The pandemic update from Britain: numbers, alcohol, and ice cream

Somebody enjoyed Britain’s lockdown: Looking at all those empty roads, a handful of drivers said, “Wheee,” or whatever the British equivalent is if that’s an Americanism. I can’t remember hearing anyone British say it, but at 107 years old I don’t find myself in as many whee-like situations as I used to. 

No, I can’t explain it either.

Around the country, a few drivers dedicated themselves to finding out if the high numbers on their speedometers were only there for decoration or if their cars would really go that fast. On mine, anything over 70 is decorative unless we’re going downhill, but that’s okay because they do look very nice. 

The record was set by someone driving 163 miles an hour on a London motorway, which in American is a highway. That’s a meer 93 miles an hour over the speed limit. But the winner (and I can’t be entirely objective in how I award the prizes here) was someone driving 134 miles an hour in a 40 mile an hour zone. 

 

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Screamingly irrelevant photo: a geranium.

As lockdown eases, we’re all being profoundly sensible. In Accrington (wherever that may be), a birthday party turned into a fight and three people were arrested after an enthusiastic exchange of germs. I’m not sure how many people were at the party, but that’s okay because by now I’ve forgotten how many people are allowed to meet up. I do remember that they’re supposed to be out of doors, which (in a startling break with protocol) makes sense, but the number is arbitrary, so why remember it? However many it’s supposed to be, let’s assume they had more.

The evening news showed photos of mobbed beaches here in the southwest, with people packed especially tightly on a path leading to a beach. And to celebrate the chance to enjoy nature at its best, people left their litter when they went home, knowing that it would go on celebrating without them.

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And from the department of non-snarky reporting, a bakery in Liverpool was offering a free coffee or ice cream to anyone people who’d helped clean up the local parks. All they had to do was dump their bag of litter in the bin outside the shop.

Liverpool’s too far from Cornwall for a free ice cream to be worth the trip, but I did give it some thought.

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We’re getting details of Britain’s proposed quarantine for international visitors and it’s a masterstroke of pointlessness. It puts travelers in quarantine for two weeks, but it’s an imaginary quarantine. They’ll be asked to self-isolate, and about a fifth of them will be spot checked. But they can go out to shop for food and medicine. They can move from one residence to another. And they can take public transportation to get to wherever the hell they’re staying. And they can breathe both in and out while they do all of the above.

Oh, and they’ll be advised to download the contact tracing app when it’s available. If it ever is available. 

Predictably, no one’s happy with the plan. People who want travelers and business, not to mention the money they bring, want no quarantine.  And people who do want a quarantine want the kind of quarantine that quarantines people. 

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A report published in the Lancet reports that–

Well, what it reports depends on what newspaper you read. According to the Guardian, the Independent, and the Irish Times, if instead of keeping 2 meters from other people we keep 1 meter away, we’ll double the risk of Covid-19 infection. 

According to the Mail, however, keeping 1 meter apart “slashes” the risk of infection by  80 percent. “Researchers found there was roughly a 1.3 per cent chance of contracting the virus when two metres from an infected patient. But halving this gap raised the risk to only 2.6 per cent.” 

According to the Sun, “Keeping 1 metre apart IS enough to cut risk of virus.” But only if you put your VERBS in ALL CAPS. 

All three are technically accurate, they just use the numbers differently and make the report’s information sound very different. 

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In the meantime, almost half of all drinkers in Britain are starting to drink earlier in the day during the pandemic. We’ll use a Guardian link for that, because if we go to the Mail, we learn that  “Nearly HALF of Britons” end up in all caps. 

And with that we end our comparative survey of the British press.

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British hospitals will run five drug trials to see if they work against Covid-19. They range from heparin (already in use as a blood thinner but will be tried in nebulized form to see if it works as an anti-inflammatory and protects cells against the virus) to Bemcentinib (used to treat blood disorders but carrying an antiviral effect). 

Okay, I kind of lied about ending our survey of the British press, because it seems worth noticing that the Guardian, the Mail, and the Sun all pretty much agree on that. So to keep myself kind of honest, I’ll  give you a link from the Post Courier, from Papua New Guinea.

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A study from McMaster University shows that cloth masks do keep the droplets and aerosols that we breathe out from spraying into the world around us. And that may reduced the odds of spreading the virus.

For droplets and aerosols,  if you want, you can substitute the words spit and micro-spit.

“The point is not that some particles can penetrate the mask, but that some particles are stopped, particularly outwardly, from the wearer,” said Catherine Clase, the paper’s first author.

First author? That’s the big name on the paper. The one who’d get ALL CAPS if she were a Sun or Mail headline.

The mask’s effectiveness, predictably enough, depends on what it’s made of. A commercial mask made with four layers of cotton muslin reduces particles by 99%. A scarf, sweatshirt, or T-shirt could reduce them by 10% to 40%. 

I’ve seen a pattern for a crocheted mask that would reduce transmission by 0%, because the nature of crocheting is that it’s full of holes. It was on someone’s blog. I was too floored to leave a comment. Someone’s probably out there somewhere, wearing one. 

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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.”

 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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. 

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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.

Volunteers, the virus, and the Wayback Machine: it’s the pandemic update from Britain

Our prime minister’s brain, Dominic Cummings, held a press conference on Monday to explain that he hadn’t broken any of the lockdown rules he helped write and why he had no plans to resign, and I was going to shut up about him for a while, but the absurdities keep piling up, and I’m a sucker for absurdity.

Among other things, he said, “For years, I have been warning about the dangers of pandemics. Last year, I wrote about the possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning.”

He did indeed write about the threat of coronaviruses in a 2019 blog post, but he wrote the coronavirus part of it in April of 2020–that was last month, in case you’ve gone adrift–and edited the reference in as if it had been there the whole time. 

Hands up anyone who knew about the internet archiving service called the Wayback Machine. I didn’t. It doesn’t look like Cummings did either.

The government has confirmed that the blog post was indeed edited.

Irrelevant photo: Sunset from the cliffs near St. Materiana.

Cummings also said in the press conference that after he left his job in Downing Street and went home because his wife had Covid-19 symptoms, he returned to Downing Street–another breach of the rules he helped write, which  no one seems to have known about it until he brought it up in his own defense. 

He also explained that he drove thirty miles from his parents’ home, with his wife and kid in the car, to make sure his eyesight was good enough to drive back to London.

And in case you care, he was half an hour late to his own press conference. 

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How’d it go down? Not that well. In a YouGov poll, 59% of the people surveyed thought Cummings should resign (7% more than thought that three days before) and 71% thought he had broken the lockdown rules.

Since Cummings has said he won’t resign, will Johnson dump him? I doubt it. I don’t think he has an alternative source of ideas. 

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A study from Japan, combined with anecdotal evidence and a study from Hong Kong (which hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, meaning we can take it seriously but shouldn’t turn it into a bronze plaque) indicates that Covid-19 doesn’t spread easily out of doors but that it just loves enclosed spaces.

Okay, the wording there is mine. Don’t put that on a bronze plaque either. The information, though, comes from an article in the Atlantic, which also says, “Our understanding of this disease is dynamic. Today’s conventional wisdom could be tomorrow’s busted myth. Think of these studies not as gospels, but as clues in a gradually unraveling mystery.”

The risk of infection is (or seems to be) nineteen times higher indoors than out. The virus doesn’t seem (emphasis on seem, remember) to spread easily on objects–elevator buttons, door knobs, bottles of bleach on the supermarket shelves. It seems to travel most happily directly from one person to the next on the tiny droplets that we breathe out (and of course, in), and it just loves it when we get into enclosed areas and talk, shout, sing, and breathe. 

A while back, I linked to a study that said the droplets singers breathe out don’t travel any further than half a meter. I don’t know which of these contradictory reports is yesterday’s busted myth, but I thought I’d better follow up the first study with this yeah-but.

If the studies are right about the virus not spreading well out of doors, we can expect a dip this summer (in the northern hemisphere, at least, where summer currently resides, or soon will). People will spend more time outside. Then we can expect to see a spike in the fall. 

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Need a morale boost after that? In Britain, ten million people have been volunteering during the pandemic–helping out with grocery shopping and picking up prescriptions, phoning people who are alone, working at food banks. They were counted by an insurance company, called (confusingly enough) Legal and General, along with the Centre for Economic and Business Research. That (and I’m going to have to take their word on this; if it doesn’t add up, blame someone else) is almost one in five adults, putting in an average of three hours. Presumably per week, but possibly per lifetime. Sorry. 

And since if something isn’t worth  money, it didn’t really happen, their work is worth more than £350 million per week. It’s measured by a magical system that I can’t explain. Let’s call it a money-o-meter. 

“Many” people, the study said, are continuing to pay gardeners, cleaners, and other people who provide services, and to support local businesses, although they didn’t offer numbers on that. 

And since we’re playing with numbers, 65% of the British public (and 68% of Conservatives) support raising income tax to pay care workers more. 

The average annual pay for a care worker is £16,400 per year.

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What’s happening around the world

New Zealand’s gone 5 days with no new Covid-19 cases.

South Korea reported 40 new cases in one day–its biggest spike in 50 days–just as kids are going back to school. Most of them are concentrated around Seoul and linked to nightclubs, a warehouse, and karaoke–um, whatever you call the places where people karaok.

Spain has declared ten days of mourning. 

And the Japanese football league (if you’re American, that means soccer) has introduced a remote cheering app for games played in empty stadiums. Loudspeakers will play fans’ voices in real time. It’ll be exactly like the real thing.

Cheese, spiders, and, um, let’s not put that in the headline: it’s the pandemic update from Britain

With the number of daily Covid-19 deaths falling, English schools are set to open on June 1, but not for all age groups, just for a couple. And not Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish schools, which make their own decisions. And not necessarily all English schools, because local governments–some of them–are digging their heels in and saying, forget it, we’re not opening. And not all kids, because parents have a get-out-of-school-free card and can look grim and keep their kids home if they want to.

But the government still says the schools will open, and if this is starting to sound like a round of The Cheese Stand Alone, that’s because it sounds like a round of The Cheese Stands Alone. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s a kids’ game that peels people away one by one until the cheese is left in the center of (if I remember right–it’s been a long time) the circle, feeling very lonely indeed. 

I thought I might have made that up but I checked with Lord Google, who assured me that I haven’t hallucinated my entire childhood. It’s a children’s game and song. One of the related questions that’s asked so commonly that it comes up all on its own is, “What does the cheese stands alone mean?”

Irrelevant photo stolen (twice now) from an old post: California poppies. Californians or not, they grow well in Cornwall and once you get a few going they’ll self-seed. Generally in places where you didn’t want them but they don’t object to being moved.

What indeed.

The question’s too deep for us here at Notes. We’re going to pretend we already know and skim right over the top.

At the beginning of the week, it looked like schools that didn’t open would have a fight on their hands. Now it looks like they won’t. The government isn’t in a position to fight this one.

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What’s happening with the contact tracing app that’s going to make it safe to ease Britain’s lockdown, even if it limps in some weeks after the lockdown’s already been eased?

The tale gotten more interesting in the day or two. 

The government hired a couple of companies to hire a bunch of people to trace a whole bunch of contacts to control the virus. We’re not playing The Cheese Stands Alone now, we’re singing, “She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.” The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said that the spiders (those are the contact tracers) are going to have rigorous training,. With detailed procedures. Designed by experts.

Better yet, they’ve “stepped up to serve their country.”

They also–and I say this with no disrespect to the people involved–stepped up to get a badly needed paycheck.

One man who was hired broke cover to talk (anonymously) about the rigorous training. His day of online training started with an hour and a half of people typing, rigorously, to the trainer, “I can’t hear anything.” 

The trainer assured them that the problems were normal.  

Eventually either everyone could hear or enough people could hear that they began asking questions. The trainer told them he couldn’t answer them all–there were too many trainees. 

“After the full day of training,” the now-trained trainee said, “people were still asking the most basic things.”

Someone asked what to do if they talked to someone whose relative had died. They were told to look on YouTube for videos about sympathy and empathy. 

After that, the trainee was a fully qualified contact tracer, scheduled to work the next day. He logged in and got a message telling him he’d get instructions on what to do.

He waited all day. Nothing happened. 

He got an email telling him not to worry, he’d be paid anyway. And he’d get more training soon.

Another trainee said she hadn’t been able to log in for three days. 

At last call, they’d recruited 1,500 out of the 18,000 they set as a target.

Oops, sorry. We’ll have 25,000 in place by June 1 and they’ll be able to deal with 10,000 new cases a day. We already have 24,000. And we’ll have a “fully functioning perfect system.” And it’ll be beautiful.

It’s all under control, folks.

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In South Korea, they’re playing professional football again, but to avoid spreading the virus there aren’t any fans in the stadium, so before a recent game a company offered to place thirty mannequins to the stands. It would make them look lived in. It would be great. 

Offer accepted. What could possibly go wrong?

The game was shown and people noticed that some of the mannequins were holding up signs for X-rated websites. And a few noticed that they all looked like sex dolls.

What does a sex doll look like? Sorry, we’re well outside my sphere of expertise here. But not outside of everyone’s. If you gather enough people, someone will be in possession of whatever obscure piece of information you really don’t want people to know. So it went public: Those were sex dolls in the stadium. 

The company that supplied the mannequins turns out to make sex toys. 

FC Seoul–the team whose stadium it was–has apologized and promised never to think about sex again. 

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

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

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

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

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

Irrelevant photo: a rose

Are you making any sense of this at all? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s pronounced ZEBBra, not ZEEbra.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was feeling good until I typed competent and coordinated

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pandemic update from Britain: science, censorship, and birthday celebrations

On Sunday night, Boris Johnson addressed Britain prime ministerially and assured us that we have a plan for getting the country out of lockdown without loosing the hounds of hell–or at any rate letting Covid-19 gain ground on us again.

Or he has a plan. Or someone has a plan.

What is it? People who can’t work form home should go back to work if they can do so safely, starting the next day. That’s Monday. Which is–oh, wait, it’s today. Or, depending on when you read this, yesterday or further back than that. So they’d better hurry. But they shouldn’t take public transportation. They should drive, they should walk, they should bike, they should call the chauffeur.

If they have school-age kids, they should stash them in the freezer until they get home, because schools haven’t started yet.

Do their workplaces have plans for how they can work safely? Well, they had all night to work them up, so it should be fine.

Irrelevant photo. A plant from last summer. This year’s version still has the training wheels on its bike.

But what really matters is that we have a new slogan: Stay alert, control the virus, save lives.

What does that mean? Nothing much, but it fills a gap.

The changes Johnson announced only apply to England. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland set their own rules on this, and Scotland and Wales, at least, aren’t sounding impressed.

*

We also learned that Britain will start quarantining people who come into the country. How? In an unspecified way.

To work, this should’ve started (in a specified way)–give me a minute here, I’m counting and I never was good at that–oh, let’s say something like five months ago, when Covid-19 first emerged and could have still been contained. At the time, though, the government’s response was to tell people to wash their hands while singing “Happy Birthday.” 

That was all we needed to do if we wanted to stay safe. 

Really. It was. I’d make that up if I could but I’m not that good. No one’s that good. You can only come up with something that stupid if you mean it. 

Why didn’t it work? A bunch of you hooligans sang the wrong song. You want to know how we got into this mess, that’s how we got into this mess.

The quarantine won’t apply to people coming from Ireland. Because Irish viruses don’t travel. On top of which, they speak English. Or people coming from France, because the prime minister was on the phone with Emmanuel Macron and everyone sang “There’ll Always Be and England” and hung up happy. And French viruses are bilingual.

Mind you, this may not be exactly a quarantine because it’s not clear that anyone’s going to be enforcing it. All the same, U.K. airports say it’ll kill the aviation industry.

And there was me thinking the pandemic had pretty much done that already. Shows you what I know. 

We won’t start the quarantine until the end of May. Why not? Because they’re recording fourteen days’ worth of “Happy Birthday” for everyone coming into the country to sing and these things take time.

*

Some groups in society adapted admirably to lockdown. Take drug dealers, for example. With streets empty and travel restricted, they were standing out for a while. Now they’re dressing as joggers or tricking themselves out with fake National Health Service i.d.

And a lot of them are respecting the social distancing guidelines by using cars to deliver drugs. If you’re buying, you throw your money into the back seat and they throw your drugs out the window. 

I thought you might need to know that, although your dealer will be happy to explain it if you call.

If you want to know why their sales force tends to be younger than me, it’s because to pass for a jogger you can’t just wear the clothes, you will, at some point, actually have to run, and my knees have never forgiven me for the small bit of running I did many decades ago. But with a little effort, I can pass as a harmless old lady, going about her business.

*

People who are convinced that 5G systems caused the coronavirus have been attacking engineers working for Openreach. 

Why Openreach? Because it has nothing to do with 5G, that’s why. It deals with the wiring that phones and broadband rely on–the cables, the ducts, the cabinets, the exchanges. I think we can all accept that this makes it the perfect target.

Engineers have been attacked, spat on, doused with water, and chased. The company reported 46 incidents in April. I’ve written to suggest they disguise themselves as drug dealers and am waiting to hear back.

*

From the beginning–in fact, from the time when we were told to wash our hands and sing “Happy Birthday”–the government has defended every decision it’s made by saying, “We’re just following the science.” Meaning, “Hey, if we got it wrong, the science is to blame.” 

Which explains why an April 1 report from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (called Sage by its friends and family) has been published with huge blocks of text blacked out. Presumably the science went someplace it shouldn’t have gone. 

Bad science. Naughty science.

Why publish it at all? Because the government’s been under pressure to be more transparent about what advice government ministers were actually getting. And nothing says transparency like blacking out huge chunks of text.

*

Black and minority ethnic people in Britain are four times more likely to die of the coronavirus than white people. That’s not accounted for by pre-existing conditions, age, or socio-economic differences.It could be accounted for by some groups being over-represented in jobs that bring them into contact with the public. Those include health care, other kinds of caring jobs, and all those jobs that used to be called unskilled and are now called essential. 

Even if, for reasons I can’t seem to put my finger on, they’re not getting paid essential-type wages.

People from “deprived social backgrounds” (I’m pretty sure that if you translate that it means people who are poor) are also at higher risk, whatever their ethnic background. 

As an aside, the British seem to use a different definition of black than Americans do, and since I wander through life with an almost complete set of American assumptions, it scrambles my head in an interesting way when I find people from south Asia defined as black. It’s a nice reminder that however seriously we take these categories and however powerful we make them, they’re arbitrary. 

These days, the phrase I see most is black and minority ethnic, or BAME

Within the BAME group, the only subgroup less likely than whites to die of Covid-19 is Chinese women. A lot of work seems to be devoted to figuring out what accounts for the differences. Or at least, a lot of ink’s being spilled over it. I may be making a leap when I assume it reflects actual research.

*

The Young Foundation and the Open University have started a Covid-19 citizen-science project, which invites people to “share their day-to-day experiences of pandemic via online platform over the next three months, creating a rich digital archive of life during a pandemic.”

The idea is to capture the social impact, across the UK, of what they call (and I can’t find a way to argue with them) a generation-defining moment.

There are several ways to participate, and I’ll leave you to chase them down if you’re interested. 

The pandemic update from Britain: protective gear, black holes, and dead rats

Some days the government gives me so much to make fun of that it’s just embarrassing.

Not so many days ago that we’ve forgotten about it yet, the government announced with great fanfare and many imaginary trumpets that it was buying protective equipment from Turkey to make up for the shortfall it had created. 

Okay, they didn’t say it that way. It was something about the shortfall that mysteriously created itself in spite of our government working day and night to procure the best equipment that our heroic frontline staff needs.

Anyway, a shipment was on its way. Along with a few more notes from the trumpets. 

After mysterious delays, the shipment limped into the airport and turned out to be less than a tenth of what they fanfare’d. 

Now the story’s worse than that: The 400,000 surgical gowns that did arrive are unusable. Or possibly most of them are unusable. I’ve heard the story both ways from different news outlets, probably because the trumpets are interfering with reception.

Either way, the gowns would expose the users to infection.

Stop, people. It’s not Christmas. I have more than enough to work with. 

*

Irrelevant photo: A gerbera daisy.

Speaking of protective gear, Robert Jenrick, the housing, community, and local government secretary offered an explanation of why we’re having so much trouble getting protective gear where it’s needed: “Supply . . . in some areas is in short supply.”

Once you understand that, you can be more sympathetic.

Apologies for a messy link here. The quote’s in there, but you’ll have to dig around a bit.

*

Forgive me for recycling something I already put on Twitter, but our cat, Fast Eddie, brought dead rats home for two nights running, and he has me worried: If this keeps up, who’s going to run the country?

*

Now, about that tracing app that People Who Know These Things say may not work: Here’s the problem–or here’s the part of the problem I understand. The app relies on a kind of herd immunity. Not the kind that, if enough people die of Covid-19 and enough people get it but don’t die, will protect the people who did neither. This is virtual herd immunity. It relies on some minimum number of Android users in an area signing up for the app. If they don’t, it won’t work. 

The root of the problem is that Android phones aren’t allowed to stay connected to Bluetooth for long once they’re minimized. Basically, they hang up. Once that happens, the phone won’t register contact with an app on a nearby phone. So if one of the people carrying those phones is infected or needs to be told that the other person is? Even if when they passed each other they fell into each other’s arms and kissed with 46 minutes worth of passion, the apps on their phones would ignore each other. 

The only way to keep the app awake on an Android is for its owner to pass by a whole bunch of other Android owners who are all using the app. If that happens, their phones will chastely brush electronic feelers and the app will send the information to a central database.

Australia tried something similar in its app and now says the app “progressively deteriorated.”

The UK government is now “open” to the possibility of ditching the app and using a different one.

No, I don’t know how much that detours cost either.

*

Astronomers have found a black hole a thousand light years from Earth. That’s close if you’re an astronomer. It’s in (or “among,” and I haven’t figured out what the difference is in this context) the beautifully named HR 6819 system.

What’s that got to do with the pandemic? The black hole is where all the missed targets are being shipped. And the missing protective gear? It’s there too. That’s why supply has been in short supply in undersupplied locations.

A new shipment of bad news has been launched in its general direction but will probably miss by a few dozen light years.

*

I’m always a day or three behind the actual news here. It’s one of the many reasons I recommend reading actual newspapers. The real ones (as opposed to the bottom feeders) are better at this than I am. Even when they’re not funny.

Stay well, everyone. Even when it starts to feel delusional to hide from something invisible, remember that it’s real.

Covid-19 and the Dunkirk spirit 

We’ve all (I’m going to assert on the basis of no proof whatsoever) heard about the Dunkirk spirit, and then (ignoring my assumption) I’m going to explain what it is anyway. Because we all know better than to believe me entirely. 

We’ll get around to Covid and why Dunkirk is suddenly relevant. Stay with me.

Lord Google tells me the Dunkirk spirit is ”an attitude of strength, determination, and camaraderie, especially by the British people as a whole, during a difficult and adverse time or situation.” 

Thank you, Lord G. I have left my data in more places than I realize and I trust you’ve scooped it in by now. I also trust that you’ll accept data as a singular even though we both know it’s technically plural.

The Dunkirk spirit has been evoked a lot lately because, what with the pandemic and all, we’re wading through rising water, wondering where the shore is and whether we still have one. Not to mention (so I can stretch the metaphor closer to the breaking point) wondering how high the water’s going to rise. 

Being of the short persuasion, I’m particularly concerned with that last bit.

Semi-relevant photo: This is called honesty, which comes into the story toward the end, when we talk about myth-making.

So what happened at Dunkirk

Let us go back, children, to May 1940, which is so long ago that not even I had gotten myself born. Yes, history really does go back that far and, lo, even further than that. Germany was ruled by the Nazis. Not Nazis as in a couple of syllables you carelessly tack on to something you don’t like (feminists and grammar come up a lot in this context, although you may notice that those aren’t closely related categories)–

Let’s start over, because I’ve wandered. It’s your own fault for leaving me in charge.

The people running Germany were real Nazis. The kind who killed first their political opponents and pesky unionists, then the disabled, then the Jews and the Gypsies and the gays, then assorted categories of people I’ve forgotten to mention by name but yes, even you might have fallen into one of them. The kind of Nazis who invaded lots of other countries and forced people into slave labor. The kind who–

Okay, you get the point: that kind. The kind also called fascists. Not the dangerous kind who pester you about your use of who and whom or don’t put up with jokes about their breasts

By May 1940, Nazi Germany had already signaled that it had its eye on expansion. Most recently, it had invaded Poland. How did the other European powers respond? They told themselves they were playing a long game. If they waited, they could defeat Germany through economic warfare.  

Oh, and Britain–since that’s the country we’re focused on here–dropped propaganda leaflets on Germany and passed the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, giving the government amazing internal powers in case of a war. It could detain anybody it decided was a threat and take any property needed by the government other than land, which sounds like a strange exception, but remember the aristocracy’s base is in land ownership. It could also enter and search any property and change any existing law if it was necessary for the war effort.

As an opponent commented at the time, those were fairly fascistic powers with which to combat the fascists.

Winston Churchill, the country’s newly minted prime minister, wasn’t what you’d call a natural antifascist. In 1927, he’d told Mussolini–who led Italy’s equivalent of the Nazis–that he’d “rendered a service to the world” by destroying the Italian labor movement. “If I had been an Italian, I am sure I should have been whole-heartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”

To be fair–and I do occasionally want to be fair, if for no better reason than that it confuses people–Britain and France were more or less expecting to fight a war, but they were torn about whether Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union was the greater threat.

France was prepared to fight a better version of the last war with Germany. This would be a version where they didn’t (slight exaggeration warning here) lose the male half of an entire generation. One where they won a decisive victory and they came away with undisputed bragging rights. 

In comparison, Hitler had tried out all sorts of new war toys in the Spanish Civil War. He’d saved the instruction manuals and was prepared to fight the next war. 

After its invasion of Poland, Germany turned west and invaded the Netherlands and Belgium, which were (and still are) a whole lot closer to France and Britain than Poland was and is, and all of a sudden playing the long game didn’t look like as good an idea to France and Britain as it had the week before. 

Belgium and the Netherlands joined Britain and France in an ad hoc anti-fascist coalition, complicating what sounds like an already chaotic command structure. Governments and orders contradicted each other. Belgian and Dutch resistance collapsed. The allied troops retreated and the Germans advanced. 

Some of the best French units didn’t do much fighting. Their orders had them chasing hither and yon without anyone getting much use out of them. Read enough articles and you come across descriptions of generals being unable to take decisive action and of other officers being without orders for eight days. The word farcical comes up.

Churchill prime ministerially promised France that it would have British military support. Meanwhile his secretary of state for war, Anthony Eden, was (apparently) agreeing with Lord Gort, who was in command of the British troops, that the only possible thing they could do was fight a retreat to the coast.

The French defenses collapsed and the Germans swept into northern France. By May 15 the French government considered itself defeated, although a BBC article (and a few other sources) say that a concerted allied attack at this point could have stopped the German advance. They were vulnerable, exhausted, and low on fuel. A lot of their tanks had broken down.

Instead, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud called Churchill and said, “We have been defeated. We are beaten; we have lost the battle.” The French government was burning its archives, assuring the public that everything was fine, and preparing to abandon Paris.

What was left of the allied forces fell back to the coast at Dunkirk, and French and British troops (which includes Muslim troops fighting under the French flag) formed a perimeter, holding off the advancing German troops. Those who weren’t killed in the fighting were captured and either became prisoners of war or were killed on the spot.

They don’t get a whole lot of acknowledgement.

As soldiers gathered on the beach, Britain launched Operation Dynamo–an evacuation of as many troops as possible. The optimistic goal was 45,000. But the beach at Dunkirk is shallow, making it impossible for the navy’s ships to get in close, and there was only one usable, although less than ideal, jetty. So a call went out for small craft, and some 800 to 1,200 responded, ferrying troops from beach to ship. It was a patchwork collection of fishing boats, pleasure crafts, and just about everything above the level of a rowboat.

Some of the small craft–and according to one source, most of them–were crewed by navy personnel. Others were crewed by civilians–their owners and crew. 

The evacuation went on from May 26 to June 4, with the German air force bombing the beach, the town, and the harbor. Sunken boats quickly added yet another problem to an already messy evacuation.

On the beach, in between runs by bombers, the troops lined up nicely and waited to be evacuated. It was, on the one hand, absurd–the British forming orderly lines as if they were waiting to buy ice cream cones, while bombers shrieked above them and the ships they were waiting to board were blown out of the water. And on the other hand, it avoided panic and people fighting to be first. It surely saved lives.

In the end, some 198,000 British and 140,000 allied troops–mostly French–were evacuated, and many thousands of British, French, Polish, and Czech troops were evacuated from other, less well-remembered, beaches in northern France. 

What made the Dunkirk rescue possible? British air cover helped. The discipline of the troops gets a mention. The heroism of all those civilians in their small boats was part of it, however overplayed. The heroism of the troops who died or were captured protecting the evacuation doesn’t form as large a part of the picture as it should–especially (let’s face it) those who weren’t British.

But in large part it was Hitler who made it possible. German troops were in a position to cut off the allied troops by May 23, but on May 24 Hitler ordered them to pull back. Historians argue about why, and some half a dozen reasons are suggested. It’s probably enough to say that he did give the order, and it was hugely important. 

When people talk about the Dunkirk spirit, they’re talking about a British win. In a masterful piece of propaganda (or spin, to use a more modern word) it was cast as a story about civilians in tiny boats, braving bombs and the angry sea to save not just hundreds of thousands of people but the country and possibly the war itself.

Saving so many battle-hardened soldiers might, arguably, have saved the war, but Dunkirk still wasn’t a win. The British army had to abandon almost all its heavy equipment and lost 50,000 troops. Of those, 11,000 died, a handful escaped, and the rest became prisoners of war. If you count the allied troops, 90,000 were lost. Thousands of French troops were left behind and either taken prisoner or massacred.

At the end of the evacuation, if you were standing on Britain’s coast and looking across to Europe, Germany looked like it could conquer anything and anyone. And the body of water separating you was frighteningly narrow.

Creating the story of the Dunkirk spirit meant the propaganda machine had to (or could, with relief) bury the bungling that made Dunkirk inevitable. It was wartime. People needed hope. They needed something to believe in.

We create our myths–or accept them if we’re not their creators–only by being selective. Are they lies? Well, yes. Not entirely, but they’re not the truth, the whole truth, the et cetera truth either.

And here we are in 2020, with all but a few governments bungling their response to the pandemic and a few bungling it on an epic scale. I was about to write “on a Wagnerian scale” but I’ve never seen a Wagner opera and caution got the better of me. But really, the incompetence with which they’ve met this has been stunning. You almost have to admire how awful they’ve been, because it’s not easy to screw things up that thoroughly and still haul yourself out of bed in the morning, never mind trumpet your successes. And yet they do both.

Britain has responded with the Dunkirk spirit. People make protective gear for hospitals. They deliver food to their more vulnerable neighbors. They raise money for a National Health Service that the government has been starving of money for a decade. Every one of those acts is a triumph of the human spirit and community. 

And they became necessary because of massive government bungling.

As Bertolt Brecht said, Unhappy the land that needs heroes.

The pandemic news from Britain: tracing, testing, and goals no one expects to meet

Britain’s Prime Blusterer, Boris Johnson, set a new coronavirus testing goal: 200,000 tests a day by the end of May.

Did we meet our last testing goal? Well, no. We were supposed to be testing 100,000 people by the end of April and the government mythically met the goal for one day–the last day April had to offer–by counting tests that hadn’t been tested yet. After that, the numbers dropped down again.

But hey, They’re all all numbers. What’s your problem? When you’ve seen one number, you’ve seen ’em all.

Anyway, we now have a newer, cheerier, even more unreachable goal. And we’re happy.

*

Irrelevant photo, because we all need something cheery in our lives: This is an odd geranium that a friend gave us. It only flowers after three years. Then it kicks the bucket and you have to hope you save some seeds.

Starting on Monday, the lockdown will be eased slightly, allowing people to leave the house more often and for a wider range of activities as long as they keep their distance from other people, although if localized infection rates go up, the restrictions may be adapted for those areas. (The link for that is that same as the one above. We’re all about efficiency here.)

Adapting the restrictions to smaller ares makes sense (as Almost Iowa pointed out in comments he left on an earlier post) but it’s also likely to mean that richer areas, which allow for more space between people when they’re outside and where people are statistically less likely to be hit as hard by the virus, will have an easier lockdown than poor areas.

And by areas, of course, I mean people.

*

I’ve been hearing tales, from here in Cornwall, about people who book Covid-19 tests, show up, and then can’t get tested. One person got to her test to find out that the testing team had already gone home, presumably because they ran out of tests but who really knows?

Instead of doing what Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey says half the population would do, which is , “Fuck it,” she booked a second test. But they didn’t get the results back to her, so she followed up. they were backed up, They said. It might take as much as five days before they could test her sample.

After five days, I’m told, the sample has to be thrown away.

But it’s all privatized, so it’s all good. Because when private industry runs things, it’s more efficient.

*

Okay, sooner or later I’ve got to write about the contract-tracing app that’s being introduced. I’ve been avoiding it because I’m too damn old to be at ease in the virtual world. Here’s about as much I can follow:

The National Cyber Security Centre says it’s good, and it says it in as down-homey a way as it can, given that it’s British and I’ve never heard anyone British say “down home.” It’s got to be an Americanism. Someone British might say “homely,” meaning not ugly (which is what an American would mean) but homey, but they wouldn’t say it in this context. I only tossed it in because I thought we needed a break. Homely isn’t the same thing as down home.

I’m sorry, but I have to ask: Why do you read this stuff?

Now, back to our point: The app’s so good that it won’t drain your battery, steal your data, or invade your privacy. It won’t even make you flip the E and R if you write center instead of centre. But that’s because it can’t–nothing’s that powerful yet. I only spelled it that way because, hey, I figure it can spell its name any way it wants.

Do I believe them about the privacy thing?

Umm. I think I’m gonna have to hear it from someone else first, and some experts have raised concerns about it. They know all sorts of things about this that I don’t, so in my ignorance I lean in the direction of listening to them. Especially since one of the reassurances about privacy is that the app asks your permission before it can do various things, and we all know how well we read the fine print when an app asks our permission before it can do something.

The app is a centralized one, so all the information your phone collects goes through whoever’s running this beast–a private company, as it happens, so it will be handled efficiently.

But forget privacy. I’ve clicked okay on so many websites that I doubt I have a scrap of the stuff left. Or if you can’t forget it, set it aside for a minute. Both the Health Service Journal and Business Insider say it won’t work on newer phones and Androids.

Both Google and Apple have dedicated tracing apps that we’re not using.

Downloading it isn’t mandatory, which is a good thing since I have a dumb phone, which is no better with apps than I am.

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At a virtual summit organized by the World Health Organization, a global alliance pledged $8 billion to develop vaccines and treatments for the virus and distribute them fairly.

The U.S. didn’t take part.

Why not? As the kids all said where I grew up, “Because.”

That was enough to explain pretty much anything.

*

Stay safe out there if you can. I’ve explained this before, but it’s worth repeating: I don’t have so many readers that I can afford to lose any.