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Corona Diaries – a bluffer’s guide to pandemics

March 31, 2020

Suddenly, it seems, we’re all pandemic experts. We gravely discuss R0, R2, U-curves, W-curves and all the other indicators that help us predict the spread of pestilence. But most of us run out of authority when our knowledge is revealed as less than a micron thick. Even Donald Trump resorts to something resembling witchcraft whenever challenged over his encyclopaedic expertise.

However, if you’re looking to become a certified bluffer when it comes to lethal illness, you could do worse than to read Pale Rider, Laura Spinney’s masterly account of the 1918 flu pandemic and its aftermath.

You will then be able to mutter about Pfeiffer’s Bacillus, once thought to be the cause of flu, about how the death rate in Western Samoa was so dramatically different than that in neighbouring American Samoa. You will be able to point out that the schools in New York were kept open, because health officials believed that they were much healthier places than the squalid slums where so many of the kids lived – particularly those of recent Italian immigrants.

You will learn that there were three theories as to the origin of the pandemic: the mid-west of the United States, where the first documented case arose; China, from which battalions of labourers were exported to the Western Front to work behind the trenches; and war-torn France, where migrating birds shat on piggeries and the resultant flu virus mutation took a liking to humans.

You will also be able to explain the function of different strands of RNA that enabled the virus to spread – the H strand that breaks into healthy cells, and the N strand that enables the virus to replicate. Hence H1N1 and successive variants of flu.

Then there were the consequences. Baby booms among the fittest who survived. Shorter height and lower life expectancy among those who were infected in utero.

All this and a cornucopia of anecdotes. The doctors who experimented on themselves and learned that flu doesn’t transmit through blood. The Xhosa woman whose dreams while unconscious led many within her tribe to revere her as a prophetess, until the South African authorities declared her insane and locked her up in a lunatic asylum. The religious implications of an outbreak in Mashad, Iran, the death of a film star in Odessa and catastrophic mortality in an Alaskan town.

And then the death toll. Initially estimated at 8 million, after further research it’s now accepted that 50 million people died, and some estimates suggest that the true number was 100 million.

Spinney’s book makes the science accessible, yet is full of human stories of courage, suffering and resilience.

The parallels with the current coronavirus are not exact, yet there are many echoes that make sense today. Even if you have no desire to become a Category A pandemic bluffer, you will find much in her book that will help you to understand our current predicament more clearly.

Speaking of the present, do you remember the miracle of the hospital in Hubei that the Chinese built in a week? Now we’re deeply impressed at the achievement of the NHS in creating a temporary hospital in a London exhibition centre in a similarly short time, with more to come in other cities. Which makes me wonder why the Chinese opted to build a new structure rather than adapting an existing one, as we in Britain have done.

Both here, in the US and elsewhere, though I don’t like bandying about oversimplified comparisons with World War 2, it’s also impressive how despite slow starts  by governments (especially on Trump’s part) businesses and scientists are working together with an energy not seen since the war on vaccine research, workarounds and vast quantities of equipment needed to fight the virus: tests, safety gear, ventilators and so on. While politicians and pundits squabble and point fingers, it’s comforting to know how much effort is being put in by those who can really make the difference.

Now, back to the old cynic act. Though this has nothing to do with the pandemic, it seems that the US Department of Justice has released the unredacted version of the Mueller Report to a federal judge after a long legal battle.

Take a look at the job title of the person sending the document:

Does that not suggest that the United States doesn’t have a deep state as much as a deep bureaucracy – layer upon layer of hierarchy? Would organisations like these be able to design a new model of oxygen mask within a week that will spare thousands from having to lie comatose in a ventilator, or create a coronavirus vaccine in a month when most vaccines take years to develop?

We have similar bureaucracies in the UK. Which reminds me of my favourite job title in the government department for which I worked in Saudi Arabia: Manager, Management Management.

Something to think about when this awful episode is over.

More soon.

  1. deborah moggio permalink

    May I adopt that job title?
    If so, could you please let me know what the job description is?
    I want to be sure, as a true bureaucrat, never to perform anything that falls under the description.
    Thanking you in advance,
    I remain,
    Ever respectful,
    Your humble servant,
    Etc. Etc. and Alii


    • Hi Debby. Can’t give you that right now. It needs to go through six layers of approval. But a hint: Trump, Hannity, the Revd Falwell and choose any six other from Fox News.
      I remain, as always, your faithful servant (the operative word being faith).


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