Quarantine, sunburn, and interplanetary theology: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Since Britain can’t get on the sun’s schedule more than once a measly month, going abroad in the summer is a Big Deal here. Preferably to places with sun, pools, and German tourists to be outraged by. So opening the doors and letting the British public go abroad looks like a measure of success to a government overwhelmed by the bad pandemic choices it’s made,

So the government made a list of countries Britons could visit safely, then it opened the doors and it said, “Have fun, kiddies. Don’t get sunburned.”

Of course they got sunburned. They’re British. 

Irrelevant photo: A rose.

So far, so good, but Spain went and had a spike of Covid cases and Britain’s announced that anyone coming home from Spain will have to isolate themselves for fourteen days. That did three things: It made the government look like it was protecting us; it made the tourists already in Spain, along with the travel and aviation industries, furious; and it encouraged people who’d planned to go to Spain to cancel their plans.

Spain was and is (predictably, given how much of its economy depends on tourism) mad enough to spit tacks. The spikes, it said–

Okay, it didn’t say. Countries don’t really talk. The spikes, its spokefolks said, are regional. Travelers who’ve been visiting spikeless parts of Spain shouldn’t be quarantined. Heroically resisting any urge to be catty, Spain’s prime minister pointed out that most of the country has a lower infection rate than the U.K. 

“It would be safer to be in [parts of Spain] than in the United Kingdom,” he said.

If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, Spain’s also implying that the spike is at least in part a result of increased testing, which catches asymptomatic cases–something the UK would do well to look for. 

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Except that, stop the press, Britain’s been giving this quarantine business some thought and you know what? We might just cut it from fourteen days to ten. Because we’ve got, you know, testing. And we could use that, couldn’t we, to see if people are carrying the virus?

Why, yes we could. 

Could we have thought of this earlier? Possibly, but we didn’t take the time.

We’ll get back to you about this ASAP. As soon as we know what our plans really are.

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Figuring out what it means that a country has a certain number of cases is, genuinely, a problem. If you test more–and that’s still the best way to control the virus–you find more cases. If you find more cases, you look like the thing’s gone out of control, although what it may mean is that you’re getting it under control. If, being a headline-based government, you resist the urge to test more, the thing really is likely to get–or stay–out of control, and that doesn’t look good either.

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One thing Britain hasn’t bungled is its work on medical responses to the coronavirus. The UK Recovery Trial is conducting randomized tests on a variety of medicines you can’t pronounce– and neither can I in case I made you feel bad for a moment there. 

They started work when Wuhan’s lockdown meant that Chinese researchers had so few enough cases to work with that drug trials came to a halt, and with the virus clearly headed for Britain they worked at high speed, taking nine days to do work that would normally take nine months, from drafting protocols to enrolling patients. 

Large trials need more patients than any single hospital can supply, and the existence of the National Health Service made it easy for them to enroll patients from multiple hospitals. Even better, the UK’s high death rates meant that at the beginning they had plenty of available cases. 

Every cloud has a silver lining, not to mention a cough and a fever. And sometimes a headache.

To date, they’ve shown that neither hydroxychloroquine or a combination of two drugs used for HIV help with the virus but that the steroid dexamethasone does.  They’re currently testing an antibiotic called azithromycin; an antibody called tocilizumab, and convalescent plasma–blood plasma from people who’ve recovered from the disease. 

I can pronounce convalescent plasma. Forget the rest of them.

The bad news is that because fewer people are being hospitalized in Britain (yes, every silver lining has a cloud as well), they have a smaller group of patients to recruit from, so research is moving more slowly.

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The New York Times has been tracking Covid-related medical trials. One that’s been in the news lately is work on monoclonal antibodies, which is satisfyingly easy to type. 

These are, more or less, a designer form of convalescent plasma. Instead of taking the whole range of a recovering patient’s antibodies, some of which will be as irrelevant to Covid as my photos are to my posts, they isolate the ones that look most potent, then replicate them synthetically and inject them into a patient.

Safety trials–the earliest stage of testing–have only just started.  

The Times also has a vaccine tracker if you want to take a look. Their Covid coverage isn’t behind a paywall.

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Can we abandon both the virus and the UK for a minute? A Texas state legislator, Jonathan Stickland, read a report about the Pentagon having an Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force and felt the need to tweet, “IF aliens are real, salvation through Jesus Christ is the only way they enter Heaven.”

And you’re telling us this why, Jon? In case they read Twitter? In case their sat-navs (in American, those are their GPSs) aren’t working?

It does raise the question of whether, if Christian beliefs (pick any strand you like) are correct, other planets couldn’t expect to get their own saviours or would have to ride on ours. And whether they’d be prone to different evils, which for the sake of simplicity I’ll agree to call sins. 

Interplanetary theology is going to be complicated.

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Want your feelgood story of the day? A family made up of parents, kids, and a huge honkin’ St. Bernard dog named (well, of course) Daisy climbed Scafell Pike–England’s highest mountain–and Daisy collapsed and couldn’t walk down. 

Daisy weighs 8 stone 9 pounds, or to put that in European, 55 kilos. Or in American, 121.25 pounds. You might be happy to carry that much weight down a mountain if it was neatly bundled into a backpack, but you’d struggle to even pick it up if it was distributed into the shape of a large, floppy dog.

The family called the Mountain Rescue Team, and two hours later a team of sixteen appeared, carrying a stretcher but not the cask of–was it supposed to be rum that St. Bernards carried around their necks when they were the ones doing mountain rescue? Or was that brandy?  

It took the team five hours to carry her down.

A long-time rescue team member said, “The team rescues canine casualties around a dozen times every year but this was the first time a St Bernard breed has been rescued by the team.

“Some might ask: ‘why rescue a dog?’ but our mission is to save life and alleviate distress. You can’t leave a dog on a mountain.”

C’mon, admit it, you tough old thing: You feel better, don’t you?

The Ministry of Impulsive Decisions reports the news from Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can we tell that they’re advanced?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, planning is this government’s strength.

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

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

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

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

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

The Department of Relentless Optimism is surprised by this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which ones, the interviewer asked.

Brazil, he said.

Could he name any others? the interviewer asked.

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

Yes, she asked, but what others?

[….science….]

[….science…]

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

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

Their lungs, he says, can be completely unrecognizable.

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

The Department of Silver Linings has taken note.

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

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

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: 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

Coronavirus, British quarantine, and the Eyam plague village

As we watch the spread of coronavirus, it’s sobering to remember that when the bubonic plague swept through Europe–this was in the middle ages and later–people (understandably) fled, and some number of them (inevitably) carried it with them to new cities, towns, and villages, helping it meet new people and (in many cases) kill them.

Silly people, you’ll think, even as you wonder if you’d have the strength to take your chances in a plague-hit town. (You’ll notice how neatly I tell you what you think. So neatly that you barely notice I’m doing it.)

Isn’t it good that we’re wiser these days? Because what did countries that were free of the corona virus do when they understood the danger it carried? Why, they evacuated their citizens–or as many of them as they could–along with whatever germs they were carrying. 

And what did Britain do about the possibility that they’d brought the virus home with them? Its first move was to tell them to self-isolate–in other words, to stay home. 

Marginally relevant photo: Pets are wonderful germ vectors. You pet them, you leave your germs on their fur, then–faithless wretches that they are–they go to your nearest and dearest to get petted, because one person is never enough, and they bring your germs with them. This particular germ vector, in case you haven’t met him, is our much-loved Fast Eddie. You’re not seeing him at his fastest.

Could they go out to buy groceries? Well, people do need to eat. But after that, seriously, people, no contact. Except with the people they live with, of course. And with the person who delivers that pizza they ordered, who’ll only be at the door a minute. And of course anyone their families, roommates, and the pizza person come into contact with. 

In fairness, figuring out whether to impose a quarantine isn’t an easy call, and I’m grateful that it’s not mine to make, but if you wonder why the virus has spread you might start your wondering with that decision.

The country moved to more serious quarantine measures not long after, but a newspaper photo of a bus that took plane passengers to a quarantine center shows one person dressed like an astronaut to prevent contagion and right next to him or her (or whatever’s inside the suit) a bus driver dressed in a red sweater, a white shirt, and a tie, without even a face mask–the effectiveness of which isn’t a hundred percent anyway.

As for the tie, I’ve never worn one or figured out how they’re tied, but I do know that germs aren’t afraid of them. Contrary to common belief, they weren’t invented to prevent the spread of infection. Breathe in a germ and your tie won’t be tight enough to keep it from reaching your lungs. 

So what have we learned since the medieval period? A lot about how diseases work, but less about how to contain them than we like to think. The coronavirus isn’t the plague and doesn’t seem to be the flu epidemic of 1917 either, but it’s instructive to see ourselves flounder.

So let’s talk about a village that, when it was struck with the plague, did exactly what it should have done. Heroically.

In 1665, a tailor in the village of Eyam (pronounced eem; don’t ask), in Derbyshire (pronounced something like Dahbyshuh, at least in the Cambridge online dictionary’s audio clip, although I’m sure other accents take it off in different directions; ditto). Where were we before I got lost in pronunciation? A tailor received a bale of cloth from London. It was damp, and his assistant, who was only in Eyam to help make clothes for an upcoming festival, hung it in front of the fire to dry. That woke up the fleas who’d hitched a ride from London.

The plague had already taken root in London and the fleas were carrying it. The assistant, George Vickers, was the first person in Eyam to come down sick.

Between September and December, 42 people in Eyam died of plague. That’s out of a population of somewhere between 250 and 800. Whichever number’s closest to right, that’s a lot of people in a small place, and a lot of them were getting ready to do what people did in the face of the plague, which is flee. The local museum estimates the population as at least 700.

Enter William Mompesson, the village rector, who felt it was his duty to contain the plague. He’d been appointed only recently, and he wasn’t popular. To make the least bit of sense out of that, we have to take a quick dive into English history and religion. I’ll keep to the shallow waters, so stay close.

Charles II–the king who followed England’s brief experiment with non-monarchical government and anti-Church of England Protestantism–introduced the Book of Common Prayer to the English church, and the Act of Uniformity dictated that ministers had to use it. Most of Eyam, though, had supported Cromwell and his vein of Protestantism. In other words, they were anti-royalist, anti-Church of England, and anti-Act of Conformity. So Mompesson represented everything that pissed them off, politically and religiously. 

And Mompesson must have known that, because he approached the man he’d replaced, Thomas Stanley, who was living on the edge of the village, “in exile,” as Eyam historian Ken Thompson puts it. The two of them worked out a plan and in June they stood together to present it to the village: They would, all of them, go into voluntary quarantine. No one would leave. No one would come in. The earl of Devonshire, who lived nearby in the obscenely lush Chatsworth House (although it may not have been quite as overwhelmingly overdone at the time), had offered to send food. 

Mompesson’s wife, Catherine, wrote in her diary about the day they presented the idea to the village: “It might be difficult to predict the outcome because of the resentment as to William’s role in the parish, but considering that the Revd Stanley was now stood at his side, perhaps he would gain the support necessary to carry the day.”

People had misgivings, she wrote, but they agreed. 

August was unusually hot that year, meaning the fleas were more active, and five or six people died per day. The husband and six children of Elizabeth Hancock died within a space of eight days and she buried them near the family farm. And “buried” here doesn’t mean she stood by the grave demurely, wearing clean black clothes while someone else shoveled dirt in. It means that she dug the graves, dragged the bodies to them, and tipped them in single handed. People from a nearby village, Stoney Middleton, stood on a hill and watched but didn’t break the quarantine to help.

Most of the dead were buried by Marshall Howe, who’d been infected but recovered and figured he couldn’t be reinfected. He was known to pay himself for his work by taking the dead’s belongings. Or he was said to, anyway. Village gossip worked the same way then as it does now. There are no secrets, but there’s a hell of a lot of misinformation.

Mompesson wrote that the smell of sadness and death hung over the village. He assumed he would die of plague, describing himself in a letter as a dying man, but it was Catherine, his wife, who died of it. She had nursed many of the sick. Mompesson survived.

By the time the plague burned itself out, 260 villagers had died, giving Eyam a higher mortality rate than London’s. No one can know how many people the quarantine saved, but the guesswork is “probably many thousands.”

Mompesson was later transferred to another parish, where his association with the plague terrified people and initially he had to live in isolation outside the village.

Meanwhile, in our enlightened age, a couple of British-born brothers of Chinese heritage shared an elevator with someone who announced, “We’ll be in trouble if those guys sneeze on us.” Other people who are either of Chinese heritage or who assumed to be report having eggs thrown at them, having people move away from them, and being harassed on the street and online.