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Corona Diaries – sound and fury, signifying what the hell?

March 12, 2020

Fourteen days back in the UK, and not a symptom in sight. Hurrah! At this precise moment nobody needs to fear me, though now I have to fear the super-spreaders.

Well, that’s the theory anyway. Just the same, I’ve been scrupulously careful. Mainly staying at home. Washing hands before the occasional visit to the high street. Washing hands afterwards. No handshaking.

I’ve played three rounds of golf since coming back. Golf is a great plague sport, because you’re outdoors, and you’re never close enough to your partners – provided you avoid the high-fives – to exchange viruses. You’re walking four or five miles a round, and you don’t have to go near the clubhouse afterwards, apart from to wash your hands. Cross-country running’s probably even better, but my knees are knackered, and anyway, I’m looking for exercise, not mindless endorphins.

But fear is out there on the golf course, especially among the older folks who rely on golf for their social life. The other day I played with a guy in his seventies. He has Type 2 diabetes. His feet aren’t good. The only time he became animated was when we mentioned the coronavirus. It’s not a joke, he said. People are dying. He was right of course, but there’s nothing like black humour to leaven fear. And I realised that he is very afraid. What he meant but didn’t say was that he was worried he might die. He and a goodly percent of the elderly golfers in the country with “pre-existing conditions” who turn out come rain or shine every week.

And me? I have to admit I’m ambivalent. There’s one side of me that says fuck you, coronavirus. If you want me, come and get me. Then at other times I think that if I’m careful enough, I might just end up being among the 40% of the population that dodges the bullet long enough for the scientists to develop and test an effective vaccine.

If you take the middle way between my attitude swings, you end up with something that looks like common sense. That of course assumes that decisions will not be taken away from us, as is the case in Italy.

Do the math, on the basis of cases doubling every four days, and you will find that within one calendar month, starting at a base of 500 infections, we in the UK will have 128,000 cases, and between 2,500 and 3,800 deaths, depending on a fatality rate of between 2 and 3 percent. At what point will the government declare a lockdown? And would that number of infections and fatalities be sufficient to overwhelm the National Health Service?

Depends, depends depends. If the virus produces a spectrum of seriousness, how many of the 120k will need intensive care, and how many will have a mild illness that requires them to stay at home for a week or two with no clinical intervention required?

No doubt this stuff has been modelled to the nth degree by the doctors, scientists and statisticians. But while you can model all you like, you must still be flexible enough to update those models rapidly.

What if something unexpected happens? A few days ago, I read of a limited Chinese study that suggests that the virus has mutated into two versions. One, highly lethal and contagious. The other still contagious but less lethal. The bad news is that you can catch both simultaneously. The good news is that the more lethal version will die down more quickly because it will kill more quickly, thus depriving itself of the means to reproduce.

If this is true, and it’s a big if because I’ve not heard anything about this theory since it first hit the media, it makes the job of testing more involved, and the modelling much more complex. Could it explain why the Italian death rate is so high compared with that of other countries?

Is proactive testing – identifying cases early – the way to limit the death toll? The relatively low death rate and high level of testing in South Korea suggests that might be the case. As with all these speculations, it’s unlikely we will know the answers until after the fact, and perhaps not even then.

Just as we don’t know the precise numbers of infected and deaths in the 1917-19 flu pandemic, we are unlikely ever to know the full story of this pandemic, although for different reasons. Back then, the problem was a lack of ability to diagnose or document consistently across the world. Today, it’s more likely that some governments will choose to distort or under-report in order to disguise their lack of preparation and mitigate the political fallout from their incompetence.

Even so, we will almost certainly end up with better data than we did a hundred years ago, which will stand those of us who survive in good stead when predicting the outcome of the next pandemic. In fact the post-mortem – if you’ll forgive the inappropriate analogy – seems already to have begun before the patient has expired. I’ve just read an interesting article in The Guardian about a study suggesting that if China had introduced its lock-down measures three weeks earlier than it did, it would have reduced cases by 95%. Nothing definitive, just another bit of modelling to add to the pile.

Meanwhile, here in the United Kingdom our beloved government has revealed our annual budget.

Two things stand out. They’ve suspended any increases in duty on booze for a year, which suggests that they’re encouraging us to drink and be merry while our grannies and granddads drop like flies.

The second thing is why, at a moment of supreme uncertainty, would you issue a budget at all? Would it not be better to announce a package of coronavirus temporary measures (which they did) and defer the remainder of the budget until the current crisis looks like resolving itself (which they didn’t)?

Do we really think that if the economy tanks over the next three months the government will be willing and able to deliver on its commitment to a massive spending splurge? The answer, I guess, depends on whether you believe anything this government promises.

We must at least give our lot credit for having some kind of plan. I was quite encouraged by the discussion in Parliament in which Matt Hancock, the Health Minister, answered questions about how the government was dealing with the outbreak. For once our MPs sounded like adults. The questions were intelligent, as were Hancock’s answers.

Our cousins in the United States, on the other hand, seem to be at sixes and sevens, except in the fevered imagination of the president. Minimal testing, mixed messages, prayers and, initially at least, gross complacency on the part of Trump himself.

I won’t go on about his behaviour in the crisis, except to recommend an excellent report for the BBC by Jon Sopel, who doesn’t just deal with Trump’s antics, but points the finger at America’s ethos of every man for himself as the biggest obstacle in the way of the country getting a grip on the crisis.

Trump himself has come within two degrees of separation from the virus. A couple of congressmen shook hands with someone who had the virus at a recent conference. One of them was on Air Force One the other day with the president. The last thing I wish is that Trump gets infected, and if he does, I hope he recovers quickly. But a bout of infections at the highest level might persuade the complacent to take the pandemic seriously.

Perhaps Trump’s travel ban on people from various European countries will focus the American mind. If not, the news that Tom Hanks, the epitome of the Decent American, has caught the bug might seep through to the backwoods of Pennsylvania and Montana.

It pains me to think that the United States, because of its shortage of testing facilities, might end up as one of those countries whose reporting on infections might never reflect reality. But more, I’m worried about my friends over there who have more to lose than the national reputation.

On the domestic front, our regular online order of loo paper has not yet arrived. My wife wonders if it’s been hijacked. She may be right. But at least the newspaper arrived this morning, so all is not lost.

That’s it for now. Stay safe y’all.

From → Social, Travel, UK, USA

6 Comments
  1. Great post 😁

  2. deborah moggio permalink

    you let me know you couldn’t get the information I tried to send as a URL. I wrote this in reply
    Try googling Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, Corvid 19
    The little notice above it says it is awaiting moderation. I think several days wait is moderate enough?
    Appreciate your new post as well. Will be looking up the BBC items mentioned.
    Thanks for a touch of sanity.

  3. deborah a moggio permalink

    you let me know you couldn’t get the information I tried to send as a URL. I wrote this in reply
    Try googling Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, Corvid 19
    The little notice above it says it is awaiting moderation. I think several days wait is moderate enough?
    Appreciate your new post as well. Will be looking up the BBC items mentioned.
    Thanks for a touch of sanity.

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