sorts, the ones who are pregnant, the ones who are obese. Forget the smokers, the vapers. Also the people who are Black or from other minority ethnic groups, who are dying at higher rates than whites. Or (and there’s some overlap here) the people in low-paid jobs, who are in contact with wide swathes of the public and all the viruses they carry. 

Think about the medical professionals and non-professional medical staff who as an occupational hazard are in contact with the sick. 

 In a study of 106 Covid deaths among health-care workers, 8% were 30 or younger, 26% were between 31 and 50, and 38% were between 51 and 60. That doesn’t add up to a free pass for younger people. 

But even younger people with less exposure don’t get a Get out of Covid Free card. In an article in the Medical Express (I think it was a reprint), an imaging cardiologist, Partho Sengupta, reports “heart abnormalities in over one-third of student athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 and underwent cardiac screening at West Virginia University this fall.”

That’s not damage to the heart itself. It’s ”evidence of inflammation and excess fluid in the pericardium, the sac around the heart. Almost all of the 54 students tested had either mild COVID-19 or were asymptomatic.”

It could cause myocarditis, pericarditis, heart failure, or arrhythmia in athletes.

“There is still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19 and its lingering effects on the human body,” Sengupta writes. 

“We didn’t find convincing signs of ongoing myocarditis, but we did see a lot of evidence of pericarditis. Among the student athletes screened, 40% had pericardial enhancement, suggesting resolving inflammation in the sac that protects the heart, and 58% had pericardial effusion, meaning excess fluid had built up.

“Usually, this kind of inflammation heals within a few weeks with no residual effects. However, in some cases, there can be long-term effects, like pericardial inflammation recurring. It can lead to scarring of the pericardial sac, which in rare cases can be severe, and the pericardium can constrict around the heart. This can lead to symptoms similar to heart failure and cause congestion in the lungs and liver.

“It’s difficult to predict if a patient will develop any of these rare long-term complications, and it’s too soon to tell if it’s happening.

“. . . COVID-19 is no joke. The best way for athletes to stay healthy so they can keep playing sports is to avoid getting the coronavirus in the first place. Teams should test student athletes for the virus and make sure those who test positive see a doctor to determine if screening tests for heart damage are needed.”

I mention that particular study because it wandered into my inbox recently, not because it’s the only evidence of younger people being vulnerable to Covid. When I consulted Lord Google, he pointed me to a Johns Hopkins Medicine article with statistics from last March, when 38% of the people hospitalized with Covid in the US were between 20 and 54. Half of the people who ended up in intensive care were under 60,

The trend in Europe was the same. 

I could point out that Farage is getting on toward sixty and shrugging off a case of Covid might not be as easy as shrugging off last night’s pints, but it wouldn’t be wise to position myself between Mr. F. and the spotlight. 

An article in the Lancet says that “no population group is completely safe from COVID-19 at the present time, and there is no room for complacency.”

In Britain, patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 after Aug 1 tended to be younger than the ones at the start of the pandemic, although they were less likely to end up on ventilators. A lot of them were women. This probably has to do with what jobs they do: A lot of people working in service jobs and what’s dismally called the hospitality industry are women. A lot of their customers breathe. The higher the dose of the virus a person takes in, the more likely they are to get a severe case.

It’s not just about your age.

One study estimates that one in seven people who gets ill with Covid is sick for at least four weeks, one in twenty for at least eight weeks, and one in forty-five for at least 12 weeks.

How long does “at least” go on? No one knows. 

If anyone wants to risk exposing themselves in the name of freedom and living their lives to the full, that’s their call. But as someone or other said, My rights end where the other fellow’s nose begins. You can find the quote in a variety of formats and attributed to a variety of people (Abraham Lincoln, John Stuart Mill, Oliver Wendell Holmes; not Yogi Berra, although he said almost everything else worth quoting), but the sense still holds: You have the right to judge your own level of risk but at the point where you’re risking other people’s health, your rights end. 

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Can we end with some good news, please? This should come with trumpets blaring at the top of the post, but odd are that you’ve heard it by now anyway: A preliminary analysis of the Pfizer and BioNTech Covid vaccine says it protects 90% of people from the virus.  It’s been tested on 43,500 people in six countries and so far no safety concerns have popped up. It involves two doses given three weeks apart and that magical 90% protection was calculated seven days after the second dose. 

The data hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, and the vaccine has to be kept in ultra-cold storage–below minus 80 C–so it won’t be easy to work with. Still, let’s enjoy a shred of hope when we can. If it works, it could take the fun out of the Reform UK party. What ever will Farage find to do with himself next?

Why young adults don’t have a get-out-of-Covid-free card

As the pandemic lumbers onward, we’re hearing more about long Covid–the debilitating long-term effects that some people experience after the disease has passed. Here’s what I’ve been able to scrape together:

No one who catches the virus knows what card they’ll pull out of the Covid deck. Some people have no symptoms, some people get sick and recover, and some people die. As far as most discussions are concerned, that’s it. Cards distributed. Can we play something else, please? 

Well, no, we can’t, because that middle group isn’t done drawing cards. Some of them recover fully, regardless of whether they had serious cases or mild ones, and some–even people who had mild cases–don’t go back to being the people they were before they got sick. And that includes young adults, the people we thought had a get-out-of-jail-free card for this disease. 

The symptoms of long Covid range all over the place. They can include exhaustion, brain fog, memory problems, breathlessness, depression, hair loss, concentration problems, loss of the senses of taste and smell, joint pain, muscle aches, chest pain, chills, sweats, digestive issues, coughs. Trouble going upstairs and trouble walking to the end of the street (the road, the lane, the whatever) get mentioned a lot. Fatigue sounds like the most common symptom.

Some people slowly get better and move on. Some improve a bit and slip back a bit and improve again and slip back again. Some seem to be stuck at the bottom. And it goes on for months. 

Does it get better? We don’t know yet. 

Semi-relevant photo: This is called honesty. I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially to politicians in the middle of a pandemic. It’s out of season at the moment, but let’s not draw any overarching conclusions from that. 

The Covid Symptom Study app–that’s not the official British test and trace app but it’s been downloaded by 3 million people and one cockatoo–says one person in twenty has long-term symptoms. Another app, this one in Scotland and Wales, comes up with one in ten having symptoms for longer than three weeks, some of them for months.

An article in the BMJ quotes Tim Spector, of the Covid Symptom Study, saying that if your version of Covid includes “a persistent cough, hoarse voice, headache, diarrhoea, skipping meals, and shortness of breath in the first week, you are two to three times more likely to get longer term symptoms.” 

Long Covid seems to be about twice as common in women as in men.

Or in one Paris hospital, four times more common. The same hospital said the average age of the long-haulers they saw was forty.

I know. The numbers are all over the place. These are early reports, a lot of them involving a small number of cases. They’re not carefully designed studies. It’s too early for that.

Another study said a third of patients who had mild symptoms hadn’t gotten back to their pre-Covid health after two to three weeks. The older the patient, the more likely that was, but a quarter of the people between eighteen and thirty-four hadn’t bounced back.

Many long-haulers report that many doctors don’t take them or their symptoms seriously–especially if they’re women. And gee, no, we wouldn’t want to draw any overarching conclusions from that either.

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Meanwhile, back at the Journal of the American Medical Association, a study reports that older people are underrepresented in trials of both Covid vaccines and treatments. 

Why’s that when they’re the most vulnerable to the disease? Because participation often depends on not having other diseases, or on having smart phones or internet access. 

That causes a problem, because older patients may need higher or lower doses of a vaccine or a medicine. Get it wrong and a cure or vaccine can be either toxic or useless.

Dr. Sharon Inouye said, “To be sure, some exclusions are needed to protect the health and safety of older adults—such as poorly controlled comorbidities. However, many are not well-justified, and appear to be more for expediency or convenience of the trialists.”

Did you say something about overarching conclusions?

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Okay, how much do masks, handwashing, and keeping a distance from people limit the spread of Covid? Considerably, according to a study in Thailand.

Wearing a mask all the time lowers the risk by 77%. Wearing it only part of the time you’re with someone does fuck-all. So that business about putting on a mask at a restaurant when you head for the toilets, then taking it off so you can sit back down and shovel food into your face? Useless. 

Keeping a meter away from people reduces infection by 85% and keeping contact down to fifteen minutes or less reduced the risk by 76%. Frequent handwashing? That reduced it by 66%. Add those all together and Covid will end up owing us. Or doesn’t it work that way?

If you’re wondering whether they’re talking about reducing the risk of passing on the disease or of getting it, I wondered the same thing.

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Researchers at Oxford University suggest that the best use of limited Covid testing resources would be to test people who are the most likely to pass on the disease–healthcare workers, transport workers, social care workers, delivery drivers, people who go to large gatherings, people in large cities–and to do it at regular intervals.

Random testing, they say, wastes resources.

Are we going to listen to them? Probably not. What do they know anyway?

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An anti-Covid nasal spray that’s been tested ferrets looks promising. It interacts with cells in the nasal cavity, waking up the immune system, which then kicks in and–

Okay, let’s not pretend I understand this. I’ll quote: It “kicks in like a defence shield which is broad-sprectrum and non-specific.” So presumably it slaughters anything it finds that looks suspicious. It’s odd how a moderately nonviolent person like my own bad-tempered self turns bloodthirsty when we’re discussing the immune system.

It’s too early to know if it’ll translate to humans. Or cause us to grow a glossy fur coat. 

“The hope is that it will reduce the duration and severity of the symptoms and if you reduce the number of viral particles in the nose, the hope is that it would reduce transmission – although they haven’t done those studies yet.” 

Hang onto that word hope. We need as much of it as we can get these days.

Stay well, people. I don’t have so many readers that I can afford to lose any.